Part 3: Cherry Pie and the ICU

Ah, cherry pie! Sounds like a delicious dessert, right? Well, by the time this is over, you might never want to eat it again, and you might not even be able to look at it the same way, so consider this your warning.

Going through chemo for leukemia it pretty taxing. I’m sure all chemo for all cancer is taxing, but of course I can only speak for myself and my experiences. Chemo for leukemia seeks to essentially eliminate your bone marrow. This drastically decreases the number of RBC’s, WBC’s and platelets. This leaves a patient anemic, without an immune system, and with a higher risk of bleeding without the clotting properties of the platelets. Knocking out the bone marrow allows it to start again and kick it back into gear producing healthy, normal cells. Basically it provides an opportunity for the marrow to get its shit together and stop being a little bitch.

During this round of chemo, since it was my first, the dramatic decrease in my counts was more noticeable to me in retrospect than the other two that I have undergone. Fatigue runs rampant, hand washing becomes even more critical than usual, masks are often required and extra care has to be taken not to injure oneself. At the lowest point, my platelets reached the alarming number of 3. That, in combination with the fact that chemo kills the body’s rapidly developing cells (like hair), left me in an incredibly dangerous position. And now we approach the discriptive part!

Having a bathroom connected to my hospital room was incredibly nice, and necessary as well with my immune system being gone. Since my arrival and beginning of treatment, everything bathroom-related was going just fine for me. My pee smelled weird because of all the chemicals and drugs running through me, but that was about it. But on one particular day, I started having to poop more and more frequently. It started out “normal”, but as the day and frequency of the deuces progressed, it was obvious that something was wrong. At first there was a little bit of blood involved, but as the shits got even closer together (we’re talking I would finish, go to bed, and immediately have to go back again) the amount of blood increased. It got to a point where a nurse told me to page every time I had to go so that a parent and a nurse could help me since I was getting incredibly weak, go figure since I was literally bleeding out my asshole. I remember the last time sittin’ on the toilet before being rushed to the ICU. I had just finished the millionth shit of the day, and went to stand up. Suddenly I got severely light headed, my surroundings faded out, and I saw the floor rushing to greet me. My helpers caught me and helped me make my way back to bed, and then I was off to the ICU where I would spend the next four or five days.

Being in a hospital can be scary. But being in the ICU is a million times more terrifying. You’re there for a reason, and regardless of why you’re there it’s always because shit is really fucked. In my case, the lining of my intestines was shedding because of the chemo, but I didn’t have enough platelets to clot and heal the wounds that were left behind, so I had to excrete the blood somehow. I was too weak to get up and go to the bathroom, so I would have to roll to the side, lift myself up as best I could to have a pan slipped under me before I rolled back onto my back and let loose the hellish feeling of what I imagine cherry pie feels like being excreted out one’s anus. It was one of the most unpleasant feelings I’ve encountered to date. Shitting blood clots is not something I recommend anyone try or seek to achieve– it’ll fuck you up. Plus, it feels disgusting as fuck. Now, I never saw it (thank God because I’m pretty sure that would have been Game Over right then and there!) but believe me I felt it. It starts out with the undeniable urge to take a shit– imagine you just nomed on some major Taco Bell, and then a couple hours later it sucker-punches your gut. We all can relate to that, right? Sure! And then when you prepare to relieve your bowels, it feels like literal cherry pie is being excreted. Buttholes experience some pretty gnarly shits I’m sure, but for me, this one tops the list. I was amazed at how sensitive the ole poopshoot was– it felt ALL the cherries. All. Of. Them. Shitting blood clots… Let me tell you, it’s a rough time to say the least.

I was constantly filling these bins with my homemade cherry pie filling, getting weaker and weaker as I expelled a significant amount of blood. I was so exhausted from raising my hips to have new bins placed under me that I started to simply roll onto my side and hope my ass would be over the bin when I rolled back over. I think I was pretty successful with that. Who knows. At one point, I recieved 16 units of blood products in a day– so huge thank you to everyone who donates blood, because your donation makes a HUGE difference to people in need. If you don’t donate but are eligible to, I highly suggest you look into doing so. That’s kind of hipocritical for me to say, since I was a pansy and never successfully was able to donate blood, but now that I see how absolutely critical it is to have blood products available I wish I had put on my big girl panties and made a positive difference in other people’s lives. Without that blood, I wouldn’t have survived. And how embarassing would it be to shit yourself to death? I think I’d haunt myself in that situation!

