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Dear vermiform appendix,

It pains me to write this. But at least now I can write. For a while, there was too much pain to do anything besides curl up in a ball and drool like a sad walrus on an unloved beach. Now, with some space between us, I can finally share my side of the story, and with an obvious debt to Alanis Morissette, there are some things, dear appendix, that you oughta know.

You remember the night I made a meal entirely with ingredients from Trader Joe’s? What a delicious meal that was. Being that at the time I was relying on Trader Joe’s for about 70% of my caloric intake, it was also a somewhat ordinary meal, and it was a safe one; no meat, and no dairy. You probably remember that, although I’m not even a vegetarian, I sometimes have a unexplainable hankering for vegan food. You can thank my vegan ex-girlfriends and my friend Goldie.

So when I began vomiting a few hours later, followed by fever, chills, body aches, stomach cramps, dry heaves, and then a persistent dull pain in my lower right abdomen, I first felt angry at that suddenly cruel and treacherous monster named Trader Joe’s. This was the worst food poisoning I had since my experience with Mystery Lou down in Argentina, but on many levels it was more devastating. A breach of trust with Trader Joe’s would be, along with the waning of print media and the ceaseless conflicts overseas, the Sadness Of Our Generation.

It was time to see the best doctor in the world, Dr. Garcia, who told me the truth: it was you, vermiform appendix. How dare you make me throw that kind, caring, dependable Trader Joe’s under the bus like that, when all you had to offer me was your own vestigial confusion?

Now look, I understand that you’ve had it rough. A bit of an identity crisis and all that. Many of my other organs that knew you, that saw you around, they liked you – but they also knew that you were ultimately up to no good. Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t just listen to them sooner. I’ve since met people who’ve had their appendixes removed preemptively, say, before traveling overseas for a year, just to get the damn thing done with and get some closure.

You lived right under my nose for so long before I really got to know you, but once I really did—and it breaks my heart to say this—you quickly became impossible to live with. You were like that neighbor that I’d never met for years, who, right after we finally met, decided he could start blasting reggaeton at 6:30 in the morning. Only in your case, there was no landlord to call, and the reggaeton was potentially fatal.

Dr. Garcia immediately sent me to a CT scan and a few hours later it was confirmed: The pain in my life was from you, and you had to leave. Still, I fought this conclusion; I didn’t want to let you go. I asked right away if there wasn’t something I could do to make things go back to the way there were, maybe couples counseling, maybe a nice weekend getaway with just the two of us—someplace that’s not in the news, like Togo or the Pitcairn Islands—but no. That night I was to go to the hospital.

It was a bad night for sympathy. A couple friends of mine had dying or injured pets, one friend was having a final going-away party before a permanent move to New York, and it was raining in Los Angeles, which meant that no one wanted to drive, especially the people in their cars. However, my friends Jake and Dan came to the rescue and arranged for my safe transport to and from that place where I would finally kiss you goodbye.

Some good people helped me through our separation. I had a pretty wild anesthesiologist named Mikey who is apparently known for the “awesome music” (the nurse’s words) he plays during operations. Matthew, my laparoscopic surgeon, I found later, does not agree with said nurse’s assessment. Apparently the battle during my operation, between Mikey and Matthew, was whether to listen to Gloria Gaynor or Coldplay. You decide which, if either, is awesome.

If they let me choose, I would have requested reggaeton, specifically “Chacarron Macarron” by El Mudo, as loud as possible, but it didn’t matter, because whatever they did play, I didn’t hear at all. When I came to, I was in a dark room called RECOVERY with two people I had never seen before and would never knowingly see again. They seemed bored, so I knew that everything was swell.

Staying overnight in a hospital is like trying to sleep on a cross-country bus. I was awoken constantly all night by strangers, and for often logical but also disorienting reasons. I passed the time between intrusions by watching, (in order of quality, coincidentally) Rear Window (awesome), The Karate Kid (amusing), and Dinner For Schmucks (corrosively dumb). During my fitful sleep, I was somehow able to avoid having a nightmare about being pushed out of my window by Raymond Burr, though if that would’ve prevented me from watching Dinner With Schmucks, I’d have understood.

