The nurse and I saw the hole in my sock at the same time. The look on her face seemed like it wanted to be compassionate — the way that I want to be more forgiving of judgmental nurses — but really it was just kind of judgmental.
I glanced up at her with a look that was meant to convey humorous apology and slight embarrassment.
“So, what did you say was wrong again?” she asked curtly. She was looking down at a chart which had to have my symptoms on it — a very specific and thorough explanation of the abdominal pain I was experiencing— since I’d really only filled out the one piece of paper so far, and that had been near the center of it.
I wanted to make up something that contradicted it, like “Oh, it’s swamp ass. I’ve got a bad case of the swamp ass. Got some butt cream or something?”
The whole emergency room was giving me a weird vibe. I’d had to excuse myself from class and call my girlfriend to take me to the hospital. There was an agonizing, stabbing pain right in the center of my torso, and I didn’t want to hear all the co-eds scream if an alien burst from my chest. They generally squealed enough on their own.
“I have this horrible radiating pain right here,” I tried to explain. “It comes and goes in waves, building, peaking, and then subsiding.” She frowned a little, wrote nothing, and turned away with a dismissive “okay.” Whatever the quiz had been, my answer appeared to have been incorrect.
“Aaron!” my girlfriend hissed in that familiar tone that I know means I’ve embarrassed her after the nurse left. “You have a hole in your sock!” She’d later point out that they were also slightly mismatched and dingy.
“Right?” I said, mustering as much humor as I could while feeling like someone had tossed a javelin through my midsection. “Not sure how or when that happened…”
“I can’t believe you! You’re dressed like a homeless person!” That was a bit of an exaggeration,… in addition to being a little insensitive to homeless people. I really wasn’t dressed well, though.
I’m a bit of a minimalist, but not in the cool, trendy way where “all the stuff I do buy is of superior quality and I still find a way to justify buying designer product to give me that messy hair look.” No, I’m more the “I don’t really desire or buy new or nice things ever and look like a bum a lot” type.
I was also going to school full-time. If the younger, “traditional” students in my classes could come to class in pajama pants and soled slipper socks, I didn’t see why it was important for me to wear clothes that fit properly or weren’t older than the aforementioned students.
Still, I wasn’t so neglectful of myself and my appearance that I generally walked around with holes in my clothing. This sock situation was an anomaly.
None of this had to do with my intensely painful guts, though, and I was quickly reminded of them before I could defend my sock hole to my disapproving girlfriend.
With a fire and a fury that would rival that of any overzealous fraternity pledge, I projectile vomited nearly the breadth of the emergency room. This regurgitation was so momentous, in fact, that my girlfriend still uses it as an example of “things she still loves me in spite of”.
As an orderly cleaned the floor, and I changed out of my soiled gown, I looked pleadingly at Nurse Ratchet, “Is there anything you can do?” I could see her mentally resolving to deny what she assumed was an upcoming request for pain medication when all I really wanted was to be adequately examined and diagnosed.
She sighed an inconvenienced sigh and frowned a little. “Is there anything else you can tell me about how it starts?”
“Well,” I offered, “It usually happens shortly after I eat or drink something.” She stared at me blankly, so I added, “Ummm… I don’t know, I mean, I’ve noticed it happens after I consume pumpkin stuff…” This part of the conversation is another thing my girlfriend points out that she “still loves me in spite of”.
“Pumpkin… stuff…,” the nurse repeated intentionally slowly to illustrate the ridiculousness of my response.
It didn’t seem entirely ridiculous to me, and I honestly had noticed a coincidence, so I explained. “Yeah,” I said, apparently speaking too quickly to be taken seriously. “This is my third different emergency room visit for this, and I know that shortly before each time I either ate pumpkin seeds or, like, drank a pumpkin beer or something. This time it was the pumpkin seeds.” Still with the blank staring. “So,… maybe I’m, I don’t know… allergic to pumpkin?”
“ALLERGIC TO PUMPKIN?!” she scoffed loudly and harshly. “I don’t think so,” she quipped with a huff and disappeared back through the curtain.
Over the course of nearly two and a half hours, during which my girlfriend had to leave to go to a work function, since no headway was being made at the emergency room, the nurse only checked in once in a great while to ask me if my pain level had changed.
Regardless of variations in my answers, nothing changed in my treatment. It was clear she was asking to fulfill a checklist obligation.
It did, in fact, subside eventually. Realizing more than an hour after the dramatic vomiting that no one really intended to diagnose me at any point, I indicated to the nurse that I was feeling better.
“So, do you want to leave then?” It sounded more like a suggestion than a query.
“Umm,… I mean, I guess…,” I stammered. Before she could turn and walk away for another 40 minutes, I quickly added, “But, I still don’t really know what’s wrong with me or what to do about it…”
“I’ll get your paperwork,” she said flatly and slipped through the curtain again. Before I’d finished dressing, she returned with release forms for me to sign and an informational pamphlet.
“Non-Specific Abdominal Pain” it read in big, bold letters. Weird,… it seems like that should be more concerning. It also seems like it should be someone’s specific job to eliminate the “non-specific” element of that…
I didn’t even say anything to the nurse, because this was the third time I’d received what was essentially the exact same pamphlet. The pamphlet wanted to make sure I knew I might have gas. It also mentioned that the cause could be some form of cancer.
I suffered for weeks after that as the attacks came and went, wishing there was some relief, but reluctant to make yet another unfruitful trip to the emergency room only to be summarily dismissed.
Then, one day, my girlfriend and I happened to be enjoying a nice day of museum visits and fine dining, when I felt the pain returning. Desperate and weary from battling the recent onslaught of attacks, I reluctantly agreed to visit the ER again after my girlfriend noticed I’d gone cold and clammy and that I’d gone pale.
I walked into the ER that day wearing the dress slacks and a freshly starched Brooks Brothers Oxford appropriate to our day out together. I presented the symptoms no differently that day than I had before and in almost exactly the same language as (I later learned) the standard description of pancreatitis symptoms.
I was met by a team of doctors who immediately ran the appropriate medical tests and were able to determine with rapid assurance what was ailing me. I was suffering, they told me, from the easily diagnosable condition of acute pancreatitis, a condition that can be deadly if left untreated. In fact, it had recently and unexpectedly killed an acquaintance of mine.
I spent four days in the hospital during that visit, was medicated with very potent painkillers the entire time, and was not allowed to eat or even drink so much as a sip of water. Acute pancreatitis is a serious situation that demands immediate medical attention, I’ve come to understand. Now that I know what’s at stake, I’ll be sure to wear better socks.