Having The Strength To Say “I Can’t”
Mental health is moving on to something else – Jean Allouch.
First, it was the vomiting. From early in the swim, I started having trouble retaining the Accel Gel. Four hours into the first leg of the swim (from England to France), I told Dr. Ariadna del Villar Morales that I wanted a Melox; my stomach ached and burned. She asked me if I did not prefer an Omeprazole and I eventually stopped before my feeding pause to take it.
The pain decreased a bit, but my tolerance to Accel Gel did not improve and the vomiting did not stop. As night fell, I began to experience a very sharp drop in my body temperature. I attributed it to the fact that it was getting dark, and I thought I would recover soon. Recovery never came.
Then the hallucinations began. Once, after completing another 24-hour swim, Steven Munatones asked me if I had not hallucinated, because friends of ours like Forrest Nelson and Kim Chambers had commented that it had happened to them in their swims. It had not been my case, but that changed in the final stage of the swim. I began to see strange things: camels that looked like Chewbacca, one large and one small, and a container in the back of our boat, like the ones that other boats carry in the channel.
My team started making questions to identify early signs of hypothermia. I did not mention the hallucinations and focused on answering each one correctly, but it was obvious that something was wrong. Finally, Rafa Álvarez called me to the boat, told me how much longer I was going to have to swim and asked whether I wanted to continue.
Usually, my answer would have been “yes,” that I had no intention of stopping. However, this time the problem wasn’t muscle ache, exhaustion, or a crisis; I had literally run out of strength and was freezing. “I’m stopping and getting on the boat,” I said.
Thus ended my attempt to complete a double crossing of the English Channel, with a hit of hypothermia from which it took me a couple of days to recover. However, the pain in the stomach did not subside. Thursday during the day, and especially after dinner, it got worse. Ariadna had recommended that I refrain from drinking tequila and beer, but I confess that I only marginally followed the instruction and preferred not to say anything to her so that she would not scold me.
On Friday morning, when I put on my pants and wanted to fasten my belt, I had to leave extra space because of how swollen my belly was. At night, in London, my lower abdomen ached, and my bowel movements were not normal. I decided to take Dolac and Buscopan. This is when I told Ariadna (I hadn’t before because I thought these were “normal” symptoms after taking Accel gel for so many hours). She recommended that I continue with Buscopan and Nexium-mups, as well as take care of my diet.
Although the pain in the lower abdomen decreased in intensity, all day I had discomfort and on Saturday night, while we were eating dinner, my back also began to hurt. I had to stop and go for a walk for respite. The inflammation was accompanied by a feeling of fullness and pain in the upper right part of the abdomen.
In the early morning on Sunday, I unpacked all the medicines I had and sent a message to Ariadna. I told her that the pain was not subsiding and asked her which drugs could help from the ones I had with me. Besides Buscopan, I had Unival and she recommended taking it.
As for the pain in the abdomen, she told me it could be a liver issue, since my liver enzymes were often high. She told me that as soon as I got to Mexico, we would have to make an assessment and asked me, once again, to forget about tequila and whiskey and take it easy with beer and wine. It seemed like a reasonable compromise given the situation.
I took my meds and went for a walk, but after 30 minutes, I returned to the hotel. It still hurt, now even when I was walking.
As soon as we got to Heathrow, while we waited for the flight to Paris, I called American Express asking for their support in getting me a doctor upon my arrival. Once in Paris, we went for a walk in the Notre Dame area. The pain was increasing with each step, and I could not keep up with Lucia.
“What’s wrong?” she asked me.
“I feel very bad,” I replied.
When this happened, we were in front of the Hotel-Dieu hospital in Paris, the oldest in the city (1868), and only a few meters from Notre Dame.
“Let’s go in here to see if there is a doctor who can treat me.”
In the course of the following hours, I went through the diagnosis (obstruction of the bile ducts), blood tests, a CT scan, and the process of assimilating the situation (my condition was serious and our trip was going to be affected).
