Saturday, June 22, 2013

Dublin Highlights

Despite the rough beginning to the trip, my three days in Dublin were pure delight.  The weather was pleasantly cool and mostly blue-skied sunniness, aside from the occasional five-minute bursts of rain (I was glad I kept my umbrella in my purse!).  Here are just a few of my favorite things from Dublin:

  • Christ Church Cathedral -- Beyond a doubt, it's my favorite cathedral I've ever been inside.  I visited in the evening, while their choir rehearsed, lending the most lovely and perfect ambiance to the experience.  I gazed up at the stunning, larger-than-life architecture, marveled at the beautiful stained glass windows, read the inscriptions on all the tombs, and was quite fascinated by the crypts underneath.  When I had explored to my heart's content, I sat down and let the choir move me to tears with their singing.  I had actually been a bit emotional that entire day -- being in the midst of so much beauty and so many interesting things made me even more grateful for the success of my eye surgery.
  • The Book of Kells at Trinity College -- I have long been enchanted by illuminated manuscripts, so for years now it has been a dream of mine to see the real Book of Kells in person.  It did not disappoint.  Even though you only get to glimpse just a few pages of this priceless masterpiece, the entire exhibit on rare manuscripts was riveting.  I also really enjoyed getting to see the exhibit on the preservation of rare books at the Old Library, which, I have now decided, is absolutely my dream library.
  • St. Patrick's Cathedral -- It has long been a desire of mine to attend a choral Eucharist at Christ Church Cathedral.  In fact, that was one of three reasons that I settled on Ireland for my summer vacation.  Unfortunately, jet lag chose to strike on Sunday morning.  The service at Christ Church starts promptly at 11:00 . . . and by that time, I had taken a wrong turn and wound up at St. Patrick's.  Sadly, I had to give up on my dream.  But, then I noticed that St. Patrick's does a choral Eucharist, featuring their excellent Men and Boy's Choir, at 11:15!  I hurried in, found a good seat, and tried not to feel too disappointed at not getting my first choice.  When the service began, I was shocked to learn that I had accidentally stumbled in on the perfect Sunday - it was the 300th anniversary of the first Sunday that Jonathan Swift preached there!  In the end, I was very happy with my "second choice".
  • Street performers in Temple Bar -- The Temple Bar area encompasses loads of restaurants, shops, bars, and markets.  It's a busy, bustling, excited, energetic place to walk.  Although I enjoyed browsing through shops and markets and feasting on some very nice gelato, the real highlight for me was all of the street performers.  I saw folk dancers, acrobats, and various musicians.  My favorite was a group who played traditional Irish folk music.
  • The fantastic bakery in Rathgar -- In the interest of saving money, I stayed in a B&B (Abrae Court Guesthouse, heartily recommended) in the charming little village of Rathgar, about 15 minutes from Dublin's city center.  There was a little bakery in the village that had really friendly employees and the most delicious veggie paninis I have ever tasted.  For two nights in a row, that was dinner!
All in all, I was a little sorry to leave Dublin, as I had quite a wonderful time there.  But, I couldn't be too solemn about leaving - I was on my way to see neolithic passage tombs!

Ireland: Getting There Is Half the Fun?

Three weeks before leaving for Ireland, I had eye surgery on both eyes.  In the following weeks, I slowly recovered, finished the school year (mostly by having to depend on other people), packed up all my worldly possessions, and, on the same day that I left for 23 days of Ireland, I MOVED!!  In hindsight, it is really not surprising that the trip did not have the most auspicious of beginnings . . .

My friend Linda (who's also the cousin of my Chinese teacher) wanted to take me out for dinner that last day and also wanted to drive me to the airport.  Since that solved two potential stressors for me, I was overjoyed to accept.  We had a wonderful meal during which I was privileged to eat beef tail soup for the first time (and in China, phrases like "beef tail" are always brutally honest translations).  I actually really liked that soup!  We got to the airport in plenty of time, and the flight from Qingdao to Beijing was smooth sailing.  No problems at all.  But, there was a very wise nagging sense of impending doom in the back of my mind. . . .