The Trader Joe’s dinner was on a Wednesday night, and after vomiting it up, I didn’t eat solid food again until Saturday afternoon, when a kind nurse brought me Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes, and a big brown bowl of the thickest, most savory soup I’d ever tasted. I decided to finish off the soup first, and then noticed they didn’t give me any gravy for the potatoes. I then realized what I’d just eaten an entire bowl of.

If you’re ever in a hospital again, try it some time. They’ll totally give you a free pass for that kind of thing.

After about seventeen hours, I was on my feet and out of the hospital, six pounds lighter than I’d been on Wednesday, and who knows how much of that was you, dear vermiform appendix. It was tough at first to get my old strength back, and to find myself again, but with the help of a number of friends, I made it through. The wounds are still healing, and for now I need my space, but I honestly wish you well.

Everyone asks if I saw you one last time, and sometimes I think it’s a shame I didn’t. I heard they sent you up to pathology, where you were a bit of a rock star. I know I would’ve been proud.

XOXO,

J. Ryan


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J. Ryan Stradal J. RYAN STRADAL is from the second-oldest town in Minnesota. His writing has also appeared in Hobart, The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rattling Wall, Joyland, Trop, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and NFL.com, among other places. He lives and writes in Los Angeles, where he volunteers with students at 826LA and sometimes works on TV shows.

39 responses to “What Was I Thinking?”

  1. Space Lemur says:

    Awesomest break up story ever. Gravy soup for the win!! 🙂

  2. J. Ryan Stradal says:

    Thanks, Space Lemur. Good to see you here.

    Gravy soup would have only been better with Vegenaise-and-tomato sandwiches on Ezekiel bread.

  3. Summer Block says:

    “A breach of trust with Trader Joe’s would be, along with the waning of print media and the ceaseless conflicts overseas, the Sadness Of Our Generation.” – I don’t think there’s anything about Trader Joe’s so bad that, upon hearing it, I would stop eating at Trader Joe’s.

    “Staying overnight in a hospital is like trying to sleep on a cross-country bus.” – God, this is so, so true. A cross-country bus where the conductor keeps coming by every few hours to take your pulse. This gives me flashbacks to my one and only time spending the night in a hospital, when I had Beatrice. At least I also had a hard drive filled with episodes of “Arrested Development.” That’s the benefit of non-emergency hospital stays: you come prepared.

  4. Summer Block says:

    Also, buses don’t have conductors.

    • J. Ryan Stradal says:

      Summer,

      I’d rather live in a world where they did.

      In any case, that thought did not occur to me while I was reading your comment; I somehow perfectly envisioned a bus conductor and instantly had a notion of their uniform, duties, and sober but not unkind demeanor.

      Thank you, as always, for reading.

      • Daniel Safarik says:

        Actually certain buses do (or did) have conductors. The double decker buses of London once did, because the entrance was in the rear and there was a stairway going up to the second level through which straphangers could abscond. It wouldn’t do for the driver to have to chase that ruffian down, ad it would most certainly require a person of “sober but not unkind demeanor.”

        There was a yearning reference to a girl, a “bus-conductress blonde,” in the great Scottish band Trashcan Sinatras’ “Thrupenny Tears.” So you are not the only artist to dream of such a person.

        I wonder where she is now. Maybe hanging out with your appendix and Rita the Meter Maid.

        • J. Ryan Stradal says:

          Daniel,

          You are awesome. I knew that Summer and I weren’t merely victims of our own fevered imaginations.

          Thank you for reading, and lending your expertise.

  5. MK says:

    What’s the oldest town?

    • J. Ryan Stradal says:

      I’ve heard it’s Stillwater, but it might be Winona. I guess it depends on your definition of when a town began … was it at the point of incorporation or the first permanent settlement? If the latter, Hastings could definitely be the second-oldest; otherwise it’s a bit more up for grabs.

      I’m basically repeating pablum my hometown city officials put in their literature. I find it to be a charming claim, even if its veracity is unstable.

  6. Gloria says:

    “They seemed bored, so I knew that everything was swell.”

    hahahahaha

    Man, you’ve had the worst luck with your innards.

