A place for everything; everything in its place—that’s what crossed my mind as I listened to the surgeon talk. He was explaining the medical mystery of the appendix vermiformis, the worm-shaped troublemaker he’d removed from my abdomen the previous Saturday.
The appendix has no use that is understood by humans. It could be a vestigial organ that has outwitted evolution. It could play a mystery role in regulating gut flora. Or it could just be one of God’s little guessing games to keep us all amused.
The only thing amusing about my acute appendicitis was the “Gross Description” of the surgical pathology report it produced. “The serosa is shaggy,” it stated. “No fecaliths or grossly distinct perforations are identified.” Evidently my weekend could have been worse.
The examination room was as a surgeon’s workspace should be—spotless, uncluttered, well organized. He was well organized, too. Every strand of his silver hair followed doctor’s orders. Some guys just have it together, and not by accident. You don’t get to be a surgeon by taking the easy road.
A place for everything; everything in its place—my mother used to say that when she’d find my baseball socks in the living room or a copy of Newsweek under a sofa cushion. The adage managed to stick, though her pleadings were mostly in vain. I’ve always been a slob. My hair never obeys. Something’s always a little off.
Something was really off the morning of the day fate had selected for my appendectomy. I’d awoken early with a powerful stitch on my left side. A year earlier almost to the day, my reliable friend Ed had bid farewell to his appendix. The approaching anniversary of his surgery had recently been the subject of discussion, so I was more attuned than I might have been to the possibility that a tummy ache isn’t always just a tummy ache.
But appendixes, according to Google, are on the right side, so clearly this whole business would pass as quickly as it had arrived. Misinformed, I went about my Saturday morning business thinking—hoping—it might get better. It didn’t.
“I’m really hurting,” I told my wife around eleven a.m. She dropped me off at the walk-in clinic (which, being at the top of a short flight of stairs, should really be called the walk-up clinic). The doctor there sent me directly to Norwalk Hospital, where a CT scan revealed the source of my indigestion—gangrenous appendicitis. I copped to pain numbering seven on a scale of ten.
A nurse with a rolling computer asked my religion. I professed faith in the Church of Rome. “If there are any priests or deacons hanging around looking for a chat, you can send them to me,” I said. I don’t think she took me seriously.
“Do you want some morphine?” the emergency room physician asked sweetly, as if offering tea and cakes. I declined, imagining myself a future casualty of the opioid epidemic, and asked for Tylenol instead. “I don’t want to give you anything that’s going to make you bleed,” she said. Okay, then, we’ll try the morphine.
It may have helped. It didn’t hurt. My wife and I watched The Great British Baking Show while I waited my turn in the operating room. I hadn’t eaten in twenty hours. Appendicitis aside, all those trays of iced sugar cookies on the TV screen looked like heaven to me.
They wheeled me through empty, ill-lit hallways. If you need surgery on Independence Day weekend, you will have the place almost to yourself. It will just be you and a handful of strangers. You won’t see their faces, because they will wear masks. They will drug you, poke holes in your stomach, and staple you shut. First, a little small talk; then … lights out.
I’ve had better Saturday nights, but I’ve rarely had worse Sunday mornings.
They gave me a room with a nicely framed southeasterly view of the low-rise city of Norwalk. From my adjustable bed, I could just spy the steeple of St. Mary’s, the “mother church of Norwalk.” I-95 and the Metro-North Railroad spanned the frame, with the Long Island Sound glistening in the distance.
My reliable friend Ed, veteran of the procedure, came to visit. He pointed out Stony Brook University Hospital’s hulking frame on the other side of the water. “Be glad you’re here,” he muttered, as if he knew something. He’d brought the iPad, thinking we might watch some Bishop Robert Barron videos together. I told him I’d been hoping he’d smuggled in a six-pack. I thought for a moment that he might actually go get one.
“No athletic activities,” the surgeon admonished during follow-up. He needn’t have. Even at full strength I’m lazier than the day is long. “Any questions for me?”
“Yes,” I replied. “I’d like to know what causes this.”
“Not going to church enough,” he deadpanned—not even the hint of a twinkle. To laugh the way I wanted might have popped my staples. The surgeon’s father was a minister, he explained. Whenever, as children do, he’d ask the unanswerable—“Why do bad things happen to good people?” or “Why do good things happen to bad people?”—the reverend’s reply was the same: Because they didn’t go to church enough.
“But my appendix went to church every Sunday,” I said. “I can vouch.”
“I told my dad the same,” said the surgeon. “We never missed a service. You know what he’d say? ‘The church is open all week.’”
The appendectomy he’d performed, in fact, was the only thing that had kept me out of church that Sunday. Still, there’s no doubt I was where I needed to be. A place for everything; everything in its place.
Matthew Hennessey writes from Connecticut.