The troubles started in Beijing.  The line for Etihad Airlines was the longest I have ever seen in a Chinese airport (to be fair, I have seen longer lines a few times in other countries).  Apparently, half of Beijing was bound for Abu Dhabi -- or at least that's how it felt.  I started to get a headache and a neck-ache while in line, but didn't think too much about it.  I was more interested in whether or not customs would confiscate the bag of shrimp in my backpack (Linda had thought I might want a snack on the plane).  Regrettably, as I would later learn, I had very foolishly packed all of the emergency medication in my suitcase, not my carryon.  Oh stupid, stupid Stephanie!

As the plane from Beijing to Abu Dhabi took off, all you-know-what broke loose from my neck up.  The headache accelerated into a massive migraine.  My eyes, probably overstrained (I had only slept for about three hours in the past three days), started to feel tremendous pressure and excruciating pain.  Cold-like symptoms kicked in about half an hour later, with a sore throat, runny nose, and rapidly stuffed sinuses that made my whole face hurt like a second migraine.  And then my neck, not to be left out, started having spasms of pain that were almost beyond my already-strained tolerance level.  Tears were streaming down my face for hours as I alternated between desperate prayers for relief and failed attempts to sleep.  No doubt, it was the worst pain I have felt at one time since my stomach burn years ago.  Even breathing hurt.

Although Etihad has fantastic in-flight meals, I could only force a few bites down.  I did manage to drink some soda, hoping it would help.  I even kept biting my finger, hard, hoping to divert some of the pain to another region (that does actually work for me sometimes).  For six hours, then seven hours, I continued in this pitiful condition.  I started to feel nauseated, so I got up for the bathroom, but someone else had apparently taken up semi-permanent residence inside.  As the minutes ticked by on my watch, the nausea grew from just a hint to something serious.  Desperate, I darted back to my seat to grab the barf-bag, then went back to desperately wait for the bathroom . . . And then started projectile vomiting, quite spectacularly, into the bag, IN FRONT OF THE ENTIRE PLANE.  Humiliation now added to my list of woes.

When we finally landed in Abu Dhabi, after arguably the worst flight of my life, I did a frenzied search of the airport shops  and managed to locate a pharmacy.  I bought some pain pills that claimed to be both maximum strength and fast-acting, then had a quick thought and snatched up some eye drops, too (I had my antibiotic drops, but I thought maybe some soothing moisture might comfort my eyes more).  I bought a bottled water for an ungodly price and then found my gate, breathing thanks when I saw that it had reclining chairs.  I dosed myself up and then curled into a limp fetal position on the nearest of these inviting chairs.  The drugs started noticeably working their magic within about fifteen minutes, and soon I had fallen asleep.

A two-hour nap, followed by a meal of yogurt, mango, and coffee soon set me to rights.  I took some more medicine to finish the job, and by the time I boarded my plane to Dublin, I was weak and a little shaky, but no longer in agonizing pain.  I was able to both eat and sleep on that flight, and felt just fine when we reached Dublin.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


For about six days after my eye surgery, my stomach did its best to steal some of the attention back from my eyes.  Oh yes, power nausea . . . and projectile vomiting.  For six days, I was one fun lady (please be sure to admire the stellar sarcasm).  And my roommate Debra, bless her heart, willingly held my hair out of my trajectory and emptied/cleaned my basins (I had a two-basin rotation going during the worst part of it).

On the second day after surgery, the vomiting was particularly powerful — so powerful, in fact, that one rather awful heave actually popped a stitch in my right eye.  I will pause my narrative politely so that you may gag as needed.  Yes, that eye was very picturesque after that, as Debra shudderingly informed me.

And that is how Brutus came into my life.

