Biscayne Bay Syndrome

After eight long days in the ICU, days that included an excruciating extraction of his oxygen tube from his throat, grasping to remember his name, the president’s name and mine, the doctors agreed to transfer him to a regular room.  However, when the medical staff says move, they don’t actually mean it.  “Move” is code for “prepare for an unfulfilled expectation.” 

Teams of orderlies had to be placed on reserve, much like medication, liquid food, or a lab procedure.  As a part of hospital protocol, a regular room also had to be requested on the floor where cancer patients were treated.  So, again, we waited.  Chad, severely weakened, barely with the strength to move his head, drifted into and out of sleep.

To pass my time, and with some effort, I tried to read the new “Time” magazine. It was a special issue commemorating American history, featuring Benjamin Franklin on the cover, (a step in the right direction from the crap I usually consumed).  My comprehension skills limited, I looked at the pictures, and read the captions. 

After an anxious five or six hours, my husband finally moved into his new room.  Promptly a nurse’s aide came in with a bottle of something brown in her gloved hands.  Heavy set, tattooed, and very young, she cheerfully announced Chad’s bath time.  Now I wasn’t sure what I expected, but in one casual, shocking motion she unsnapped his gown and there he lay, naked, emaciated, emasculated and thankfully unaware of his condition.  Jesus taken from the cross.  Horror, shock, embarrassment, pick a word, froze me in place.  Callously robbing him of his modesty felt too much.  My poor Chad was too weakened for the embarrassment I felt for us both.

A regular in the hospital now, my face became familiar to the nurse’s station and cafeteria.  The halls antiseptically bare did feature artwork from former cancer patients.  I noticed underneath the framed pieces were the names of the artists, and their death dates.  I shuttered each time I walked by.  Another source of anguish came from watching other patients creeping along the halls, getting out of their rooms, ambulatory.  Chad’s door had caution signs saying wash your hands, wear gloves and a mask.  Another notice stated “Fall Risk.” 

Daily, the medical staff quizzed him with questions such as, “do you know where you are?”  He often answered, “Miami.”  He warmly told his oncologist that he could come along fishing on Biscayne Bay with him and his son.  Studying the nightmare from my front row seat I repeatedly despaired, “we’re never getting out of here.”  When the room finally emptied, I would try to explain to him that he lay in a hospital bed in Boise, to which he’d yell “knock that off Gail!  My son will be here soon.”



Rereading the original draft of my book, River of January, I reviewed the back story that propelled the book’s creation. An impossible crisis pushed me to write the work, but that narrative was cut out of the main manuscript due to length. But I still believe that the story behind the published story is important to share.

The Intensive Care Unit was the largest department on the third floor of the hospital. Reflecting back I never did figure out which direction the ward faced. Was it north toward Boise’s golden foothills or south over the blue turf of the football stadium? Someone needed to open the blinds.

The floor plan in the ward ovaled around like a carpeted arena, anchored by a nurses’ station in the infield. Three quarters of the broad ring had been segmented into tiny stalls–narrow spaces housing mechanical beds. My husband’s particular nook, squeezed into a curved corner, remained either open or sealed by simply sliding a glass door and a privacy curtain. Each morning I instinctively gauged his condition by the disposition of that entrance. Coding patients were afforded some semblance of privacy.

The sparse decor inside clearly signaled “no nonsense.” Two chairs flanked the entrance, with one small footstool. I once tried pulling out that stool to attempt a nap, but sleeping was reserved for the critical only; the nursing staff’s frenzied laps around his bed made sleep impossible.

Unconscious, bloated, with a swollen torso and bulging arms, my husband lingered on the crinkly mattress. Tubes protruded from nearly every square inch of his upper body, pumping in liquid meds and below, pumping out liquid waste material. Attached monitors loudly measured his heart and pulse rates, racketing in a relentless beeping.  I was afraid to ask the meaning of the numbers blinking on the monitor, the din adding to my fatigue. Eventually, I inquired what a normal cardio reading looked like, and the answer wasn’t reassuring. I froze in that nondescript chair, dazed, almost hypnotized, willing his numbers to improve. Still indifferent, that monitor shifted erratically, frequently setting off an alarm drawing in medical reinforcements. 

The cocktail of fluids pumped into his arms overnight had left him bloated to the point that his nose had flattened across his full, stretched cheeks. Fingers that had earlier held my hand from the stretcher now swelled to the size of cooked kielbasa—triggering thoughts of his wedding ring and his watch. My next random reflection recalled both pieces being handed to me the night before, and hopefully safe in my purse. It was a dreamy recollection. 

The worst feature of his bare torso was the ragged, opened split from his naval to his groin, sealed by a stiff grey foam substance, and a thin membrane of clear film covering the diagonal wound. I was told his body was so contaminated in septic debris that the stitches closing the incision would have healed before the toxic substances beneath had cleansed.  So this vacuum packed dressing over his wound kept the area draining and that tube, too had an attached little box, stowed under the bed that beeped and flashed. 

He looked too rubbery and inflated to be real, but with the aid of artificial ventilation forcing his breath, I could clearly hear his intake of air. 

Clinging to these subtle signs I began the litany of phone calls that had to be made to the rest of the family.  His son, my parents, his siblings . . . I hated to upset them all, but knew these relatives had to be kept in the loop. Listening quietly on the phone, my 78-year-old father finally spoke; he and my mom would pack up and come down to Boise from Spokane. I wasn’t prepared for that offer, and asked them to give me a little time. I still wasn’t convinced my husband was going to live. At that moment I had no energy for company, all my focus concentrated on watching his vital signs.

Desperation is a funny emotion. The intensity of it burns on the inside, and we fool ourselves in believing the conjured up power somehow changes reality. Maybe the instinct to inflict mental suffering on ourselves is a primal manifestation of empathy for our loved ones. He bore the physical wounds, while mine lashed and scorched my insides. Over the course of his lengthy critical care, and his slow road to recovery, I had to do something with all the bile stuffed into my psyche. Out of this pain came the healing therapy of River of January and my own recovery through writing.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir River of January




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.