In Mike Nichols classic, The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman’s character is the guest of honor at his own graduation party. Shaking hands, thanking well-wishers, one attendee herds him outside and says, “One word. Plastics.” There is no context or warning for the advice, and the exchange is well timed–very funny.
Turns out that the recommendation from the film was sage advice.
My husband was diagnosed with throat cancer back in the spring of 2010. Following seven weeks of daily radiation, and powerful opiates, combined with a freighter load of other drugs, his colon ruptured by August. Simultaneous to the colon perforation, chaos erupted as well. The next twelve fateful hours involved a life-flight trip on a helicopter over the mountains, life and death surgery, followed by eight harrowing days in the hospital ICU. In summary his recovery took better than three years, as he was literally coming back from the dead.
My husband’s body, initially ravaged by potent cancer drugs now pulsed lethal septic contamination . . . his mortality dangerously uncertain.
In a miniscule corner room, a broad aluminum apparatus, looking a bit like a spinning skeletal umbrella dropped from the ceiling. Numerous hooks dangled from this suspended fixture, but apparently not enough to treat his severe condition. Hatstand-style steel poles were wheeled in, circling the raised, mechanical bed. Every hook bore multicolored plastic bags, upside down, metering in good stuff while other plastic tubes, secreted beneath, drained out the bad stuff. The overall impression of the set up reminded me of an underwater documentary, featuring clouds of transparent jellyfish, crisscrossing uncountable tendrils. Easily fifty miles of plastic tubing splayed from above, inserted into all of his orifices-all of them.
When the medical staff ran out of natural holes, they manufactured more conduits using hypodermic needles. Blue and green plastic portals were punched into his wrists and upper arms. Threaded in were additional plastic tubes that pumped fluids, battling to purge his body of poison.
The liquids pushing through those tubes, out paced the liquids draining out, leaving his body strangely distorted. Bloated, his eyes had swollen shut and his nose stretched broadly across his cheeks–fingers like frankfurters. As he hovered between life and death, his distended condition revealed the herculean battle against toxins within.
What my eyes could see in that little cubicle, my mind failed to process. This ordeal–his grim condition, the possibility of his death, the suddenness of the disaster became more that I could grasp.
I stopped eating, struggled to find sleep, and wandered through my days in a daze. The plastic lattice work draped over that distorted stranger removed any conscious balance of a normal life. When living in my own skin reached critical mass I realized my sanity had reached a breaking point. There was no solace to be found, no help, nothing but a mental abyss–and that couldn’t continue. I had a husband and family who needed me.
So I began writing my first memoir, River of January. I had idly contemplated starting this project for many years, telling myself that someday I’d commit the story of Helen and Chum to paper. Now, living in the middle of a nightmare, writing became a necessity, and the book began to take shape. And as dreadful as those early drafts were, I kept at it, white knuckling each word, sentence and paragraph. Somehow, in that silent struggle, I eventually began to recognize my face in the mirror again. I felt a little hungry and started to eat real food now and then.
Since that horrible episode in 2010, I can announce that he lived. I can also attest to the restorative powers of writing. (Therapeutic magic as far as I’m concerned).
But that creepy ‘suit’ portrayed in “The Graduate” offered up a great career tip. I think owning some hot plastic stocks might have covered the medical bills accrued from his difficult, extended stay. Hospitals go through plastic products like nothing I’ve ever witnessed. I can still see those icicle-like plastic bags and webs of tubes dangling in every direction from the ceiling, weaved across and under his bloated torso. A synthetic product that aided in saving a life.
Correction–saving two lives and creating a memoir.