When my liver became cirrhotic, after 43 years of infection with hepatitis C, it lost its capacity to handle fluid – a condition called ascites. Once ascites set in, pressure from the fluid began to press against my diaphragm, which pressed against my lungs, making it difficult to breathe. Oxygen levels dropped to the level of a 90 year-old man on top of Mt. Everest, leaving me begging for the oxygen mask. For most of my life, I’d been thin and muscular. I worked out, went for walks in the park, ate nutritious food, and smoked three or four cigarettes a day. Now, my abdomen had swollen to the point that I looked like a pencil with an olive attached to the middle. My feet were swollen from edema. I gave up on ever wearing shoes again, which was okay – for a month in the hospital, all I’d done was lie in the bed, trying to get comfortable.
For me, getting tapped was an anxiety-filled procedure. The doctors gave me nothing to calm me down, only what they called numbing medication. I had grown used to sticking my abdomen with a needle from using insulin, but this needle had a bore like a .22 rifle, and getting stuck felt like I’d been shot with one. The tap didn’t require a sterile environment, so they did the procedure right there in the bed. The doc stuck me, then inserted the needle deep into my abdomen and attached it to a 2-liter glass jar, which he set on the floor, letting gravity work as a siphon. I could see the jar filling up with what looked like beer. I wished I’d had one to drink during this thing. I lay there until three jars were filled – I had been carrying 6 liters of fluid around with me. Awful as it was, when it was over, I was no longer choking for air. The nurse came in and gave me a shot of Dilaudid. I went to sleep. Altogether, I must have had twenty taps. For awhile, I got the tap every two or three days. I never got used to them.
Wifey came to see me nearly every day. Even when ammonia toxicity made me mean and crazy, she kept coming. When she couldn’t come, one of my kids came to see me, but when they left, I wept from loneliness and lack of human touch, but before long, my room was filled with flowers and cards – my church. We’re members of a small Episcopal church right here in our tiny town. Although I was fearful of any of them seeing me in this kind of condition, I did ask for our priest. He was so good to me. He read scripture to me, prayed for me, and brought me the Eucharist. I began to get a sense of spiritual comfort – a Presence, palpable within me. These experiences washed over me with peace – even joy. Was it real, or was my brain preparing me for death? People can say what they like about this kind of thing, but for me, it was as real as real ever gets – like watching the sun go down behind Catalina, or looking into the Grand Canyon, or warming up in front of the fireplace. But then, the giant worm that had grown in my abdominal cavity was real, too.
It came at night – the worm. Three feet long, it seemed. I imagined it some unknown drab color. It snaked its way from my lower intestine to my neck. I’d push at the muscular thing, trying to keep it out of my brain, where it would have certainly killed me. All my days were like that, moving between deep spiritual comfort, and terror of the worm. Daily, I migrated between heaven and hell.