    I had my appendix removed when I was 14. (Turns out it was healthy after all!) While I was in the recovery room, my mom put on a comedy show and I laughed until I cried, which took only seconds. I hope your recovery was totally humorless. It’s good, actually, that you were saddled with Dinner for Schmucks. Someone was watching out for you there.

    • J. Ryan Stradal says:

      Gloria,

      DANG! So you had a misdiagnosis, or an alarmist one? Well, at least you got it over with. Mikey the anesthesiologist was telling me, right before he put me under, that his grandfather died overseas when his appendix burst and couldn’t get medical attention in time.

      Yeah, at least I didn’t have to worry about belly laughs so much. It hurt to move there for a while. I was on my feet and back to work on Monday even though I probably shouldn’t have been.

      Thanks again for reading, Gloria …

  7. Joe Daly says:

    JRS-

    This freaked me the out on a number of levels.

    First, I’m a Trader Joe’s loving vegetarian. Just the implication that either of those qualities could explode my appendix is horrifying.

    Secondly, I was on a plane in January and just as it backed out of the gate, I leaned over to pick something off of the floor and a sharp pain ran up my side, causing almost immediate nausea. I nearly passed out, and broke into cold sweats, debating whether I needed to grab a stewardess to tell her to park that fucking plane pronto and get my sweaty ass to a hospital. I decided (foolishly) to shut up and ride it out (not wanting to be that guy), and it turned out fine. I was sure it was my appendix though, getting ready to burst. Then I got to Ireland, where my doctor cousin advised me that my appendix was on the other side. Phew.

    Finally, Salisbury steak creeps me out. Can’t even go there right now.

    Funny story, man. Glad you rode through with flying colors (minus one organ).

    • J. Ryan Stradal says:

      Joe,

      I know — I’m so grateful that Trader Joe’s is off the hook. There’s one about four blocks from my place and it basically keeps me alive.

      Good to hear your close call was a false alarm. What did it end up being? Any idea?

      Thank you again for reading — I appreciate it.

  8. pixy says:

    man! do i have an appendix story for you!
    mine burst when i was 9. i tried to tell my parents that something was going on, but it was saturday morning and they just wanted me to watch my cartoons so they could get some more sleep (long night at the casinos). when they finally took me to my GP he said, had they been 15 minutes later, they wouldn’t be able to help me because all the awesome toxins were running through my system, making their way to my heart. it wouldn’t be the last time toxic things wanted my tasty heart, let me tell you!
    instead of trader joes to blame (he hadn’t come to town yet), my parents blamed the bicycle that i received a week earlier on my birthday because i fell forward on the handlebars about 3 days previous to said bursting. i spent 2 weeks in the hospital (it took me 2 days to wake up from the anesthesia and, apparently, i had viscious dreams about spiders) and 2 weeks at home unable to move, but getting hydrogen peroxide poured on my 2.5 inch gash with a single stitch every couple of hours. the bubbling was my entertainment.
    my favorite memory is when my grandpa (the only awesome person in my family) snuck me some mcdonalds in the hospital.

    i’ve only ridden a bicycle once since then (almost 22 years) and that’s when i was in amsterdam because… well, you HAVE to ride a bike in amsterdam.

    • J. Ryan Stradal says:

      Pixy,

      Oh good lord — what a story! And that poor demonized bicycle. I’m glad you made an exception in Amsterdam … but once the appendix was out, the bicycle still wasn’t off the hook? Or were you just cautious about what further ills will befall you should you tempt fate on two wheels?

      And by the way, hydrogen peroxide on a healing scar beats Dinner For Schmucks for entertainment value any day.

      Thank you so much for reading and sharing your own experience — glad that you’re still with us, Pixy!

