Paris, the City of Light. What could possibly go wrong in the heart of the civilized world? This was to be the next to last day of our art tour of Europe. Saturday morning began with a visit to Eugène Delacroix's home and studio. The studio contained Delacroix's palette, his easel, the chair he sat in, and his writing desk. Just my wife Beverly and I went to his studio because everyone else in the group wanted to sleep late, as they were getting pretty tired of being dragged around museums and galleries from morning till night. We arrived at the Delacroix Museum at nine, and just before eleven o'clock we returned to our hotel room to get our little group ready to go to the Georges Pompidou Center of Modern Art. This was to be one of the high points of the tour of Europe.
Back in the hotel room there was a feeling of nausea rising up inside me. A few times on our trip I had had indigestion and taken some over-the-counter antacid and aspirin tablets, which always alleviated the discomfort. Now I took two aspirin and washed them down with some stale Coke from the evening before and continued talking to one of the students, trying to ignore the growing discomfort in my stomach.
As I was talking to my student Monica about the day's plan, I felt as though I'd been shot. There was a searing pain in the middle of my stomach. My knees collapsed and I sank to the floor. I held my gut and screamed with pain. Something terrifying was happening inside me, and I didn't know what it was. I was surprised that there was no wound on the outside of my body. In fact, there had been no sound, and as I glanced about, there was no way a bullet could have entered the room. I looked up at the windows that opened onto the balcony. Morning sunlight was streaming through the closed glass of the balcony doors, filtered through the sheer curtains. There was no broken glass where I expected to see a bullet hole in the window, no ripped hole in the pristine curtain. There was only a wound deep inside my abdomen.
The pain was drowning me, like I was sinking into a lava pool of agony. As I thrashed about on the floor in desperate confusion, I searched feverishly for some explanation of what was happening to me. One minute I was talking with Monica about our upcoming museum visit and the next I was writhing on the floor, consumed with pain. I had collapsed at the foot of the bed but had wriggled my way into the narrow space between the wall and the bed. In terror, I struggled into a space where I would be safely wedged into a fetal position. Constricted between the bed and the wall, I struggled to control my rising panic. By screaming and groaning, I knew I was adding to my predicament and making it impossible for my wife to understand what was happening to me.
I screamed for my wife Beverly to get a doctor. She was numb with shock. I cursed at her when she didn't respond. She composed herself enough to call the hotel desk and was told that a doctor would be summoned immediately. From the floor I looked up at the full-length windows in the French doors to the balcony. Through the transparent white curtains, light was flooding into the little hotel room, and outside the sky was a brilliant cerulean blue. Somehow I felt reassured by the beauty of the day. Something was very wrong with me, but I took comfort in the fact that a doctor was on the way. This was Paris, the City of Light. I would be okay. As I waited, the pain kept getting worse. I tried to be stoic. I fought to control the gnawing terror.
In ten minutes the doctor arrived. He was slightly built and in his early thirties. I could resist only feebly as he struggled to pull me up onto the bed. He asked me what had happened as he opened the buttons of my shirt to examine my stomach. His probing fingers on my abdomen aggravated the pain. I fought against him. He said I had a perforation in my duodenum. I must go to a hospital right away.
"Will I need an operation?" I asked.
"Yes, immediately," he said. He phoned for an ambulance and then gave me a small amount of morphine by injection. The intense agony began to subside. He explained that the morphine was just enough to get me to the hospital, but wouldn't interfere with the anesthetic of the surgery that I would be having very soon.
It became possible to think more clearly. The hospital stay would be most inconvenient. Tomorrow my wife and I with the students on the tour were supposed to drive to Amsterdam for the return flight to America. But things would work out. I could manage. I always had.
The two young men who arrived with the ambulance appeared to be very pleasant. They lifted me from the bed and supported me on either side, carrying my weight on their shoulders. We went down the hall and into a tiny hotel elevator that took us down to the first floor. There was barely enough room for us in the little elevator as I was propped up between them. The elevator stopped at the first floor, one floor above the street. From there, a long, winding staircase led down to street level. The ambulance attendants found a straight-back chair from the hotel dining room and carried me down the stairs. The men were straining to keep me aloft and balanced. I teetered and tottered as they struggled to carry me. I kept murmuring, "Please don't drop me." They laid me on a gurney at the sidewalk and then slid me into the back of a little ambulance. For a moment I panicked because I was afraid we were going to leave without my wife. To my great relief, I saw Beverly climb in the front seat beside the driver. The ambulance careened wildly through the Paris streets with its distinctive siren clearing a path through heavy midday traffic. I was reminded of scenes from World War II movies by the siren's sound, wailing mournfully through the congested streets of Paris.
After an amazing ride traveling at high speed, with the little ambulance swaying dangerously around each corner, we arrived at the emergency room of a large public hospital in Paris. I was immediately met by two young female doctors who began a thorough examination. One of the doctors looked like a young Jeanne Moreau. The other was thin and pale, with the saddest eyes. The intimacy of the examination they were doing was embarrassing. After consulting the X-ray films, they told me I had a large hole in my duodenum due to unknown causes, maybe an ulcer, maybe a foreign object. I must have an operation immediately or I would die. I asked if this could be done in America and was told I wouldn't survive the trip. They assured me that this was the best and biggest hospital in Paris. They were completely convincing as to the urgency of the situation and the necessity of the surgery.
They needed to get a tube into my stomach, but failed to tell me about the procedure. A big man straddled me and began to force a large aquarium-type tube down my nose. It slammed against the back of my throat, forcing a gag reaction. The more I gagged, the harder he shoved. Through the tears filling my eyes, I saw the thin doctor with the sad compassionate eyes make swallowing gestures with her hands, and I swallowed as hard as I could and the tube slid down.
