Just to set the scene here, today I had a colonoscopy, which is where they videotape your large intestine, and tomorrow I have an appendectomy, which is where they remove your appendix. I am writing this article in the brief interval between periods of heavy sedation.
This summer I think I may have gained some perspective on what it’s like to be old. I’ve always been a little high-strung, maybe even something of a hypochondriac. But this summer all my worst fears were realized. Constant, increasing pain pulsed through my right knee, nameless aches spread through my lower abdomen, and an endless procession of digestive problems harried my bowels. Worst of all, I had to face these problems in China, where the doctors, despite their eagerness to perform test after test, were unable or unwilling to share the results with me, repeatedly assuring me nothing was wrong. As one doctor put it, as she circled her right index finger slowly around the temple in the international sign for “cuckoo,” “perhaps your problem is up here, rather than anywhere else.” However, curled fetally in a dank corner of my dark dorm room, desperately trying to keep down my 13th straight meal of saltines and mashed banana, I knew I was not crazy.
As it turns out, I was right. After returning to New York, a simple CT scan of my abdomen and pelvis revealed that I was suffering from sub-acute appendicitis, a kind of appendicitis that doesn’t cause sudden, painful, bursting death but rather long, drawn-out death over the course of months or years. At first I was curious as to why the doctors at Beijing University Hospital had neglected to inform me about the inflamed appendix during my first CT scan a month earlier. However, as my doctor informed me, CT scans should be done with oral or IV contrast to make small inflammations visible. The Chinese doctors had decided to dispense with that aspect of the procedure in the interest of saving money.
Now, without letting this story get any more melodramatic or personal, let me reveal some interesting facts about the appendix and appendicitis. Your appendix is a pinky-sized organ that grows off of your large intestine. Despite its much maligned reputation, the appendix is not useless, merely redundant. The appendix produces a mucous that helps digest your food and, although your body can continue to digest food just fine without the appendix, it is the appendix’s eminent functionality that makes it so incredibly deadly. Appendicitis is a disease that combines the two most unpleasant products of the body: mucous and poop. Appendicitis most often occurs when a small piece of poop floating in the large intestine lodges in the mucous-oozing appendix hole. If the piece of fecal matter is lodged firmly in place, it serves as a dam, preventing mucous from leaving the appendix. As the appendix swells with mucous, the unmovable visitor from your bowels fills the area with bacteria, creating a massive infection. Your body instinctively reacts, trying to encircle the appendix with other parts of the large intestine in order to isolate it from the rest of your innards. This only adds to your gastric discomfort. When the whole thing gets large enough and explodes, then you have a situation like that scene with the bullet in Three Kings, except instead of being dissolved peacefully by acidic bile, your insides are violently overrun by pus and shit. Or at least that is my take on the subject.
This brings me to the moral of this article, as I said before: perspective on being old. Although appendicitis is a minor and very treatable disease, and I am no doubt a high-strung, crazy hypochondriac, I did live for three months with weird diseases that affected my ability to live comfortably, maintain a good mood, and function in society. I imagine that it will be a very sad period in all our lives when our still-active minds are trapped within rapidly failing bodies. Some say euthanasia is the solution. I say take preventative measures now. Please don’t smoke. If you drink, do it in moderation. Exercise regularly, eat right and don’t be afraid to go to the doctor. Seek counsel in the unspoken implication of Morpheus’ ominous words. If the body cannot survive without the mind, how can the mind survive without the body?
Andrew Smeall has lost much weight.