      • pixy says:

        nah, my mom, in the throes of catholic guilt, did a couple of weird things while i was in the hospital:
        1. banished all bicycles from coming within a 100 foot radius of me. i don’t know how she did it, but it worked. i think it was witchcraft. or hail marys.
        2. bought me a pink metal daybed? seriously? this was the most curious thing because i never asked for one and i was never the girliest of girls, so i didn’t really understand this.
        3. let me eat all the doritos, chocolate pudding and cool whip i wanted. for-ever. this didn’t help my giantness issues when i high school.

        being prideful, neither of my parents ever, and never will, admitted that they put me in danger by not listening to me when i told them something was wrong that saturday morning. i was over the toilet with dry heaves, forcing saltines and sprite down my throat for 5 hours (and 4 trips to tell them that something was wrong) before they felt my forehead and realized that i had a blazing fever and that something was actually wrong.
        this whole episode is my “traumatic moment” – the first lucid moment wherein i turned into a grown up and learned that i was the only one who could and would take care of me. it happens to all of us, right?

  9. Dana says:

    Ah the appendix. Just another of those unnecessary organs. I get rid of all of the useless ones myself. When I had severe pain right in the damn center of my belly and was covered in cold sweat I figured that it was just more of the female troubles that I was prone to. I tried to shake it off.

    After a sleepless night and a harsh winter storm that had covered the roads with an inch or so of pure ice (very unusual in our neck of the woods) – and trying to make breakfast for my 83 year old father-in-law who had come to visit us for the first time in many years, I finally realized that something was seriously wrong and called the nurse helpline on my health insurance card. She said that because it wasn’t on the lower right side, it certainly wasn’t appendicitis so just make my way to a GP.

    I couldn’t stand up straight, but driving myself to the doctor wasn’t too bad as I was one of the few people on the road. Schools and most businesses were closed due to the winter storm. Luckily the doctors office was open and a skeleton crew was in. My doctor for the day was approximately the age of Doogie Howser. He was sure I didn’t have appendicitis because my temperature was only about 100 and my pain wasn’t localized in the lower right quadrant. He drew some blood though, just to be safe. He was so excited when he returned — “Hey, you’re right! Your white blood cell count is through the roof! You need to get to the hospital right away! Your appendix is about to burst! We’ll call ahead.” Obviously at this point I was not thinking clearly. It didn’t occur to me that I should ask for a ride or an ambulance and Doogie apparently assumed that I’d been driven in by a more capable human being. So I slid (bent at the waist) carefully out to my car and willed myself behind the wheel. I carefully drove myself to the hospital just 2 miles away. As I waited for the left hand arrow to turn green, a searing pain shot through my body and for the first (and only) time in my life I was absolutely sure that I was about to die.

    I have no recollection of how I got to the surgeons office. I know that it was on the 2nd floor, and I rode in the elevator. I know that the moment I walked in I was placed in a wheelchair but somehow ended up on a gurney. I remember them pushing the gurney from his office to the operating room which was in the hospital building adjacent via an outdoor elevated walkway with little bumps in the concrete. I was certain they were speed bump sized. I vividly remember shouting obscenities at the nurse who could not get a needle in my bulging blue veins that would deliver me sweet relief via pain meds.

    Thankfully, I don’t remember any Coldplay or Gloria Gaynor in the operating room. Like Shannon, I had a huge (open) gash on my stomach and a separate smaller incision for a “drain”. And pain meds. Lots and lots of pain meds.

    I love that you ate Gravy soup. 🙂 Hilarious. And watched Rear Window — one of my favorites.

    “It was a bad night for sympathy.” Ha!
    Glad you’re on the mend!

    • pixy says:

      daner! this wasn’t in suffuck was it? because that’s crazy pants!

      had i been able to see over the dash, i probably would have driven myself as well.

      we shall compare gashes in may, no?

      • Dana says:

        Certainly pix!! I can’t believe we haven’t done it before! And yes it was in Suffolk. When Bill made it to the hospital he found my car with the door open and my wallet lying on the front seat. Heh.

        • pixy says:

          no one took your wallet! even more reason to love the suh-fuck. 🙂

          i only recently got ok with talking about the appendix issue. there are lots of parent/guilt issues associated with it. stupid catholic gene!