From one moment to the next I went from the doctor’s office to the rest area. It was a 10-meter gallery with three beds—separated by white and orange hard plastic curtains—and a communal bathroom. All three beds were empty, so I decided to take the one by the wall.
Already settled in my bed, in what looked like the barracks of a war, I learned that I would just be staying here temporarily, since the Hotel-Dieu hospital is used only to treat emergencies until they find a bed elsewhere. The doctors would take care of that, my hydration, and my medications.
Like in a swim, I decided to focus on what I could do and let others worry about the rest. My responsibility was to face this crisis in a good mood, find the positive, and especially help my body heal.
In the hospital, I first had a feeling of relief because they were going to tell me what I had. Then, when I saw the excellent care they were giving me, I also felt tranquility. They always approached me with a smile, regardless of the communication problems I had when Lucía was not with me.
The first night was filled with pain and in the early morning they had to give me morphine so that I could sleep. On Monday the pain remained in a range of 6 (on a scale of 0 to 10, with 10 being the highest). In addition, there was the concern of finding a hospital. Many Parisians, including physicians, leave the city in August, making the search even more difficult. The Hotel-Dieu staff explained to us that we needed to wait for a bed to be vacated at Tenon Hospital, the specialty center for gastroenterology.
Mid-morning on Tuesday, Dr. Thibout came in with a smile on his face: “I found you a bed at Tenon Hospital. Get ready, the ambulance is arriving in the next hour.”
Fortunately, Lucía was at the hotel and a few minutes later she arrived with a towel, soap, and clean clothes. The IV needle was removed and I was able to enjoy my bath with little pain.
At that moment I imagined that the gallstone, which had moved from my gallbladder to the bile ducts and had obstructed the passage of bile, making my pancreas collapse in the process, had finally continued its journey.
The ambulance arrived and, with it, the stretcher and two orderlies. Since I could walk without problems, we headed to the exit. In the ambulance I had to travel on the stretcher, as there was only one free space, which Lucía occupied. Another anecdote: touring Paris by ambulance, Lucía telling me what we were seeing on the road, and I looking at the landscape lying down.
Entering Tenon Hospital was quite a surprise. Opened in 1878, it has the architecture of a late 19th century building. The rooms are built around a beautiful garden with a church on one side.
They put me in the gastroenterology ward, on the second floor, in room 14. The room had two beds with a bathroom. There was also a community shower shared by all patients in this area. This hospital is also where the singer Édith Piaf was born, on December 15, 1915. Not long ago, on February 20, 2019, French artist Hom Nguyen unveiled a portrait of her, which is displayed at the entrance to the Meyneil Pavilion.
A few hours went by, and finally Dr. Amiot appeared in the room. “I checked the results of your tests and CT scan,” he said. “Let me tell you that your condition is serious, with an acute pancreatitis. You will need several tests and, if you do not expel the stone, surgery. Do you have health insurance?”
The question did not take me by surprise. I had entered the hospital without needing to sign any documents, proving that I was insured, or leaving an open voucher. I informed him that I did have health insurance and it was then that he explained what was next.
“Today [Tuesday] we can’t do much besides restarting IV therapy. We will give you antibiotics and, if necessary, pain medication. Tomorrow [Wednesday] we will do a sonography and a very complete blood test and on Thursday, a CT scan. We will give the medications time to work, and based on the results, we will tell you what’s next.”
Given this scenario, we decided to postpone the rest of the trip and wait for the results before making any final decisions. In the afternoon, I told Lucía that I wanted to go for a walk in the hall. By the third round, realizing that I planned to continue for a while, the physician came out of his office and said, “If you wish, you can go down to the garden for a walk.” In other words, stop making noise here. It was excellent news that prompted us to act immediately. I was starting to like this hospital.
As an adult, I had only been hospitalized once, but I had had to accompany several family members during their stays. It was probably because of the season, but on this occasion both hospitals were devoid of crowds or bustles. We were five patients on this floor. The other four were older and did not come out of their rooms; the few visitors they received also remained inside. The only thing that interrupted the silence was the daily visit of the physician or the nurses, who, always smiling, checked my vital signs, changed the IV fluids, and applied antibiotics.
