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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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Apology for Two Silent Months Following Surgery on November 13

Inside the hospital
It never occurred to me, since I had never experienced major surgery, that I would not be able to go home relatively soon after surgery, sit at my computer, and write in my usual way. I did not make plans to take my laptop to the hospital. But whatever I was thinking, nothing worked as I had expected.

In the first place, I stayed at the Hospital for Special Surgery (a beautiful facility on the East River) for five days instead of the two or three, mainly, I think now, because I was afraid to take the pain-killers offered after this type of surgery. I tried to survive only on Tylenol, which didn’t work. By that, I mean that the Tylenol wasn’t strong enough to allow me even to move the surgical leg off the bed or onto the bed. Post-surgery, I had no control over the leg. The leg seemed comatose. It followed no commands from my brain. And if someone tried to help me move it off the bed so that I might stand on it and make my way to the toilet, the pain was so intense that I felt nauseated as though I was about to faint.

After three days of no progress, and an out-of-body horrible experience overnight, a friendly nurse, who took the time to sit and talk with me, suggested that I try a small dose of delaudid, a drug that no one else had suggested. But something about the manner of this nurse, and perhaps the fact that I had had that dreadful experience the night before, allowed me say yes, I would try it. And yes, it worked.

(If you are wondering about the “experience,” I feel reluctant to write about it, though I have an account of sorts in the small journal I kept while in both hospitals. And perhaps it merits a blog of its own.)

Flowers in the hospital
Once I could stand and even take a step or two, I was transferred by ambulance to Roosevelt-St. Luke’s hospital, so that I could participate in its well-respected re-hab program. There I continued on the delaudid, and the medical team in charge seemed to know about its qualities and respect it as a useful drug. Compared to the Hospital for Special Surgery, Roosevelt could not have been more different. It was located on the third floor of the hospital, and perhaps some of the rooms were spacious, light, and cheerful. But mine was small and dreary and probably good for me, since I knew I could not survive in it for long. I had to get out of there and back to the light of my apartment.

So I set a goal of a week. I would stay only one week. And the first thing I did was to abandon the wheelchair. Take it away, I said. I would use only the walker, and my goal was to get onto the cane before the week was up. The trainers assigned to me were excellent, as were most of the nurses and aides. And I made some progress, though it was difficult, painful, and sometimes also exasperating. I was treated by some of the staff as though I was 60, the age of many of the patients. No one was as old as I, and young people, I’ve come to believe, cannot see any difference between a sixty-year-old and someone close to eighty-five.

But I did leave, as I said, the day before Thanksgiving, and with a lot of help, I was able to spend Thanksgiving with close friends.
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Five Months Later

Mariam's Apartent
As I sit here in my familiar space before the computer, on the second of September, I feel as heart-heavy as I did five months ago when Mariam died. The loss seems to grow, not wane. I still want to talk with her about items in the newspaper I read each morning, knowing, for example, she’d be interested in Muriel Siebert’s obituary or in Obama’s search for a new head of the Federal Reserve, and how she’d not want to see Lawrence Summers chosen.  Read More 
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Barbados Redux

Sea Turtles in Barbados
Ten years ago, in 2003, Mariam Chamberlain and I traveled to Barbados for a meeting of the International Association of Feminist Economists. There we met Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, which in 2001 had announced the establishment of the Marian K. Chamberlain Fellowship in Women and Public Policy. The three of us met frequently at meals and, after some discussion about sight-seeing on the island, we also decided that we would rent a boat to take us to where we might snorkel among large turtles.  Read More 
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Speeches and Pictures from Mariam Chamberlain's Memorial

David, Mark, and Tom
David Kenosian, Mariam's nephew; Mark Hoy, Mariam's great-nephew; and Tom Hoy, Mariam's great-nephew: Photo by Miriam Berkley
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Mariam K. Chamberlain, 1918-2013, Her Life and Death

Mariam and Florence travelingMariamMariam at dinner
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Mariam K. Chamberlain, 1918-2013: the operation was a success, but the patient died.

For forty two years, exactly half of my lifetime, and almost half of hers, we were friends. At the beginning, we looked the same age, though we were eleven years apart. Beginning in 1980, on behalf of women’s studies, we traveled together to London, Paris, and Rome, and then to international conferences in Copenhagen, Nairobi, and China; to others in Dublin, Costa Rica, Barbados, Oslo, Oxford, Paris again, and Beijing. Today, a sunny April 3, 2013, I sit a kind of “shiva” for her, though both of us practiced no religion.  Read More 
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To Be Or Not To Be 84

I like odd numbers, and so 84 is not a favorite. Numbers interest me. I am fascinated by how often the number eleven seems to crop up in my life. It’s eerie that for more than 25 years I have sat in K111 at the ballet, and on planes I don’t have to ask for seat A11—I am often placed there. I once had a friend who taught me to add numbers, to note, for example, that eleven is also two and one hundred and eleven is also three. She also taught me to translate the letters of the alphabet into numbers and to continue adding numbers and letters so that eventually all addresses reduce to a single digit of 1 to 9. What does it all mean? I wish I knew. I played with all of it just to see if my brain could focus itself this way. Read More 
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Retirement: A Problem, Not the Solution

Begun January 16, 2013, revised January 28, 2013

A dear friend I first met in 1980, when she was 37 and I was 50, is visiting from Latin America where she lives. Through the twenty years of the last century we worked together on United Nations conferences and policies with regard especially to women’s education and to other feminist issues. Though we were so different, from different patterns of life and culture, we were as one about women’s rights.  Read More 
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End of (Another) Year Letter

Dear Friends:

Had I written this a month ago, or even a week ago, it might have been cheerful. But after still another murderously deranged young man, it’s hard to write even a sentence that does not contain a scream. What kind of society breeds, even fosters, such behavior? What kind of world allows the mother of a 20-year-old who did the killing to own three or four guns, at least one of them an automatic capable of shooting a roomful of people multiple times without reloading?  Read More 
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