The speech therapist who came on the seventeenth shortly after my surgeon visited returned later that same day. I was currently on IV fluids and had a feeding tube running up my nose and then down the back of my throat – I had not done any eating or drinking on my own since the evening before my surgery – probably close to forty hours earlier.
Her name was Heather, and she was impossibly young. She gave me some exercises that were very helpful. First she gave me a straw. “Now blow into this straw and hum – try to hum a low pitch – about 220 megahertz.” I hummed through the straw as requested and I actually had a pitch to my voice! A broken, quavering, painful sort of pitch. But it was no longer pure air. She challenged me to try to modulate the pitch up and down as best I could – sort of as if I were playing a kazoo. The results were difficult to attain and even harder to listen too I am sure!
Twice Kerrie helped me sing the first lines of Amazing Grace to visiting nurses. They were very encouraging of my efforts even though I couldn’t make it through the second line before completely gassing out!
Then Heather administered my first swallowing test. “OK Bob, I am going to give you this ice chip and I want you to break it up and swallow the water when you are ready.”
Piece of cake. I chew up the ice chip, swallow, and choke all over the bed-sheets. Not a single drop went down. “Here let’s try that again. Take your time.” This time it was a smaller chip. Same results. And again.
I could not swallow. Not even a drop of water. Heather assured me that this was not a disaster and began arranging for an x-ray swallowing test to be performed on the following Monday. Thankfully, she was able to schedule the X-ray machine for the very next day instead. With that machine we would be able to see in real time what was going wrong and why my swallow function was zero.
After Heather left I felt sick. I wish I could have played a hand of poker against her. I would be rich. The concern read on her face like the word KAZAAM in a Batman comic. Good Lord, I couldn’t swallow.
Later that evening, the kids came by after school – and brought two of the neighborhood boys with them: Big Z and Old Willy. Yes, come around my house one too many times and you earn fridge rights and a nickname.
In preparation for my surgery, I had bought a book of Psalms. And whenever visitors would come by, I would ask them to read me a Psalm, tell me about their favorite verse and sign their names next to the scripture they read. Willy went first, he read Psalm 73:
“… Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee. My flesh and my heart fail: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever…”
Big Z read Psalm 139.
“O LORD, thou hast searched me, and known me. Thou knowest my sitting and my rising, thou understandeth my thoughts from afar off. Thou compasseth my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways…”
We prayed and visited. I was deeply moved by their taking several hours to visit me and their ministry to my soul. Night fell and I couldn’t sleep. The nausea was under control. The pain was mostly manageable. But I couldn’t’ swallow. God, help me swallow.
And so I practiced. Swallow one, swallow two, swallow three… all the way to one hundred. Again. Again. Spit and drool are all over my face and bed-sheets. I am vomiting in the spit up bag. Again. Swallow one, swallow two, swallow three… I must have swallowed one thousand times as best I was able. I had nothing to show for it but phlegm and soaked clothes. My salivating was out of control. I buzzed for the nurse. “Was it morning yet?” No it was only three a.m. “I feel like I am drowning in my spit,” I croak slowly.
And then this rare, seraphic creature in hospital garb blue handed me what would become my constant companion for days to come. There was a suction tube with a button on it – like the suction tubes the dental hygienist uses for teeth cleanings. It was actually connected to my bed! She placed it in my hand, showed me how to use it, and I went back to practicing the lost art of swallowing. Swallow one, swallow two, swallow three… to one hundred. Again. And Again. And again. I don’t know if I actually swallowed a single drop of spit all night. But it was not for lack of effort. Swallow one, swallow two, swallow three… It was a long night in the ICU.
Next Up: Even More Adventures in the ICU: The Coach
N.B. The picture is a photo of the Psalm book my visitors have been reading to me and signing. It is fast becoming a very dear possession! It is a wonderful volume but I wish it could be bought in a translation other than the old KJV.