March 11, 2024

A Spiritual Lesson from my Appendectomy.


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March came in like a lion.

On Friday, March 1, I pushed myself to go to work at 10 a.m. even though I wasn’t feeling 100 percent. Noticeably weak yet able to function, I drank a mug of soothing lemongrass tea and managed to get a few things done on the computer.

About half an hour into a meeting with my boss, I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my lower right abdomen. I excused myself and went to the bathroom, where I started sweating and nearly hyperventilating, doubled over with the intensity of the pain.

The only level of ache I could compare it to was when I had a miscarriage several years ago at the end of my first trimester. This time, I figured my body was just exhausted from having been sick and these must be intense menstrual cramps. This too would pass.

I went back into the office and said I needed to lie down. Conveniently, my workplace is a small retreat center, and an extra bunk bed is kept in the office. My boss was kind, concerned, and supportive. He skimmed through the agenda I’d written, basically said everything could wait, and pronounced the meeting adjourned. The receptionist procured ibuprofen for me, which helped slightly, enough to where I was able to make my way home about an hour later.

The rest of the day and the next, the pain wouldn’t abate.

I only slept a couple of hours on Saturday night. I’d made a doctor’s appointment for Tuesday morning, but the pain was too persistent to wait. Early on Sunday morning, my husband accompanied me to the emergency room. Now, seeing as we live on a lake in rural Guatemala, getting urgent medical care isn’t the easiest but it is doable. The trip entailed taking a tuk-tuk (moto-taxi) to the nearest town’s dock, a 30-minute boat ride across the lake, then another tuk-tuk to the hospital.

I was examined first by my gynecologist, who thought one of my ovaries had burst, which made me burst into tears. Then the radiologist showed up in his T-shirt and baseball cap and scanned all my organs. He saw that my appendix had perforated.

I was wheeled to a private room and prepped for emergency surgery. It being a Sunday, the doctors were mostly off-duty, but they gathered the anesthesiologist, surgeon, and nurses needed within an hour. They gave me an epidural, and I spun out into a bizarre hallucination of colors and designs, mixed with the Latin pop music playlist in the background and the doctors’ voices as they chatted casually. For them, it was just another day’s work. The surgery lasted about an hour.

I stayed in the hospital overnight wearing an adult diaper and receiving a magical concoction of painkillers, insulin, and antibiotics intravenously. My husband came back the next morning and helped me shower, after which I felt like a sparkling diamond. I left the hospital that afternoon, even though they wanted me to stay another night. (All told, the experience set me back around $1,500 plus $50 for the prescription medications I took home. Quite the deal, no? And I don’t have health insurance. I shudder to think what this would have cost me in the U.S.)

I’ve been convalescing at home ever since. Happily ever after—the end. Just kidding!

The first days of recovery brought me some of the most hellish physical experiences of my life. The surgery was not laparoscopic; I have 10 stitches and an eight-inch gash below my belly button. The prescribed painkillers helped marginally but I still felt such great discomfort that I not infrequently would fantasize about wading into the lake with rocks in my pockets, a la Virginia Woolf.

Then, I’d feel a surge of strength and vitality and would write pleasing messages back to concerned friends like, “I’m getting a bit better each day!” That’s what people want to hear, right? Not: “This is really hard; I can’t do it. I just want to lay down and die.”

And I myself got so attached to this feeling better, this slow but steady movement in the right direction, toward healing, toward normalcy, away from the pain and suffering.

But, of course, healing is not a linear path.

Life is not typically straightforward, and everything is moving and changing all the time, not necessarily for the better. So when I’d start to feel bad again, the bad felt worse and my mind would start telling terrible stories that my heart bought—hook, line, and sinker.

Like, “You are never going to feel better. You are never going to be able to lead another yoga class or retreat, much less the one that’s scheduled to start in 12 days. You are pathetic and weak.” At more hopeful moments, I repeat more uplifting mantras: “I am strong. I am love. Om mani padme hum.”

I’m still basically in the middle of this, so there’s no ending to be written yet, and I feel myself wanting to wrap it up with a tidy conclusion: “I will survive. I will prevail. I will be more grateful for my life and health.”

And though all this may be true, I guess the top spiritual lesson of this experience has been patience. A body can sustain a lot of pain. The human body is incredible in the ways it can heal itself, but it happens on its own time and cannot be forced, sped up, or rushed in any way.

“There is no samsara. There is no life and death to transcend in the first place. The only thing we must transcend is our thoughts. Beyond our own thoughts there is no suffering. There is only thought.

This is not simply theory. But what does it mean to transcend our thoughts? It simply means not to believe in our thoughts. When we don’t believe in our thoughts, we are always awakened. When we believe in our thoughts, we are unawakened. That’s a statement everyone should memorize.” ~ Anam Thubten


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