The popped stitch resulted in a long (about 1 cm) strand of suture coming free on one side but remaining anchored on the other.  I know it's well anchored because twice now, at approximately 4 am,  when all forms of behavior seem quite logical, I have grasped it with tweezers and attempted to gently yank it out of my eye.  Fear not, I stopped when I felt resistance (I'm just as grossed out by eye stuff as the majority of you).  And so, for three weeks now, this loose suture has taken up residence in my right eye.  Since he has no immediate intention of leaving, I felt that naming him was appropriate.  And no name was more imminently suited to him or our relationship than that of Brutus.

Imagine, if you will, the feeling of an eyelash stuck in your eye.  Now imagine that the eyelash is made of steel wool and is bound to you with greater dedication than most Hollywood marriages.  Yes, that is precisely my relationship with Brutus.  He likes to do aerobics and yoga, being a rather spry fellow, so there is never a chance to get used to him in any position.  Thus, my eye constantly itches, aches, and waters.  Many nights, I am unable to sleep because there is nothing capable of distracting me from Brutus's late-night calisthenics.  I get by with naps, but I really miss sleeping an entire night.  Some nights, I don't fall asleep until 7:00 or 8:00 am.  I methodically scan the eye in the mirror multiple times per day, assessing whether or not Brutus has loosened himself enough on the anchored end to get out the tweezers again.  So far, he is remaining stubbornly fixated.

Et tu Brute?

Communist Infiltration of Our Precious Bodily Fluids

I think the general anesthetic had an odd reaction when it reached my brain during my operation, because for some reason it made me think about Dr. Strangelove.  I don't know whether I dreamed about that film or whether the anesthetic coupled with the pain meds (no idea what they gave me, but it was goooood) awakened the part of my brain that obsessively remembers movie lines and plots.  Either way, when I awakened with my leaky eyes, I kept giggling thinking of the poor general's obsessive fear of Communists gaining control of our precious bodily fluids . . . because here I was, in Communist China, rapidly losing my own precious bodily fluids!

I know, it was the meds talking.  Not nearly as humorous now that they've long worn off.

So, how did the surgery go?  Well, let me illustrate for you:

I arrived at the hospital to learn that I needed to retake the urine test because, and I quote, "something was wrong."  (That something later proved to be nothing.)  I was then told that my chest x-ray (in China you need a chest x-ray before eye surgery because . . . because . . . yep, I'm stumped, too) showed a serious problem.  "You have a mass," the doctor informed me.  "You will need to get a CT scan right after surgery."

Cancer.  That's immediately where my brain leapt.  I pondered whether or not to call off the surgery — after all, why operate on my eyes unnecessarily if I only had months to live?  A mass, in my chest . . . lung cancer, I decided.  From all that second-hand smoke in elevators and restaurants . . . curse you, smokers!  It's not fair!  I've never even so much as sampled a single cigarette and now here I am approaching my deathbed . . . common sense came back after a short jog around my brain.  Best to hold off panicking until after the CT scan, I reasoned.  And you might as well get those eyes fixed so that at least you can read in your remaining months, if you do happen to be dying.  It was reasonable, so I took a deep breath and went in the room to be prepped for surgery.

Dr. Ai (her name, most appropriately, is pronounced "Dr. Eye") wanted my eyes thoroughly flushed.  The method for accomplishing this was not, as I had expected, one of those sinks with the emergency eye flushing faucet like factories and laboratories have.  Instead, the friendly, smiling nurse asked me to lay on my back, relax, and remain perfectly still while she stuck that needle in my tear duct?!?!  I really wanted to be a good patient, the sort that nurses beam approvingly at, but in all honesty, who exactly in this world can actually relax while a needle goes into their tear duct?  Any takers?  I didn't think so.  My tear ducts, apparently, bear much in common with Goldilocks:  one needle was too big, another too small, and, in the end, no needle could be located that was just right.  Maybe I have oddly shaped tear ducts, or perhaps the hospital just forgot to order my size.  Regardless, I was relieved beyond belief when Dr. Ai showed up and said, "Let's just pour water into her eyes with this tube."  Ah, yes, that I could stay calm and cool for.  No problem (or mei wenti as we say in Chinese).

