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Florence in Words

An Out-of-Body Experience after Surgery

My knee-replacement surgery was scheduled at the Hospital for Special Surgery for Wednesday afternoon, November 13, 2013. Two weeks earlier, I had spent a long day in the building for a series of tests and preparatory seminars, and I could see that the hospital was located right on the eastern edge of Manhattan, facing the East River. Only for one moment did I wonder whether I would awaken in a room with a view of that river, for I feared the surgery so much that I hardly expected to wake up at all.

The first few days were and are still so confused in my mind that I cannot write a coherent sentence about them. A sharp memory begins one night—perhaps the second, perhaps the third night after surgery—when I remember being handed a small paper cup containing five differently colored pills. I remember swallowing all five of them at once, with one swig of water, without asking not only what they were, but why I had to swallow them. Instead I lay down and seemingly went to sleep. There was no light in the room.

Then, suddenly, I was awake and knew only a feeling of terror. I began to tear at the brace strapped to my (surgical) leg. I tore off a piece and threw it on the floor, and then tore off another piece. I was conscious of deciding that I would not be confrontational. But I wanted to free my leg so that I could run out of the room. I needed to escape. For I moment I thought I was a small child.

But then I was older, alone, on an urban corner brightly lit by neon signs and with people rushing by, no one noticing me. What was I to do? Where was I to go?

My roommate heard something she called “moaning,” and so she called the nurse, who came in and asked if I had been dreaming. I said the brace on my leg was hurting me and I remembered the pieces I had torn off. The nurse readjusted the brace and I went back to sleep.

In the morning, I remembered the episode but told no one. I wrote what I could remember in the small notebook I had taken with me. Writing, I remembered the hospital I had spent nine months in when I was nine years old. There I was alone in a huge room holding eight beds, all but mine empty. Large glass windows filled two sides of the room; on the third side a glass wall allowed visitors to wave their silent greetings twice a week. Was I reliving that experience, trying to escape from it? [See my memoir for an account of the childhood experience.]

Or was I simply traumatized by the surgery and the drugs I had been given? I wrote this the next morning:
The fires were burning
Though there were no fires
The river was running
Though there was no river
On a neon-lit street
Dark bodies rushed past me
Whom should I tell?
Who would help me?
How to stop the bodies running past me?

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