My fight for survival

Many of my English speaking friends have asked for a translation of this article
published in the Harvest magazine.

-Do you exercise often?


-Not at all?

– Umm..

– I just go for walks in the forest. Three times a week. It’s a 7 kilometer walk.

-And you don’t call that exercise?


-During my years here at intensive care, I have never seen a body that has come through the extreme stress as unaffected as yours. Those walks in the forest have probably saved your life.

This conversation took place the day after I returned to life. I thought I would be yelled at for not being in better shape. I felt the aging shame over my fat body.

The first thing I remember was a tube being pulled out of my throat. I retched. Someone said the operation had been a success. “Cancer fucking sucks,” I thought to myself.

The next thing I remember was the feeling of being unable to move. Being unable to talk. I understood questions being posed to me, but I barely managed to produce a yes or no. I understood that the operation had ended up being both longer, and more comprehensive, than anticipated. For fourteen hours they’d scraped my bowels free of cancer. Extracted organs I didn’t know I had. As well as a number of those I did.

On the day before I was admitted, I had sit-downs with everyone who would be involved in the surgery. I felt very distanced. Thought that this could not possibly be me. I was constantly reminded that it was indeed me, and of the importance of being present with all my body. The anesthesiologist took both my hands; asked me to feel present, and said she wanted me to work with her during the surgery. That it was important. I began to cry.

As I was standing in the special bathroom for colostomy patients, the doctors measuring out where they would place my intestines if necessary, the distance was crucial. I had Knut, the love of my life, take a picture where the two marks were eyes, and my navel was the mouth. We called it “fainted Ayatholla”. It was important that Knut was there with me. That he wasn’t affected by the gravity of the situation and didn’t show fear. If he did, fleeing would be my only option.

I knew something was wrong. There were several nurses standing over me. They said my breathing was weak. The machines behind my bed beeped. I stared at the ceiling. I thought my breathing was just fine. I heard words I could not understand. The anesthesiologist came. The one who had been holding my hands. I heard her talking about an embolism (a blood clot). I recall thinking that I hadn’t been to Africa, and thus couldn’t possibly have contracted Ebola. The serious faces hovering over me seemed to disagree. I tried to explain to them that I had not been to Africa, but my mouth only produced alien noises. They told me to focus on my breathing.

I remember making a decision. Deciding that I was going to make it. That I was going to survive this. I thought of my body as a machine that needed to be repaired. All my strength had to be used to talk to myself. Tell myself that my body was strong. That the people working on me knew what they were doing, and that they would do anything to get my machine running again. I saw Knut’s terrified glances. Felt his shivering hand in mine. I told him to go home. Thought that my strength could not be expended on assuaging him. I felt utterly alone. In this battle with death.

For twenty-four hours, I fought this lonesome battle. I was slipping in and out of consciousness, mixing reality and hallucinations. I was terrified. Since I couldn’t breathe well on my own, I was hooked up to a ventilator. I felt like I was being choked. That someone was trying to kill me. I remember one of the nurses looking directly into my eyes, and telling me that the ventilator was a necessity. It would help me survive. No beating about the bush.

Surgical drains were inserted into both my lungs. One had collapsed. The other had a large blood clot that almost filled the lung completely. Throughout all this, I kept telling myself that death was not an option.

In many ways, the battle against death happens outside of regular time. At least it did for me. Each time I felt the panic gripping me, I lifted a finger to signal that someone had to come. The white angels that watched over me day and night, were there in a heartbeat. I just wanted to hold someone’s hand. Someone who wasn’t scared.

I’ve been told that I came back to life after twenty-four hours. To me it might just as well have been a week. I could suddenly talk when they removed the ventilator. Knut had been informed that it would take two to three days before knew more about the final outcome. When he called and the nurses put me on, I could hear the man I love cry as he heard my voice once again. Shortly thereafter, a similar call came from my daughter in Australia. The calls were exhausting; physically and emotionally. I slept for hours afterwards. My husband invited those dearest to us to a feast at our home. To celebrate life, and to celebrate me. It was a soothing thing to keep in mind when I held the hand on unfamiliar nurses.

After five days in intensive care, I was moved to the gastrointestinal ward. I was given a single room with a view of the forest. I was admitted in the summer. Now, the colors of fall had arrived. In a week. It felt like a lifetime.

It was important to get me out of bed. Walking, if possible. Out into the hallway. The first time felt like a great victory. Two nurses had to walk alongside me to carry all the bags attached to my unfamiliar body. I didn’t want to look at the bags. Especially not the disgusting things inside them. The things that belong inside a body. One bag was attached to a machine that made a quiet buzzing sound. Whenever I was given morphine, the machine stopped buzzing, and started talking to me. I knew it was because I was high, but it was talking nonetheless. A clear voice calling me “grumpy” and “whiny”. At night, I could hid under my pillow. If I was walking the halls, I had to go back to bed. I was terrified of that voice.

