Tag Archives: recovering from painful surgery


“In by 7, Out by 11.” 

Some dry cleaners had that as their motto, often prominently displayed in the front window of the store.  As a kid, I never had to have any pants or shirts by 11, so I really did not care about the saying.  However, I am sure that for men who had to have dress pants ready for an afternoon meeting or an evening’s activities, this type of cleaners provided a necessary service, often “at a moment’s notice”: “Same Day Service.”

Neon Sign

I pictured girl friends or wives rushing to be there by seven in the morning, to be able to have shirts ready and pants laid out, with proper tie, for the dinner, opera, or theatre when the man of the house arrived home from work.  No doubt it was a rush job–and maybe poor planning on someone’s part.  Nevertheless, the cleaners did their job–and the man was dressed for success.     

Where I went to high school, I had to wear a suit coat and tie.  For four years, that was our daily dress.  My coats often came from my Uncle Bill, hand-me-downs that worked just fine.  The coat usually stayed in my school locker; shirt and tie were put on in the early morning at home.  My high school yearbook picture shows me so neat, with shirt and tie.

Jimmy yearbook picture 1960


(My dad did not wear a tie to work to drive a bakery truck, but he did for church–and dinners–and taught me well how to tie my ties.)

Teaching in high school in Chicago, I wore ties every day: with white (laundered and starched) shirts, for three years.  Later, in Florida, I continued to wear ties, and was comfortable, for the rest of my teaching career.  For the most part.  And that was all right, especially when I was teaching classes like Professional and Business Writing.  I felt that I was setting a kind of standard often mentioned in the textbook as good business dress–even having the tip of the tie “just below the bottom of the belt buckle.”  Dressed for Success…        

That is how I was dressed–wearing a striped Oxford button down, tie (100% silk), and dress trousers–on Gall Bladder Tuesday.  This was a class day like none other EVER in my whole life, with “one of those moments that changed your life forever.”         

I have had my share of illnesses and sickness and operations: tonsils, appendix, hernias, and the awful total knee-replacement surgery.  “On a scale of 1 to 10, what is your pain level?”  I was asked when I awoke in the recovery room after my knee surgery.  “ELEVEN!  ELEVEN!”  And that was no kidding around.          

That was the worst pain I had ever had in my life.  I thought.          

My Tuesday night class progressed as normal, having begun at 5 pm.  Most of the students were present for a professional business lecture.  My tie was perfect, one of my favorites, gold with miniature World War I biplanes in neat little rows, evenly spaced.  I tied it without a problem earlier in the afternoon, around three o’clock.  I planned to end the class at 6:30, with time for discussion and individual questions.  As usual, during the lecture, I was beginning to lose my voice, and was in need of a throat lozenge or cough drop.            

Something happened that Tuesday night after I took that cough drop.  I winced–and began to sweat.  Perspiration, like never before.  That was one powerful Hall’s cough drop!  I was then having a worse pain in the gut.  I did not recognize this pain, and was soon beginning to get very nervous: about me, about the class.  I hung on, of course.  I was the teacher.  By 6:30, they and I were ready.  Class was over.  Then I was alone with the pain.  I sat down and gulped the rest of my cherry Coke.  Then some water.           

I gathered leftover handouts, locked the door, and made my way to the faculty parking lot.  In the car, I sweat, turning the AC on me.  I nearly ripped off my silk airplane tie, and unbuttoned my shirt, down to my belt.  I sat back, trying to decide: a heart attack or a bad candy bar I ate earlier.  I weighed the decision to go to the hospital, to home, or to the nearest fire station.  I chose home.   

“No, can’t do it.”  I made my painful way to the hospital near my home, calling my wife to meet me.  By now I was practically holding my ankles near the gas pedal from pain.  I was in the hospital hallway by 7:00 pm.            

A paramedic walking in the hall helped me into a wheel chair.  I was rushed into an exam room, stripped of all but socks and my undies (“Make sure you always have on clean underwear in case something happens!”  I could hear Generations speaking), and then wired to every machine available.  High blood pressure, intense pain, but no heart attack.

