A catheter is a wonderful thing. It quietly takes care of business while you are working on other stuff in the ICU like breathing on your own and bending your fingers. This goes on for six weeks. You can now squeeze a hand.
You don’t even know the catheter is there as you gain strength and graduate to another unit in the hospital. The days are long and the nights are longer. Your one source of entertainment is drinking iced water. You drink a lot. The nurses think you pee a lot. One nurse in particular — the one with the short, dark hair and glasses who scared you at first with her stern admonitions that you learn to speak Dutch, a language that eludes easy mimicry — is even a little worried about how much you pee. You cannot remember how often you went to the bathroom in the long-ago before all this.
The nurse that used to scare you lifts you out of bed one day and hands you the bag of your urine, but she calls it your Pee Purse. You laugh, say dank u wel, and tell her about the Amsterdam Purse Museum. You both agree that the museum needs to add a Pee Purse display.
Although you have now been helped by thirty nurses or more, it is Joke, pronounced Yúh-kah, the nurse who used to scare you, who says it is time to remove the catheter. This sounds like a terrible idea. You have managed to regain some control of your bowel, but the bladder is a whole other animal. You are afraid.
Joke tells you that you can do this. Anne tells you that you can do this. Tess, too, and Fleur and all the rest. Joke removes the catheter just like that. It is nothing.
The nurses — Joke and Anne and Tess and Fleur and all the rest — outfit you with extra layers of diapers. Slowly, you tune in to your inner body. The idea is, apparently, that you will now pee in a bedpan.
There are some problems with this plan.
Number One: Metal bedpans must have been fashioned in the Victorian era when whatever happened “down there” something to be punished. They are cold. They are hard. They are not shaped to fit.
Number Two: When you think pee might be coming and when it actually does are two completely different things. Sometimes, it happens before a nurse can haul your butt onto a bedpan. Sometimes, it happens as the hauling is underway. And, occasionally, it happens when you and the cold, hard bedpan are one.
Joke is right: You can do this. You make progress. Something called a Pee Chair is produced. If you time it right, which doesn’t happen very often, the staff can get you out of bed and on the chair where your bladder and your bowels take charge.
More progress. You achieve your physiotherapy goal — lifting your hips off the bed — and are promoted to pull-up diapers. You are thrilled. Your physiotherapist, Gemma, has another goal — walking. That happens, too. You and your snazzy blue Rollator wheels travel all the way to the bathroom outside the door to your room. There’s an actual toilet there. Another thrill.
And somehow, everything comes together and you are ready to fly home. Joke gives you a photograph of sweet peas from her garden. You and your husband and your Depends fly to Shands Hospital at the University of Florida, where the physical therapist recommends looking into Pelvic Floor Therapy, eventually. For now, she gives you a cane. You begin with laps around the floor.
The laps get longer when you get home. You rent a red Rollator so you can sit down when you get tired. You sit less and less and walk more and more. You turn in the Rollator.
You begin outpatient Physical Therapy. You walk on the treadmill and do a zillion squats. You put aside the cane. You graduate from Physical Therapy on Halloween, wearing your daughter’s cap and gown.
You’re still wearing Depends, the ones they advertise on Wheel of Fortune. You think you can do better. You remember Joke and Anne and Tess and Jamie. You buy super enormous pads but pads nonetheless — Poise, they are called — and inquire about Pelvic Floor Therapy. Your hairdresser — Nikki, a few years younger than you — wants to know all about it because her doctor suggested it. You are both curious about electronics up in there. Hmmm.
The nurse practitioner, Karen, is warm and engaging. The electronics turn out to be less fun than they sound and very useful. You learn that a kegel is best done while imagining holding in gas. We’ve all done that. You can do this. You begin.
The app reminds you to do your exercises four times a day. You comply. You have discovered that not everyone is compliant. But not everyone is working on a pad-free life. Your daughter catches you practicing while you’re having an informal conversation and watching TV. Learn, I tell her.
Eight weeks later, the strength of your pelvic floor has almost doubled. Your uterus and bladder and colon are well-supported and will not give in to gravity. The nurse practitioner, Karen, says that you only have to continue doing kegels “if you want not to leak.” You want not to do that.
So, you graduate from Pelvic Floor Therapy …
… throw out the empty bag of Poise …
… and face forward.