Since I couldn’t eat or drink water, my days stopped depending on mealtimes. Instead, I adopted sleep as my internal clock.
Since Monday I had experimented with what I called my Tibetan retreat in Paris. My days in the hospital were going to be governed by what my body asked of me, not by what I commanded it to do. I thought it was a good opportunity to get away from everything for a few days and give peace to my mind and body.
I spent all five days doing literally nothing: I did not watch TV shows, did not listen to music, did not read books, did not speak on the phone. I minimized my interaction with the rest of the world and decided to listen to my body and do what it asked of me, which basically consisted of napping all day, thinking about nothing, and going for walks in the hospital garden.
By Wednesday morning, I felt stronger and did Qigong and a band stretching routine to get ready for my first exam, a sonography. I thought I would walk, but was surprised by an orderly with a wheelchair. “Monsieur Argüelles, we have to go,” he said.
With the wheelchair, we went through the entire old part of the hospital, until we reached the modern wing, where the portrait of Édith Piaf is located. They left me in front of the dressing rooms, where I waited a while until a nurse took me to the testing room. The physician in charge did not speak any other language besides French. He motioned for me to pull up my shirt and started his assessment.
I know the routine from the multiple times that I have torn my leg muscles: they put gel on you, start the scan, and take pictures. On those past occasions, I had always asked the same question (“How does it look?”) and had always received the same answer (“Your doctor will inform you”). If this had been the answer on so many past occasions, in which there had been no language barriers, I figured it would be better to not even ask.
When he finished, he handed me some towels to remove the gel and out of nowhere he said: “Fine.” At first, I thought it was my imagination, so I asked him:
I returned happily to my room awaiting a visit from Dr. Amiot, head of the gastroenterology unit.
As expected, he communicated the results to me with the reservations of someone who is aware of their inconclusiveness: “It seems the danger is over. There is no visible stone in the duct, but we still need to carry out one more test. Tomorrow, after the CT scan, I will give you the final diagnosis, but everything indicates that you will be able to go home on Friday.”
On Thursday morning I knew that I had already recovered. I woke up craving chilaquiles along with a Herradura Blanco and a Corona. However, in the mid-morning I had to undergo the test that would define whether my stay in the hospital would end. Once again, I did my 90-minute exercise routine: stretching, bands, Qigong, and walking. I was ready for the wheelchair ride and the subsequent CT scan.
Unlike the day before, this time I did not receive information at the end of the process. The nurse told me that in a few minutes the results would be sent to my doctor. The findings came in around one in the afternoon. Everything was fine; I had overcome acute pancreatitis and was ready to go home.
The doctor gave me permission to eat and, after five days, my first Parisian dinner arrived. It wasn’t from a Michelin-starred restaurant, but it tasted like one of my best dinners in that city.
After dinner, I went down with Lucía to the garden to enjoy the sunset. We were talking about various topics, including everything that had happened since the Wednesday in which I started my crossing attempt.
I can’t remember the moment, but I do remember what I told her: “You know? I’ve been really enjoying this place. You do not know how helpful it’s been.”
She laughed and said to me: “I never imagined you would say something like that after being locked in a hospital room.”
And thus ended what will remain in my mind as my Tibetan retreat at the Tenon Hospital in Paris. I regained my health and clearly understood what had happened during my crossing attempt. My body and mind, no matter how prepared they were, could not handle that small stone that decided to start a crossing of its own at the same time. Fortunately, the stone did make it to its destination, sparing me surgery or a more serious injury. I did the impossible to get to England—and I am satisfied with my effort—but this time, something more important came up: my well-being. I’m glad I listened to my body and had the strength to say “I can’t.”
 Jean Allouch, Lettre pour lettre. Traduire, transcrire, translittérer, Toulouse, Littoral, Éditions Erès, 1984. Jean Allouch is a French psychoanalyst and a disciple of Jacques Lacan.