After the eye flushing, they sent me upstairs to my private room (my surgery was inpatient) to wait.  "Think of some stories to tell me while we're doing the surgery," Dr. Ai told me as we parted ways temporarily.  In a little less than an hour, the nurses and stretcher arrived for me and I was carted off downstairs to my fate.  Personally, I would have preferred to walk, but I guess the nurses wanted some exercise.  They wheeled me into the operating room, which was decidedly cold and reminded me, unpleasantly, of Dr. Mallard's morgue in NCIS.  Since I knew I had lung cancer and was likely morgue-bound in the next few months anyways, I tried not to ponder that idea too much.

On the bright side, he shares all sorts of fascinating trivia with his patients . . . 

Now, I should pause here to explain why I was still awake and alert at this point.  The reasoning behind this was that, in order for the best possible chance of success in an operation that I only had about a 75% chance of success in, the doctor wanted me awake and alert enough to be able to tell her what I was seeing.  This was to help her get the adjustments more accurate.  Unfortunately for me, this also meant that I would have to be awake while both eyes were being cut . . . and I would need to be able to feel much of the pain.  It was no easy choice, but I did opt to try for local anesthetic just to give my eyes a better chance at being fixed.  I was more terrified of a future of only being able to use one eye than I was the pain of the operation . . . or so I thought, pre-surgery.

As I lay on the VERY narrow table, reflecting on the fact that it clearly was not built with a western body in mind, the nurses and Dr. Ai bustled about preparing for the Big Event.  They set up instruments, sterilized my entire face, gently scolded me for touching my newly-sterilized face, and draped several coverings over my head so that eventually only the left eye was exposed.  They offered to tie down my arms and legs, but I felt that I would be more comfortable untied.  I tried not to think about my lungs, pitifully heaving against that encroaching tumor.  I focused on the surgery instead . . . and that decided that it might be better to think about butterflies and mint milkshakes.

As I tried to think happy thoughts, I felt my arms begin to shake.  Clearly, they were not listening to my brain telling them, in soothing terms, to relax and ponder Irish sunsets.  My lungs felt heavy in my chest . . . probably that tumor weighing them down.  I decided to think about how selfish and evil smokers are for polluting the air of innocent bystanders . . . and that's when that needle came into view.  Yes, the one aimed DIRECTLY FOR MY EYEBALL!!  "Don't look," Dr. Ai commanded.  A reasonable request, which my eye had no intention whatsoever of following.  An enemy is approaching! my dutiful left eye informed me loudly.  Captain, enemy vessel in sight.  Initiating closing procedure . . . Dr. Ai put the needle aside momentarily and captured my wayward eyelids in a most uncomfortable clamp that clearly was designed during the Spanish Inquisition.  Captain, Captain, enemy vessel in sight again!  Approaching rapidly — abort, abort!  Closing procedure denied — Captain, whatever are we to do?  My poor left eye screamed in terror as the needle plunged into the eyeball.  My brain winced in sympathy, but then reminded me that chemo would definitely hurt a lot worse.  With that comforting thought, I forced my forsaken left eye to abandon its post and focus on the wall rather than that other rapidly approaching sharp object . . . 

Dr. Ai paused and asked if I felt that we should give up on local and switch to general anesthetic.  She reminded me that there was an anesthesiologist standing by for that very purpose, if I should feel that the pain/fear/outright trauma was too much for me.  "No, I want to try for local," I resolved.  I could tell from her voice that my doctor was pleased.  I tried to feel happy about that, but there just wasn't room in my brain for another emotion.  Dr. Ai made pleasant small talk as the sharp object approached again . . . she reminded me not to look . . . my left eye feebly tried to warn us all about the encroaching danger before submitting to being redirected towards the wall again . . . and then the excruciating pain and pressure started and I knew quite certainly that my eyeball was being forcibly ejected from my scull.  Traitor! my left eye whimpered as the pain overpowered it.  I involuntarily cried out and shuddered.

