Like so many of us I've served the homeless in kitchens, contributed to food pantries and donated when there's been a famine or drought somewhere in the world. But until this past November I didn't really understand the depth of real hunger.
I'm still not truly able to understand the listlessness of malnutrition, the sharp agony of thirst, and the fear of dying from these conditions. But I do better understand the physical feelings of real hunger. And here's why:
Following surgery for a non-cancerous blockage last October, I recuperated with what I, the English major, dubbed my semicolon (a foot of my sigmoid colon) gone.
I went home from the hospital a week after surgery, slowly started eating, but became tired and feverish. I took some prescribed antibiotics, but when my temp remained over 101.5, my husband rushed me back in the hospital emergency room and I was readmitted for five days on stronger antibiotics.
Turns out I had complications from the operation: a pinpoint leak in my colon. I was pretty out of it and was fed through an IV. Even after I was home from the hospital the second time, I remained for two months nourished through a tube in my left arm so that my gut could clean and heal.
The white bag of liquid nutrients (TPN) that flowed through the night looked like a white fish, offering no pleasure whatsoever, but kept me alive.
But my stomach/brain connection did not seem to realize I had an IV line feeding me. Hunger pangs ebbed and flowed, but never ceased. Sometimes the hunger was all I could think of, all I could feel. It gnawed and shouted endlessly.
I was not starving. It's just that my totally empty digestive system felt like I was.
Ironically, one way I ameliorated the feelings of hunger was to watch food shows. Week by week, month by month I watched episodes of Chopped and Iron Chef and Restaurant Impossible and No Reservations. Somehow seeing food without smelling or tasting gave me vicarious pleasure.
I had to be flushed with solution several times a day to keep me from clotting, and to keep the lines clear. My husband became a devoted nurse, and professional nurses came twice a week to test and clean the IV area. One was sweet and gentle, the other was brusque, with bad breath, but both did their jobs.
Despite good care, the tubes caused swelling in my arm, and an eventual allergic rash like one from poison ivy, creeping up my arm from the crook of my elbow where the needle was a constant, up to my shoulder.
And the hunger never ceased. A day before I was to start eating again the pangs were so intense that I emailed the doctor:
"Could I please start a day earlier. Just some broth? Please. Please!" He wrote back "yes" -- one of the happiest days of my life. I cheered and ran to the pantry. And I knew to sip the broth slowly so as not to get sick.
And I started eating for real. And as my stomach slowly filled, my brain relaxed its gnawing signals.
The tubes stayed in my arm for while, two lifelines dangling like marionette strings, remaining just in case I had to go back on the IV. And I took my temperature several times both day and night, anxious that my healing continued.
When the doctor was satisfied, the tubes came out. And aside from a temporarily atrophied arm and a small clot near my elbow that traveled nowhere, I was considered healed. But as I began to normalize I couldn't forget the intense discomfort of those couple of months, despite being nourished the entire way.
And then I thought about those who were truly hungry throughout the world, enduring without much nourishment or hope. And I had some idea of just one element of their suffering.
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