My nurse du jour was wearing a T-shirt with a cute little pumpkin on it.

It was a cheery note on an otherwise dismal day. This was Halloween 2021, but there would be no candy for me.

In fact, there would be no food or drink whatsoever. I was in the critical care unit, on day two of a weeklong fast. If I was lucky.

I’d undergone a hiatal hernia repair, which had gone well. However, when the assisting surgeon put a scope down my esophagus for a final check, she nicked it.

The lead surgeon repaired the cut, but I’d have to be watched for a week. I couldn’t swallow anything, as that could impair the healing process. If I passed a diagnostic test at the end of the week, I could eat again. Gruel, maybe?

I was a very unhappy patient, but I kept it to myself. It was true that I didn’t really have the energy to be snarky.


But it was also true that I was afraid. I’d never been in the hospital overnight before. I’d never felt so close to death. I have always feared being confined.

Growing up in the 1960s, when polio was still a threat, I had nightmares about iron lungs. Now here I was with a tube in my nose, hooked up to a multitude of monitors and IVs. Stuck with my thoughts and worst imaginings.

With no chocolate or sweet coffee drinks to distract me.

Two years later, Halloween week brings back all of these memories. I suspect it will for many years to come.

I can be grateful that I survived the surgical misstep. The outcome could have been tragic. I will admit that it took me awhile to reach that understanding. For quite awhile, I was just angry about the whole thing.

I also have come to realize that I could endure a significant ordeal and not break. Well, I did have a few very low moments that week, as my husband, Paul, can attest. But I made it through.


I even managed to ask Paul each day what he was eating.

Meanwhile, I dreamed I was drinking a large iced green tea from Panera and munching down popcorn shrimp.

I discovered that food defined my day. What was I doing instead of eating breakfast? I felt lucky to be distracted by the nursing shift change, the arrival of the doctors on rounds and a CNA wielding a thermometer.

To give my day structure, I read nonfiction in the morning and fiction later in the day. Paul would visit in the early afternoon and then around supper time. I streamed “Vera” episodes on my iPad, but I didn’t otherwise watch TV.

We were still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, so I made sure I didn’t miss Dr. Nirav Shah’s weekly briefing.

There was bath time and, eventually, physical therapy (walking up and down the hall with my IV tower). There was a constant stream of staff members coming through to check my vitals or refill whatever was going into me. I found that I didn’t have to worry about intrusive thoughts because I was busy, and when I wasn’t, I was dozing off until someone else came into the room.


I couldn’t get any decent rest, which surprised me. But as one of my nurses said, “Don’t expect to get any sleep in a hospital.”

As the week wore on, I was able to be thankful. For Paul, standing by me and holding down the fort at home. For the friends and relatives who reached out with cards and messages of support. For the nursing staff, of course. When a sweet and gentle CNA offered to wash my feet, I nearly cried.

Initially, had expected to stay at the hospital only one night after the hernia repair. So I had brought a little notebook to jot down my thoughts. Here’s one: “I just upped my pain meds.” I rather enjoyed jabbing that little pain-relief button. But after the first couple of days I didn’t need the meds and the nurses took them away.

I noted on day three that I’d had a better night because I had Tylenol and Ativan in my drip. Having a tube in my nose really dulled my appetite, I wrote, although thirst continued to be a problem.

Finally it was Thursday, day six. I wrote: “Big day tomorrow. Please, lord, let it go well. Thank you.”

I did pass my test, but it was a long Saturday morning waiting to hear if I’d be going home. I’d been moved to a regular unit in the middle of the night. The nurses there were sure I couldn’t go home because how would I eat? At that point, I was receiving nourishment through a PICC line threaded through my upper torso.


But the word finally came through. I could go home and eat an extremely soft diet.

Strained soup and Cream of Wheat — and glasses of lovely water. Hallelujah.

Though my experience still haunts me, I know I’m a better person because of it. All of us, I believe, have a core of strength within us that we might not realize until we’re put to the test.

That’s not such a bad thought for me to reflect upon each time November rolls around.

Liz Soares welcomes email at

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