How I Lost My Appendix, Or, PARTYZEIT
"Are you taking me to the party?"
I’m sure I screwed something up with the grammar but the feeble, gallows humor gist of my question must have been clear. Didn’t matter; no smiles for me, just a witless snort from the dead-eyed raver in scrubs who was listening to hardcore on shrill, distorted headphones and pushing my stretcher down the otherwise-silent halls of Klinikum Neukölln. I love the Germans, but when they’re grumpy they have an infuriating habit of pretending to not understand at all when someone uses the wrong case or jumbles word order. I’d probably said “You are to me the party taking?” or something equally Boratesque, and humor doesn’t translate well, and the joke wasn’t really funny to begin with. But I’d craned my neck to turn around and make my little awkward smirky question in badly-accented foreigner German. I’d really put some effort into this, and I was on a stretcher for goodness’s sake, you’d think I’d get a pass. But nope, he was too bored to care. “Nein,” he said, no doubt with flawlessly-conjugated verbs and well-cased nouns. “I’m taking you to surgery.”
Right. Surgery. Lots of drugs, lots of knives, but yes, O dour stretcher raver, if you have to be literal about it right now, you’re right, it is not, technically speaking, a party. I gave up trying to be funny, put my head back down on the foam pillow, and stared passively at the fluorescent lights as they buzzed overhead. In Europe, fluorescent lights and any other electrical appliance that uses alternating current emits a 50 Hz buzz, really close to a G. This is jarring to Americans at first, at least the attentive ones. The North American electrical grid runs at a higher frequency, so we’re used to 60 Hz — a bit above B flat. It’s subtly unnerving. I can usually ignore it, but it struck me as particularly alien in a hospital setting, the low tone fading in and out as we rolled under the glaring ceiling panels. By the time we got to the cold patient intake room I convinced myself that the throbbing ground loop tones were an LFO bassline on the techno track my dour raver friend in scrubs was blaring — it wasn’t but it could have been. I wondered what that was like for him, pushing floppy, drugged strangers around a hospital with the soundtrack of hypermodern hedonism shaking his skull. I wondered if he thought there was anything odd about the combination. I decided it was likely that he found it a natural accompaniment for shuttling dopey patients to the chopping block, and as one of his passengers I found this enormously unsettling.
In the intake room he put the brakes on the stretcher, said something gruff and dismissive to the surgical staff, and sloughed back into the corridor to collect the next victim, or have a smoke break, or do both at the same time for all I knew. The sound of his headphones receded as he left: BOOM-TSK, BOOM-TSK, BOOM-tsk, BOOM-tsk, boom-tsk, boom-tsk, boom…boom…bm…
Then I felt a warm hand on my arm, soft and immediately loving. I looked up and a skeletal, angelic face smiled down at me, blocking out the harsh ceiling light. She said something in German, and I responded more or less appropriately, I hoped. Mainly she wanted to know the usual pre-op questions: had I consumed any snacks or water in the previous six hours? Was I allergic to anything? Was I on any medication? Even in this functional role she was comforting, overwhelmingly so. She smiled with her whole face, questioned me slowly and patiently, and — this changed my entire mood and maybe my entire perception of the human race in that moment — she put her warm hands on my arm and held them there for reassurance as we spoke. Strikingly, she was clearly sick herself, or at least recently recovered. Her face was beautiful but showed the pronounced bones and sallow complexion of a cancer patient. It could have simply been her natural face, but it betrayed some kind of past suffering, even if it were just the requisite middle-aged suffering of a life well-lived. She radiated the empathetic benevolence that only those who have felt great pain can radiate. Maybe it was the sedatives, but maybe not. She glowed.
And she was right in her instinct to comfort me. I was scared. I shouldn’t have been, it was silly, but there the fear was anyway. Less than a day earlier I was singing an obnoxious karaoke version of “Take On Me” with a DJ in a gold body suit at a hacker/multimedia art convention at the House of World Cultures, happily unaware of the time bomb in my belly. A small, odd feeling in my abdomen had been bugging me for a few days longer than I thought was normal and I felt inexplicably burbly after the karaoke, so I went to the closest doctor in the morning.