    • J. Ryan Stradal says:

      Dana,

      WOW. That blood sample likely saved your life — this is quite the cautionary tale — I wonder how many people didn’t act in time because the pain wasn’t specifically in the front lower right side? (I know my doctor told me that depending on where the infection is in the appendix, there can sometimes be more back pain than lower abdomen pain) …

      I CAN’T BELIEVE that you DROVE. It reminds me of when I drove myself to the ER 10 years ago when I was passing a kidney stone — also an extremely difficult thing to do, and probably only made possible by the fact that it was 4:30 AM and there was no one to crash into.

      You did the right thing by being a little worried and I’m extremely glad you’re with us today, Dana. You had a wildly close call. You deserve two bowls of Gravy soup for this one.

      Thank you very much for reading and sharing this incredible story.

      • Dana says:

        I didn’t realize how I’d gone ON and ON with that comment until after it posted. Sorry about that. There are no short stories when I’m telling them. :blush:

        But look who’s talking about driving; and in LA?! Kidney stones are no joking matter! My husband has had a couple of rounds with them. I found him curled up on the bathroom floor in the fetal position during one bout.

        Gravy soup for all!

        It looks like I’ve missed several of your pieces so I’ll be checking out the archives as time allows.

  10. Don Mitchell says:

    So we’re all telling our appendicitis stories. Yours is excellent.

    Mine — maybe about 11, fifth grade. 1953. Ate dinner, felt awful, obviously something was wrong, small town, the GP is called and comes to the house. Don, you’re going to the hospital right now. OK, but I’d eaten, so after the nurse shaved me (very exciting! look at those hairs I’ve waited so long for coming right off) I got a spinal and had the fun of feeling the GP’s hands pulling my guts around, not to mention feeling the scalpel’s pressure when he cut into me. Then the appendix dangling from forceps, and I said, “Can I have it?” No. Bed, some vomiting, ice cream, wheelchair racing, finally home with a big bandage around my midsection. The other fifth graders loved it. I have a hell of a scar.

    I run by that hospital most days. It’s the same one I was born in. Now it’s an adult care center and county office but I still see the wing I raced my wheelchair up and down.

    Fast forward to my 93 year old mother having a hip replacement fifteen years ago . . . she’s shown the part they took out and asks, “Can I have it?” No.

    When she told me I accused her of stealing my line, but she denied it. I ask why she wanted it, and she said, “Well, it’s mine.” I wanted mine so I could show it to the other kids.

    • J. Ryan Stradal says:

      Don,

      I love that you also asked for yours. WHY won’t they ever give us these things? It’s troubling. Liability issues? I’m serious, the next medical professional I meet, I’m going to find out.

      I also must remark on this aspect of your experience — you apparently had minimal to no anesthetic, at least not enough to knock you out for the actual surgery. I know this is the way it was done for most of human history … and I’ve since been told stories of people who apparently removed *their own* appendix (apocryphal?) … but it makes your experience no less impressive.

      And great motive for wanting to keep it. Can’t say mine was much different.

      Thank you for reading and sharing your story — well done.

      • Don Mitchell says:

        I was conscious but there was no pain — it was a spinal. I could feel pressure and movement, in my abdomen, but that was all.

        I do wonder why they won’t release our body parts even if we ask for them. I asked the oral surgeon for my wisdom teeth, and got them.

        • dwoz says:

          body parts are considered an infectious bio-hazard and are controlled by the EPA. Releasing the materials to you, an unlicensed, non-inspectable and assumed-untrained person creates a break in the chain of control and an ensuing liability on the facility that generated the “waste,” i.e. an “improper disposition.” Extracted teeth are one of the few exceptions to this.

          Were you ever to happen upon a human carcass, the possibility that there is something bad you can catch from it is very high, compared to coming across an animal carcass. Our bodies are under constant attack from human targeting pathogens, and we’re constantly fighting them off. When the organism stops fighting, the pathogens are free to take over.

          However, there are some recognized religious reasons for requesting and retaining control of a body part from surgery…stemming from the belief that the separated part must still be interred or joined with the person at death. I think in this case (in the USA, anyway) there are licensed facilities that can be retained for a fee to store the part…but you can’t just take it home.

        • Don Mitchell says:

          Well, I never! Are you accusing my mother of having an “improper disposition?” Shame on you.

