Finding a Comfortable Position

One last post about my illness and then I’ll move on.

As the pneumonia worsened, my primary goal became finding a position that minimized (1) my need for air, (2) the pain wracking my back and right side, and (3) the compulsion to cough, which aggravated (1) and (2). Once I found that position, I would not move for hours.

I couldn’t stay in that position forever, though; usually the need to pee forced me to get up. But just going the few steps to the bathroom led to a light-headedness I feared would end in a faint. I never did pass out, but the harder breathing renewed the pain in my back and side, then brought on the dreaded, uncontrollable cough.

A smart person would have cried “enough!” and sought medical intervention. But this was my climate change moment: I denied the danger until belatedly realizing I was getting worse and just might be committing inadvertent suicide. At least I recognized the peril and took the necessary steps to save myself. It remains to be seen whether our species does the same.

After surgery I was confined to a hospital bed, hooked up to intravenous lines and drainage tubes. I spent the night in intensive care, which has the virtue of being the only hospital unit that’s adequately staffed but the vice of being the only hospital unit hell-bent on over-treating the patient. It was hard to find a comfortable position in those circumstances. At one point a nurse decided to put me on oxygen, even though I was breathing decently and my oxygen saturation rate was normal. I hyperventilated until she mercifully ended the treatment.

The next day I moved to the cardiac floor. I was still hooked up to the IV lines and drainage tubes, and on top of that was starting to feel the pain of the surgery. The nurses offered me oxycodone. Oh no, I’ve heard more than enough about opioids, I said. But that night I again couldn’t find a comfortable position, and combined with the interruptions I complained of in my last post, I didn’t sleep. So my second night in cardiac care I thought what the hell, I might as well swallow down the oxy like everyone else in this sad country.

Smooth little pill.

And wow, that stuff is amazing. Not only did it neutralize the pain, it relieved my anxiety. All was calm, all was bright, my consciousness freed to muse after a warm narcotic burst in the middle of my brain made me comfortable exactly as I was. I slept hard for three hours, my first real rest in days. I demanded (and got) oxycodone every night the rest of my stay.

Since coming home I’ve grown stronger (and have finished with oxycodone). Although I’m sometimes short of breath, I’m no longer at risk of fainting. The pain in my back has disappeared — I still have pain in my side, but it’s from the surgery, not the pneumonia — and my cough has lost its wallop. Yet once I slip into the living room chair just so, I don’t want to move. Over the course of my two-month illness, the need to find a comfortable position and stay in it hardened into a routine.

It’s a reminder of how much pain changes us, usually for the worse. I’m lucky; my pain will likely be gone in a month, and my bad habit of sitting in one place should be broken before then. But not everyone is so lucky. I’ve heard estimates that as many as twenty percent of Americans are chronically disabled. Some 47,600 died from opioid abuse in 2017. Those of us accustomed to good health need to remember how vulnerable all of us are to injury, illness, and pain and show more compassion to those whose struggle to find a comfortable position doesn’t end.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.