"I don't think you can do this, Stephanie.  I think we need to switch to general."  Dr. Ai told me.

"Yes," came my strangled response as I fought the wave of nausea that accompanied the pain.

I drifted in and out of awareness as they prepped me for general; perhaps it was a result of pain coupled with far too much fear.  I apologized over and over again for not being strong enough to handle the pain.  Dr. Ai kept patiently reassuring me that it was fine, most people can't stay awake.  I drifted in and out again.  At one point, I thought that maybe I was awakening and the surgery was over. But then I heard the anesthesiologist informing me that he was about to give me the good stuff, and I knew that we had scarcely begun.  Another flight of panic welled up within me as they inserted the oxygen tubes in my nose.  I'm going to die on this operating table . . . right now . . . oh, Lord Jesus, into your hands I commit my spirit . . . I don't recall anything further after that frenzied prayer.  

The next thing I knew, I was awakening, blind, in what I decided was probably the recovery room.  The sound of a man somewhere within the room shrieking in agony confirmed my hypothesis.  I was in quite a bit of pain, too, but I decided to just whimper quietly until the nurses gave him his morphine first.  After all, even on my deathbed I'm polite.  In a short while, the screaming man's voice petered off into something dazed and rather loopy, and I knew that he was well-dosed.  A nurse came to me then and asked how I was feeling.  "Hurts," I gasped out.  And then, moments later, I felt the very nice sensation of whatever she put in my arm, and the pain was just a memory.  I thought about asking to go home now that I was all better, but then I remembered that I was inpatient.  After an hour or so, they finally carted me back to my private room.

And that's where I started thinking about Dr. Strangelove, as my eyes dripped something that I instinctively knew was bloody, and as I drooled slightly on the pillow.  Hee hee, the Communists are getting my precious bodily fluids! my brain gleefully chortled.  My eyes, having lost their sense of humor, ignored my brain, but the rest of my body enjoyed the joke.  I continued to privately ponder my macabre little jests as I was slowly weaned off the heavy pain drugs and onto the lighter sort.  The next day, they carted me down and performed the CT scan.  I tried to think positive thoughts.  At least I've done a few good things with my time here on earth, I reassured myself.  No matter what happens, I know that I tried in good conscience to do the right thing, to brighten my corner, and to serve God and others.  I guess that's a pretty good legacy, even if I didn't get as much time as I had hoped.

In the early evening of the day after surgery, Dr. Ai uncovered my eyes and did an adjustment to the suture in the right one (because I had to be put to sleep, she had opted to put in an adjustable suture so that she could try to be more exact in getting the angle of my eye right).  The time came to test my eyes:

"Stephanie, how is this Q-tip?"  Dr. Ai asked me.  "Can you see it clearly?  Only one?"

My heart sunk deep into bleak despair.  For, after all that suffering and all that fear and those three months of nearly constant migraines and worsening vision . . . the surgery had failed.  My eyes were still seeing two Q-tips.

"Oh no," I told her.  "I see TWO of them, STILL!!"

Dr. Ai cast a startled glance at her hand.  

"Oh no," she laughed, "There are two!"

And then she shared the CT results with me:  No mass at all, just swelling because I apparently had pneumonia a few times in the past year or so without knowing it.  No cancer.  But I probably should do better about going to the doctor the next time that I'm sick.

My eyes, about two weeks after surgery.  Red, sore, and itchy, but only seeing ONE of everything!  (Unless there are supposed to be two.)  Surgery was a success!

"Passage—immediate passage! the blood burns in my veins! Away, O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!
Cut the hawsers—haul out—shake out every sail!
Have we not stood here like trees in the ground long enough?
Have we not grovell’d here long enough, eating and drinking like mere brutes?
Have we not darken’d and dazed ourselves with books long enough?

Sail forth! steer for the deep waters only!
Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me;
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go, And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

O my brave soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! Are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!"

~Walt Whitman, "Passage to India"