        • dwoz says:

          well, I’m sure after her surgery she was “indisposed.”

        • J. Ryan Stradal says:

          Dwoz,

          Thank you very much for the conclusive information on why we can’t take organs home. If I could bookmark your comment I would because it clearly and plainly spells out the hospital’s case against this fanciful idea.

          Thank you for reading and for answering this question …

  11. Brad Listi says:

    I can’t believe you ate a bowl of gravy. That’s awesome, man.

    And it was hospital gravy.

    Was this Cedar’s?

    That place is terrible. My daughter was born there. My wife spent a couple of nights. And then a few weeks later she went back in with back problems. Another couple of nights.

    I was really unimpressed. Gotta say. I mean, many of the people were nice, but some of them were morons. Like, we needed a breast pump at one point, and the nurse didn’t know what it was. She had no idea what a breast pump was. In a hospital. And it was a female nurse.

    Besides all that, the facility itself just creeped me out. The size of it. The number of bodies in that joint. The emergency room. The illnesses. It seemed old. And dirty.

    Christ. Just miserable.

    Glad you’re okay, man.

    • J. Ryan Stradal says:

      Brad,

      It wasn’t Cedars — it was St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, which is the only hospital I’ve ever been to as a patient. I have no standard of comparison, but it seemed pretty good to me, except for the part about being woken up every hour or two by a completely different nurse (which seems to be the case no matter where you go, and as Dwoz says below, is just a part of contemporary treatment procedures). I did lose count of who was treating me — think I was handled by maybe ten or twelve different nurses in my time there — but, better a sleepless night than sepsis, I suppose.

      And one decent thing — when I told them I’d had a CT scan already, they immediately contacted that clinic and got the results rather than forcing me to get another one. I suppose that’s common sense, but I’ve heard horror stories about redundant procedures at other places.

      Thank you for reading and sharing your story. Christ, Cedars is supposed to be the “prestige” hospital, right? Yours isn’t the only grim story I’ve heard. I’m glad things turned out OK.

  12. dwoz says:

    This rings so true on every level.

    Just having arrived home from my own hospital stay, I can say that your experience wasn’t unique, it was an expression of Nationally Prescribed Standards of Care.

    The night visit thing…there’s no pretension about GENTLY awakening you, when some highly-but-extremely-narrowly-trained TECHNICIAN arrives to perform their mechanized task. I cannot for the life of me figure out why the nurse had to wake me, to inject an intravenous drug into my IV line. Oh, yes…it was to ask my name and birth date, like she’d done six times already that shift.

    I did notice what I think is an alarming trend.

    The new face of factory medical care is that we have a crew of young task-trained technicians overseen by a doctor that we never see. The technician spends 1 minute pointing a computerized machine at you, then 10 minutes entering data into another computer, with absolutely nothing resembling a broad overview of your situation or condition. The analogy of a restaurant kitchen comes to mind…the old medicine way was a trained and experienced chef, who orchestrated all the aspects and components of a fine meal personally, delivering a gourmet meal well-presented on a beautiful plate. Today’s medicine is much more like a McDonald’s fast food kitchen, where a team of technicians load labeled homogeneous food products into machines, press buttons, and are prompted by computerized lights and buzzers to remove the now-processed food product.

    I was asked my weight, age, and whether I was a smoker exactly 14 times.

    I think the result is that care will not drop below some defined lower limit of quality, but neither will it ever rise to the level of exceptional quality.

  13. J. Ryan Stradal says:

    Dwoz,

    Good points — I definitely saw some of that in my own experiences. I wasn’t asked redundant questions as much (I think just twice) but the fact that I saw maybe 10 or 12 nurses total was kind of startling, and I guess it’s true that not often was I gently awakened (they would just march in and turn on all the lights). Plus one came in and gave me this arcane medical device to use, showed me how to use it, and then left and I never saw her again. Things like that were kind of disorienting.

    What were you in the hospital for, Dwoz?

  14. Angela Tung says:

    very funny.

    alas, i still have my appendix, and therefore have no appendix story.

    gravy soup FTW!

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