I was still feeling the pain, but the morphine had taken the madness out of the terror. It was manageable now. As part of my effort to stay in control, I forced some weak laughter and made lame attempts at jokes. I was scared. I told my dear Beverly it would be okay. The doctors talked about a hospital stay of three or four weeks. Then there would be a couple of months of recovery at home.
Following the examination in the emergency department, I was taken by gurney out of the emergency building and rushed several blocks to the hospital building where the surgery would be performed. Every time the wheels banged against an imperfection in the concrete sidewalk, pain shot through my stomach, but I was comforted by the beauty of the surroundings. It was noon, the sun was shining, and it was the first day of June in the beautiful city of Paris, France. What could possibly go wrong?
We rode by elevator to a double room on the upper floor to await the operation. My roommate was a handsome elderly gentleman by the name of Monsieur Fleurin. He spoke English and was in his late sixties. His wife was visiting him. Her father had been an American who had come to France as a soldier during World War I and stayed. Her English was excellent. She immediately tried to reassure me and comfort my frightened wife. Madame and Monsieur Fleurin were exceedingly handsome people and gracious to us frightened foreigners.
It was about noon and, after a flurry of activity, everything became calm. The bed I was given had no pillow, so Beverly made a roll of sheets to support my head. This was the beginning of the wait for the surgery, and the acute pain was gradually increasing. Jolts of stabbing, throbbing pain spread out into my torso. They took my breath away. The doctors told me to lie as still as possible, so as not to provoke the leaking hydrochloric acid and other juices that were digesting my insides.
At that time, what I did not know was that on weekends, Parisian hospitals are understaffed. Most doctors vacation on the coast of France or in the country. I later learned that there was only one surgeon on duty in the entire hospital complex! Only he could operate; only he could authorize any kind of medication. I never saw the surgeon that day, and since nurses in France have no authority to give medication, they were powerless to do anything for my increasingly grave condition.
In the emergency room they had inserted the large rubber tube through my nose and down into my stomach to suction out digestive fluids. It was very difficult to talk and my mouth became very dry; my mouth tasted like rubber. I wasn't allowed to drink anything to relieve the dryness. The pain in the center of my abdomen grew worse. The torment radiated out into my chest and down to the pelvis. Staying curled in a fetal position felt like the only way to keep the fire from radiating farther out into my extremities. Tears ran down my cheeks from the pain. The only sound I could make was an occasional low moan like an animal. Whenever I tried to talk, it agitated my abdomen and magnified the pain. It was best to lie perfectly still and focus on trying to breathe as quietly as possible.
Minutes stretched into hours. No doctor came. Whenever a nurse entered the room, I begged for morphine. There was nothing they could do. When they ignored my pleas, I asked Monsieur Fleurin to beg for me. I told the nurses that I was dying and I had Monsieur Fleurin do the same. In the middle of the afternoon, the nurse said she would contact a doctor to see what they could do and gave me an injection of a "stomach relaxant." It had no effect whatsoever. Every time Beverly or I asked the nurses about the operation, they said it would be done within the hour. By early afternoon the relief from the morphine I had been given at the hotel had worn off completely. The fiery pain grew steadily worse. My stomach felt like it was full of burning coals. Hot flashes of intense pain shot into my arms and legs. I kept repeating in French that I was dying and begged for morphine over and over again.
I kept thinking that I should be unconscious because of my condition. Nothing in my life had prepared me for this intense agony. Why didn't I black out? What had I ever done to deserve this?
The nurse became increasingly impatient with our questions and pleas. Beverly was told that if she didn't stop her demands, she would be put out of the room. My poor beautiful wife could do nothing for me, and she couldn't get anyone to lift a finger to help me. She was acutely aware that she was losing me, and there was nothing she could do about it in spite of all her pleas.
In hindsight I realize that this woeful lack of attention resulted not from malice, but rather from bureaucratic ineptitude and indifference. I also realize that because I did not express the agony I was experiencing more dramatically, the staff didn't realize the full extent of my crisis.
My whole life had been one of self-sufficient stoicism. I believed I didn't need anyone's help. I could handle anything. I could do this, I thought.
In my extreme pain, seconds seemed like minutes and minutes seemed like hours. Minute by minute, second by second, the time passed into hours. By eight o'clock that evening the pain had become totally unbearable. I'd been in the same bed, in the same position, in the same room since noon without ever seeing a doctor. The pain didn't come and go in waves anymore, it just got worse and worse. The hydrochloric acid leaking from my stomach was spreading throughout my abdominal cavity and literally eating me up from the inside. The searing torment was gaining strength and I was getting weaker. Breathing was almost impossible. I tried to pour every bit of energy into inhaling and exhaling to stay alive. It was vividly clear to me that if I failed to breathe, it would be the end of my life. Period. I was so weakened from the ordeal, I knew there was very little strength left in me.
I kept thinking, this is not how it's supposed to end. I was fading away in a Paris hospital and they were indifferent to my agony. Why didn't they care? What would happen to my wife, my two children, my paintings, my house, my gardens—all the things I cared about? I was thirty-eight years old and just beginning to achieve some fame as an artist. Had all my work and struggle come to this?
I had grown so frail that I could hardly lift my head or speak. Beverly looked drained, totally emotionally exhausted. I didn't want to tell her that I knew the end was near. I told her I couldn't hold on much longer. It had gotten very dark outside the window of the bare hospital room.
Excerpted from My Descent Into Death by Howard Storm. Copyright © 2005 by Howard Storm. Excerpted by permission of Harmony, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.