The ICU is stressful. And I think it’s safe to say that it’s stressful for everyone involved. For  me, this period of time was the absolute worst out of my entire eight-week stay. The care was wonderful, but the ICU is just not a place anyone should want to be unless you’re a nurse. I remember first arriving to the unit and telling myself I’d only be there for a little while, and then after that counting the days that passed. I didn’t want to be in the hospital at all, but being there I wanted so much to go back to 8A to my familiar room and familiar nurses. But, of course, I had to finish this stage of my journey before I could proceed. There was one day I was sitting in the chair in my room (look at me! I was getting stronger! Still shitting blood at an offensive rate, but at least now I could do it on a toilet!) and my Nana called. I put on my happy “phone voice” and talked to her for several minutes, summoning all my strength to sound energetic so as not to worry her more than I’m sure she already was. While we were talking, nurses came in to  start taking vitals, and another came in to get an EKG. This was the first time in years that I had a legitimate panic attack. I had gotten so little sleep over the past few days, I had just used all the energy I was capable of producing to talk to my Nana, and now I was being bombarded with tests and questions and all that jazz. My eyes got blurry and everything got muffled and looked/sounded far away. My heart started pounding and I started to hyperventilate as my body went into sheer panic mode. I hardly knew what was going on, and I couldn’t think straight. I remember feeling like a caged animal. I wanted to bust out and run down the hallway, and out of the hospital. I wanted to run back in time to when things were normal and I was healthy. I wanted to go to life BC… Before cancer. Eventually the panic wore off and I was able to calm myself down, but that was a horrific emotion on a different level than the ones I had felt before since being in the hospital.

For a lot of the time that I was in the ICU I was on oxygen since I struggled to breathe successfully by myself. At a certain point in my stay, when things were really going shittily for me, I recall there being talk of me maybe having to be put on a ventilator. That idea above almost anything else scared the living shit out of me. Not being able to talk or eat horrified me. But more than that, the idea that I would need that much help introduced me to my first thoughts of “Oh my God… I could die from this.” Up until this point death had been sort of a far off phantom of a thought in my mind. Sure it was there, lurking somewhere in the shadows, but it was never in the spotlight. But being in as bad of shape as I was in the ICU really brought that to light. It was a scary thing for me to think about, especially at that time, but I think it was important for me to realize. Up until then I wasn’t really afraid of death. It was something that happened to everyone and everything at some point, and because it was inevitable why worry? For me at this time though, I started to  realize how much I still wanted to accomplish in my life, all the places I’d yet to visit, and the experiences I had yet to have. Realizing that maybe all those things wouldn’t happen was alarming. Growing up they were things I’d always assumed would happen, because that was normal. I’d finish school, get a job. Get married, have a family. Those are “major” events that I had mapped out roughly in my mind, but there were other, smaller things as well. The position I was in mentally in the ICU really had a massive impact on my thoughts and outlook. I remember having my dad sitting by my side and me, so desperately wanting to sob and admit I was so scared I was going to die. In my head, if I said the word “die” I’d let that negativity in, and I was scared that it would take over my thoughts and overpower my will to survive. Saying that “forbidden” word, to me, would seal my fate and usher in the cold hands of death. Talking to dad this fear was addressed carefully, the whole time I managed to avoid saying the “d” word, but even so the topic was clear and it felt so good to get the weight of that fear off my shoulders. Once it was addressed, I was able to let it go and focus again on my getting better.

At another point in my stay in the ICU it was required for me to have an ART poke, or an arterial poke where they inserted a needle deep into my wrist to access an artery so they could measure the amount of oxygen in my system– at least that’s what I remember them saying. I was also informed that it would be incredibly painful. Which is never exciting to hear, especially not for Miss Anxiety, but even though I wasn’t excited for it I did appreciate the heads-up. I clasped my dad’s hand tightly with my left while my right was extended towards the nurses. Our faces were just inches apart and I made it a point to focus on his eyes– to stare at them and cling desperately onto both his hand and every word he said since I asked him to just keep talking to distract me from the pain. At that moment and even now I don’t remember feeling a thing. Maybe it hurt so badly my brain blocked it out, but I think focusing on my dad was what really made the moments pass by quickly and painlessly.

While in the ICU I also had some tests done to determine where the bleeding was coming from (obviously this is a little out of order but bare with me here). My stomach, liver, kidneys and the like were examined to make sure they weren’t suffering from the chemo or anything. I would be wheeled off on a stretcher to have these tests done, and of course I wouldn’t have a bin with me. Thankfully I never donated cherry pie to the stretchers I was on, but it was definitely a concern at the time. I’m sure the nurses have probably experienced worse, but I just didn’t revel in the idea of leaving my bloody shit around for other people to clean up.

As far as I can remember that’s about all I can remember about my stay in the ICU. I met some marvelous people while I was there, like the Chaplain Tommy who provided wonderful and very much appreciated company. I had visitors from 8A come check on me, and although it was hands-down the most difficult time, it was made easier, like always, by the quality of company that surrounded me and the copious amount of thoughts, prayers, and positive energy that was being sent in our direction.

And thus concludes that scariest chapter in my stay at the hospital! I hope that that was as bad as it gets for me during my treatments. Surviving that makes the other unpleasantries that I did and would experience that much more bearable knowing that it wasn’t Cherry Pie Syndrome.

One thought on “Part 3: Cherry Pie and the ICU

  1. Katie,
    Thanks for sharing your story. When Aidan had AML he was a baby, and so he doesn’t remember it now. It’s interesting to hear your perspective since all I have is mine.
    I appreciate your language; when it comes to Leukemia, there doesn’t seem to be an appropriate vocabulary. And, of course, I am thankful for your attitude and humor.
    Keep pressing forward. I don’t know your beliefs, but I wouldn’t have done well without my faith. What else is there to do but surrender to God?
    With prayers,
    Shelly Venema


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