He practiced from a dingy clinic in the second-floor walk-up office of a run-down apartment building on Karl-Marx-Strasse. The doctor was Congolese, his staff was Polish, and their English was worse than my German, which is a rare treat and gave me a twisted sense of pride. But there was business to attend to, so we blushed and laughed at our mutual unintelligibility and got out the doctor’s dusty med school English dictionary. I quickly learned some emergency gastrointestinal German (bauch, schmerz, bauchschmerz, etc.) Once he understood what the problem was he made me lay down on the table and slapped my belly around a few times.
"Does this hurt?"
Within 30 seconds he told me to go to the hospital. It was appendicitis — “ACUTE appendicitis,” he emphasized in thickly-accented English to make sure I got the point. I said, “Okay, so I should schedule it this week?” “Nein, JETZT,” he said. “NOW.” Then he handed me a piece of paper to give to the admitting clerk that put me in high, semi-emergency priority for an appendectomy. Which was odd, because I still wasn’t feeling awful, just a little laggy. But when a six-foot-tall Congolese doctor yells at me in German insisting that I need to go to the hospital immediately and his Polish nursing staff scowls at me with silent, grave concern like a Greek chorus on mute, I listen.
Well, mostly. I went back home first to grab my laptop and make a call to my insurance company to make sure everything was in order because like all Americans I am terrified of hospitals, associating them as we do with financial ruin and staph infections and cruel HMO discharge policies. I told some friends what was happening and they made sure I stopped acting like an idiot, pushed me into a cab, and rode with me to Krankenhaus Neukölln. I didn’t know it as we pulled up to the emergency room entrance but the sterile, boat-shaped 1,000-bed medical complex would be my home for the next week.
In an hour or two I’d been shuttled to my room, given a gown, been punctured and hooked up to an IV, and denied food or water. And it was when I laid down in the darkened quiet that I started to feel something more than a vague fullness; there was sharp pain in my lower right abdomen, and it grew worse by the minute. They started pumping me full of pain meds and I fell asleep for a few hours waiting for the operation. But then the above-mentioned scrub raver showed up and pushed me through the cold corridors, I made my little joke, and I realized how fast things were happening. Everyone was poking at me and asking quick questions in a language that I was only sort of familiar with, and even though appendectomies are about as common and safe as flying commercial airliners and even though German surgeons are legendary for their precision and skill I was scared. So when the kindly surgical nurse treated me, simply and naturally, like a person, maybe even like a child, I was profoundly grateful and understood the kind, urgent humanity of the medical arts and the divine goodness, if such a thing exists, of those who practice them. I heard unidentified strains of Arvo Pärt and I started thinking about God and all the people in the operating theaters next to me with actual, real pain and actual, life-threatening problems, and I felt weak, and I was high on the painkillers and I was saying stupid moron American foreigner things and feeling like a worthless, needful animal, and this woman kept smiling, cracking jokes I didn’t understand, and holding on gently with warm soft hands to my IV-punctured arm.
She was there when the anesthesia kicked in. By then the room — a sort of airlock between the corridor and the operating theater where I was hooked up to an EKG machine and prepped for the gutting — was bustling and full of other people. Nurses, a surgeon or two, the anesthesiologist, all with clipboards, all acting with military speed. The anesthesiologist was kind too, a first in my experience of anesthesiologists (no disrespect to the profession but it’s true that they often seem personally well-suited for the job of blunting consciousness.) He placed a green mask over my face and told me to breathe deeply.
I asked how long it would take for me to conk out. “Two or three minutes,” he lied.
"Should I count backwards or something?"
"If you like," he said, and smiled the smug smile of all anesthesiologists, laughing to themselves in the knowledge that the body beneath them will be inert and silent in seconds no matter what the patient says or does.
Relaxed by the pain drugs and still disappointed that my dumb party joke fell flat with the stretcher raver, an indignant sense of humor swelled in me as the gas took effect. Imminently numb and paralyzed and obliterated or not, I wanted to have the last word on the matter. So I told him what pitch the EKG machine was emitting when my heart beat — it was a G# — and then I said "Zehn, neun, acht, sieben, partyzeit, party time, PARTY TIME, PARTYZEIT, partyzeit, partyzeit," and I think maybe someone laughed (VICTORY!), and then I felt nothing and said nothing and moved nothing and time disappeared.