“What is your pain level, Mr. O’Neil?” the ER nurse screamed at me.  “MR. O’NEIL!”  Oh, it was off the chart, as I squirmed on the gurney, on my back, of course, doubled-over with pain.

pain measurement scale


Dilaudid did it: “AAHHHHHHH….”

By 11 pm, after a CT scan, the ER doctor, having ruled out an aneurysm, decided to consult with the surgeon on call.  I was moved to a room at 2:15 am, where I was morphined.            

At 6 a.m., “Gall stones for sure,” assured the surgeon, drawing me a cartoonish explanation.  “Surgery at 9.”            

“Take a deep breath, Mr. O’Neil,” some masked person spoke, putting something over my nose.           

I was in by 7, out by 11, then back in the room, and was told all went well.  I would be able to leave after 5!

What dry-cleaner success!           

At 7:30 p.m. in the dark, I was home, weighing a bit less.  Twenty-four hours!  I had a reamed out belly button (bandaged, of course), and three neatly spaced slits for the instruments.  I did not have to endure a lengthy procedure of cutting and poking and stitching and tubing and pumping and being sick for five hospital days.  I was certainly lucky.           

Of course, in the ER, the paramedics had chided me.

“Call 9-1-1!”

“Yes, you’ll find me by the side of the road, by my car.”  I thought of that, but then thought, What would happen to my car?  So I tried for the hospital.           

Besides, I had advanced degrees.  I knew what to do….  Dumb…

©  James F. O’Neil  2014







By: James F. O’Neil

“Find a place inside where there’s joy, and the joy will burn out the pain.”  –Joseph Campbell


Hospital bed

Photo: Hill-Rom

Recovering from knee surgery was an ordeal that included many nights of restlessness and pain.  During those times, often under the influence of medication, I would lie in my hospital bed, trying to ease the distress by visualizing my home, mentally walking through each room, recollecting objects, colors, and decor.  Soon I was focusing more specifically, trying to picture book titles, CD labels, and the covers of my DVD collection.  I was trying to remember, to ease the pain.

After the allowed hospital stay post-surgery, I had to spend a week in a private room in a rehab center.  There I was welcomed, my aides eager to heal me, though determined to spoil me in the process.  Constant attention was paid to the person in the private room, who just wanted to moan and get some rest.  For unknown reasons, again, my mind would drift, and my memory would work to make mental lists. 

In the evening, I would fall into a light sleep.  I would dream lightly, and then awaken after an hour or so, in my darkened room.  Forced to lie on my back because of the surgical staples, I could turn a bit on my side, enough to reach the bedside stand and the light–but also my gel pen.

On the back of the small slip of paper (my evening meal menu), I added item after item from my mental lists–items that I deemed important.  

During the day, I would study my list.  Between sessions of the staff trying to help me move, to do some exercises, and my pleasant occupation of trying to regain my strength by eating, I would edit and refine my lists. 

At home, after my release from my sick bed, I found some time to copy out those remembered “favorites”–those, “What-if-you-were-stranded-on-a-desert-island-with-only-one…?” whatever-item.

By many standards, my hospital list might seem amateurish.  Nevertheless, as I later began to study the items, I was surprised that such awareness and detail could come during periods of intense pain.  Even though I felt at times as though I were dying, I knew I was not.

I just wanted out of that hospital bed, out of that place–and wanted a Jack and Coke….

 * * *

Here is some of what I scribbled:

The Written Word:  Othello; A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; The Guns of August; The Power and the Glory; Childhood’s End; The Handmaid’s Tale.

My Visuals:  Vermeer; Tiffany; Bernini; Crayolas; Chicago Architecture.

Music:  Vivaldi; La Boheme; Gregorian Chant; Streisand Duets; Fleetwood Mac.

Movies:  English Patient; Casablanca; Jerry McGuire; Shakespeare in Love; Carousel; What Dreams May Come; Moonstruck.

My Beverages (Yes, I even thirsted after other types of pleasures):  Jack Daniel’s; Scotch whisky; Gewürztraminer; Diet Vanilla Coke; Arizona Sweet Tea; Cherry Dr. Pepper. 

What Dreams May Come

Photo Credit:

 ©  James F. O’Neil  2013                                       

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