I became a wanderer. Up and down the halls of the gastrointestinal ward. The pain drove me forward. I could not lie on my back. Couldn’t lie on my side. Nor on my stomach. I more or less had to sit upright while sleeping. Some nights, I screamed out of frustration. I just wanted to wake up from this nightmare.

I had many visitors. They thought I looked better and better for each day. I just felt emptier. I had no energy. I wavered in my belief that this would all work out.

The strength returns in infinitesimal increments. I can barely tell. I have moved to a double room, and I know that alone is a step forward. A step towards recovery. It’s been two weeks since the surgery, and I have still not had a shower. Just the thought of it makes me sick. All the bags swimming in water and hair in a dirty bathroom in a hospital that looks like it belongs in a country in the Eastern Bloc before the war. Yet again, I silently celebrate the amazing people working here. The ones who cope.

I have learnt how to string up the bags to a rack whenever I am going for a walk. Some bags have been removed. New ones have appeared. In the daily conversations with my daughter in Australia, I never mention the bags, neither new nor old. I speak only of how well I’m doing, and how much I’m looking forward to when she comes home for Christmas. We decide that we’ll bake all the seven traditional Norwegian Christmas treats this year. And that this Christmas will be epic. I silently add “if I survive”.

I remain at the gastrointestinal unit for three weeks. People come out of surgery, and then they go home. I pace the corridors, and know the first names of everyone working there. They jokingly say it’s about time I start to pull my own weight around there. I’ve learnt to administer my own injections. They say I can do the rounds.

It’s starting to feel like a safe place. They start saying I’m almost ready to move on.

The conversation with intensivist has stuck with me. The forest was the only thing I could think of when a drain was being inserted or removed. Every time I tried to sit back up. Every time I took another uncertain step through the halls of the hospital. The forest that saved my life.

I’m sent to rehabilitation. Four weeks in stunningly beautiful surroundings. Preserved forest and water and bird songs from rare species. In the cold and wet October rain, I don my raincoat and head out. I walk further and further each day. Inhale the smell of the moist soil. Raise my hands towards the sky. Grateful that I am alive. Touched to the point of tears by my strength returning. Often exhausted and drained for the rest of the day.

My body is getting stronger. It still isn’t mine. But it is carrying me further and further on my many walks in the neighbourhood. I look at myself in the mirror, and see a grey face. And eyes filled with fear. I cannot bear to look at the scar. After all, I have promised to start loving my body. That will be a challenge.

The nights on the plastic-covered mattress are the worst. I can never fall into a deep sleep. I always know where I am. Always feeling that strange, empty stomach. And the scar winding its way down my stomach. 97 surgical staples used to hold me together. Now, it’s a pink line and some bandage-covered sores that I cannot stand to look at. The nurses assure me they’re getting better every day.

To aid the recovery process, my doctor has instructed me to walk often. At the same time, recreation is important so that the body has time to heal. For me, having no clue when my body is trying to tell me something, these instructions are hard to live by. What I really want is to stay in bed all day. I want time to pass. Nevertheless, I force myself out. I speak sternly to myself. Tell myself I have to go outside. Out to build muscles. Out to the forest that saved my life. My body is resisting. I push through, just as I’ve done since I lost touch with it early in my teenage years. I have to find my way back. I know that. The physiotherapists are helping me as best they can. I do exercises that make me feel my whole body. My unfamiliar, disgusting body that I am trying to reconnect with.

On a good day, when I am out walking in the surrounding woods, I whisper softly: you’re a good, strong body. You can do this… For a brief moment I feel pride. That’s when I know I’m on the right path. And I know that this is something I can do.

Knut has invited guests. Close friends, and his parents, for a traditional Norwegian dinner. He calls me to tell me how much he misses me. Especially when he does things that we always do together. It is like the floodgates of a dam burst. I bawl, and can’t understand how I will ever stop. I want to be there so badly. At the same time, I can’t bear the thought of it. I wouldn’t be able to sit by a table with so many people. So much noise. It frightens me. Will I ever be able to? Amidst snot and tears, I explain my fears. That I will never be me again. That I will never again have the strength to sit around a crowded table. His reply is reassuring: I know what you’ve been through. Don’t forget that.

I can feel that I needed that reminder. That I have been through something that will take time to heal.

I’m known to exaggerate. Known for embellishing my stories to make them more colourful. I like good stories. And sometimes, I add some more colours. That is true. But not for all stories. Not for this story. I almost died. That is no exaggeration.

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