The aftermath of the amputation

We were a little surprised to learn, after Stephanie's left leg was amputated, that what remained of her leg above the knee was actually called the stump. That word sounds like slang, so she thought that there must be a more 'polite' term for it, but nope. Doctors sometimes called it the 'distal', or 'remnant', or 'residual limb', but even most medical professionals just called it a stump.

Stephanie's stump healed slowly, but without complications. She had to stay in bed, and had to deal with all the things she hated about hospitals — being poked and prodded at least hourly (often more frequently than that) by masked and gowned people, like she was radioactive; long waits for things that really can't wait, like a bedpan; answering the same basic health questions twelve to twenty times daily; and of course, the food.

You hear jokes and maybe tell jokes about hospital food, but with Steph it wasn't just a joke. I've explained this before, but it's about to be vital, so I'm going to explain it again.

Even when Stephanie was in perfect health, she only ate food that tasted good — and it wasn't a matter of choice. She wasn't turning her nose up because she wanted something better. She had a very delicate appetite, and if you put food in front of her that didn't taste good, it would shut her appetite down. For lack of a better way to describe this, think of it another of her medical conditions, though it was never diagnosed or treated.

At home, her delicate appetite wasn't usually a problem. If she didn't care for the food on her plate, I'd eat it and she'd prepare something else. In restaurants, if she was disappointed with her entrée, again, I'd eat it, and when we came home she'd find or prep something she could eat.

In the hospital, though, there's no easy alternative to hospital food. Everyone eats it, and everyone complains about it. Stephanie often couldn't eat it, and with no alternative, that means she often didn't eat.

Some meals in the hospital were palatable enough that Steph could eat them, but most weren't. After a streak of several inedible meals, her appetite shut down even more than it usually did, so that even a pretty good meal made her nauseous. This happened several times, during her post-op stay at UW Hospital.

I ran errands, bringing Stephanie non-medical meals from the hospital cafeteria, or sandwiches from a nearby sub shop that she usually liked, or a filet-o-fish and fries from McDonald's, or carry-out linguini from an Italian restaurant, or yogurt from the grocery — anything Steph thought she might be able to eat. Sometimes she ate it, but often she had no appetite and couldn't.

Over her two weeks recuperating at the hospital, she ate less and less. By the end of her stay she was eating perhaps one meal's worth of food every two days. There was always food un-eaten on her plate. We felt it was worrisome, and spoke to the doctors about her lack of appetite. They didn't think it was a serious problem, or perhaps we just didn't explain it well enough.

Every time we described all of this, during the crisis and afterwards, to medical people or just to people-people, even to friends and family, nobody quite understood, so let's say it again:

Steph wasn't refusing to eat. She wasn't holding out for access to Twinkies. She wasn't eating because she wasn't able to eat. When she had no appetite, if she tried to eat something anyway, she'd barf it up. Many times, she looked at the food and asked me to take it away; the sight of it sickened her.

And yet, the ordinary schedule for post-amputation recovery rolled on. Her stump had healed enough that Steph was due to be transferred to a different hospital, one that specializes in physical therapy, where they were going to teach her how to get in and out of her wheelchair, among other things, and work on strengthening her remaining leg.

This next hospital was called UW Health at The American Center, named for the sprawling industrial park where it had been built, on Madison's far east side. Reading the admission brochure, Steph and I giggled at how often they used the word 'holistic', and she said, "I hope this is a real hospital." We thought that was funny, but in hindsight it wasn't.

I don't know the legal or linguistic definition of 'hospital', but you'll notice that this facility is called UW Health at The American Center — the word 'hospital' isn't part of the place's name. The American Center has doctors only during the day. With no MDs in the building overnight, it's not what I would think of as a hospital. It's more like a clinic, where doctors work 9-5 but patients spend the night.

We didn't know that, though, not yet, but man o man, we were about to find out.

Next: All hell breaks loose at the American Center.