Today is Friday the 13th, a day that can cause worry among superstitious people. I’m kind of superstitious, and plenty of things cause me anxiety, but not this. My birthday is on April 13th, and I turned 13 on Friday the 13th, so I’ve always liked the number. Friday the 13ths have always felt special to me. Lucky.
Except for that one time, seventeen years ago.
March 13, 1998 was also a Friday. I know this because I looked it up recently while doing research for my memoir, GUTS. In March of 1998 I was 26 years old and 5 months into treatment for Crohn’s Disease. I’d had a flare-up, a common complication of Crohn’s. On Friday the 13th I had a CT scan and went home to await the results. My 3rd bite of dinner, my first food all day, was on its way to my mouth when the phone rang.
“You have an abscess,” my doctor said, breathless, like she’d read the radiology report and run up a flight of stairs to call me. I thought I detected a note of excitement in her voice: Finally my mild, hard-to-treat Crohn’s Disease was asserting itself in some identifiable way.
“You need to go to the hospital. Immediately.”
So Wiley and I went to the Emergency Room. They brought me to a curtained-off area and told me to put on a hospital gown. After 3 failed attempts to find a good vein in my arm, the nurse inserted a port into the back of my hand where an IV would be placed when I went upstairs for surgery. If I went upstairs. We waited and waited. In order to stay warm, I’d put my jeans back on underneath my hospital gown like a three-year-old who wanted to wear pants and a twirly dress to school.
Two hours after we arrived, the surgical resident stood in the curtained-off area, peering at my CT scan on the film reader.
“I guess that’s an abscess,” he said. He was handsome: short, early thirties, with a shaved head and frameless glasses. He turned to me, taking in my gown-and-jeans ensemble, my arms crossed for warmth.
“You look too good to be here.” It sounded like a pick-up line, and I blushed. But it wasn’t flattery, it was doctor-speak. He meant: I’m not much older than you, but I’ve been through 4 years of medical school, and 6 years of residency, and now I’m the Chief Surgical Resident of a busy urban hospital and in my experience when someone needs surgery they look like they need it, if you know what I mean. You are too far from death’s door. You don’t even have a fever, for Pete’s sake.
It turned out that he was right to be skeptical. The Crohn’s was a misdiagnosis. The abscess wasn’t an abscess. It was a rare, benign tumor called a teratoma. It would take a new set of doctors to figure this out. A year and half after that ER visit, I’d have surgery to remove the teratoma, then another when it came back 5 years later. Now I’m one of over a million Americans with an ostomy (a gut-related and GUTS-related fact I also recently looked up).
This Friday the 13th of March, I have different plans for the evening. Wiley and I are hosting a table at “People Eating and Giving,” the annual fundraiser for the Bureau of Fearless Ideas, a writing center for kids. I recently joined the BFI board, and I am excited to be at the event in that role for the first time. The evening will mark another first: I’ll be wearing a dress for the first time since my colostomy surgery. As you can imagine, clothes shopping with a colostomy can be tricky (as I describe in this essay), and dresses particularly challenging to wear. Thanks to a recent purchase of a magical concealing undergarment, though, I can wear a dress without anyone noticing a plastic disk protruding from my mid-section. I never thought of putting on a dress as an act of triumph, but I bet that’s how I’ll feel. Triumphant. Liberated. Maybe even fearless.
Some BFI regulars, being fearless