I'll return to writing about leadership, coaching, and related issues tomorrow, but the events of this past weekend merit a brief digression. I woke up at 1:30am on Friday with abdominal pain. It was the night before my first class in The Art of Self-Coaching, and I couldn't believe my bad luck. I love teaching this course, and there was no way I was going to miss the first session, but I really wanted to be well-rested and feeling my best, and apparently that wasn't going to happen.
I made it to Stanford and was able to put the pain entirely out of my mind once class began. (I had a similar experience four years ago, when a blown disk in my back left me in near-constant pain for about 6 months, but the pain disappeared when I was intensely focused--typically in a coaching session.) But by early afternoon the pain had lasted long enough and was severe enough that I could think of nothing else. I had returned home, and Amy and I agreed that we should go to the hospital, and we went to St. Mary's, which is the building tinted yellow in the photo of San Francisco above.
I was diagnosed with appendicitis and scheduled for an appendectomy later that evening. The surgery was successful, and I spent Friday night and most of the following day in the hospital before being discharged late Saturday afternoon. Now it's just over 48 hours since the entire experience began, and while I'm still taking pain medication and will have to lighten my workload this coming week, I feel almost normal.
But that's an illusion, one that I'm particularly prone to given my generally fast recovery time from difficult experiences. While such resilience is often a great strength of mine, it can also be a weakness, because I rush past those experiences and can fail to learn from them. And this experience definitely taught me a few things.
The back pain I experienced four years ago was, at times, truly agonizing. There was a moment before it was diagnosed when I was lying on the floor nearly frantic with desperation at the thought of feeling this way for the rest of my life. I certainly didn't think I'd experienced the worst suffering possible, but I was still surprised at how much worse my pain was this weekend. Perhaps there's something about abdominal pain that makes it harder to bear than muscular or skeletal pain--I don't fully understand the cause. But I had some moments on Friday night that are seared into my memory.
The pain worsened after I was admitted to the ER, and at one point the staff were in the process of running some tests but hadn't yet diagnosed the appendicitis, and they were administering pain medication but I wasn't feeling any better, and suddenly I became truly frantic, desperate for relief. Tears were streaming down my face, and I felt both humiliated and aware that it was ridiculous to feel humiliation in these circumstances. I felt like a helpless child, and before the meds kicked in the only comfort to be found was in holding Amy's hand as she sat next to me, wiping my tears away.
The meds did kick in, thankfully, and the ER team diagnosed my condition and were able to schedule me for surgery very quickly, but it was a Friday night in a busy hospital, so it was going to take a little time to get me in the OR. We eventually made it to pre-op, and at that point the meds began wearing off, and I felt a new and different kind of pain. It wasn't a frantic feeling, as it had been in the ER, because I knew what was happening and that I was getting the help I needed. That conscious awareness kept the desperation at bay, but it still seemed as though time had stopped, and that I was trapped in this painful state. I have never been so grateful as when they wheeled me into the ER, and anesthesiologist finally said, "In a minute you won't feel a thing."
As difficult as this experience has been, it could have been so much worse in countless ways. The last year and a half has been a tough time for me and Amy as we've dealt with professional challenges, family crises, and other health issues, and while I wouldn't wish these experiences on anyone, I do think we've come out of it all better prepared to handle really hard things. I've never needed Amy's support like I did this weekend, and I don't know how I would have made it through it without her. I thought about that a lot when I saw people at the hospital alone, and it reminded me how easy it is to take the people we love for granted.
There's a practical dimension to Amy's support, too--I'm well-compensated as an executive coach, but when I chose to leave my full-time role at Stanford to focus on my practice I also gave up my luxurious academic benefits and am now reliant on Amy for health insurance. I was acutely aware that having this coverage made the entire experience possible, and I have no idea what I would have done without it. While I've paid attention to the political debate over healthcare insurance in recent years, I have a heightened appreciation for the privileges I enjoy. It's terrifying to consider what this weekend would have been like under other circumstances, and yet I know that so many people face that prospect daily.
Finally, I am so tremendously grateful to my doctors and nurses at St. Mary's, and I cannot thank them enough for their responsive and compassionate care. I can't remember the names of the doctors who diagnosed me in the ER, but I do remember Sunghee, the ER nurse who administered my medication and took care of me, and Neal, the technician who conducted my CT scan, and I am so thankful for all of them. I certainly remember Dr. Cerine Jeanty, my surgeon, and Dr. Miriam Castro, my anesthesiologist, who, along with the OR nurse, comprised the all-woman surgical team who took me apart and put me back together again. And among the many wonderful nurses and staff on the 7th floor who watched over me, I want to thank Honey, whose kindness and humor made a long day pass more quickly.
I'm well aware of our healthcare system's dysfunction, and that fact that this work attracts so many talented, dedicated people who are willing to put up with it says something about the human spirit. We've already donated to the St. Mary's Foundation to express our appreciation, but I can't ever repay the debt I owe them. Thank you.