That Time I Went Through Nine Bags Of Morphine

“That Time I…” posts are true stories that am I retiring from my social repertoire. To honour them, I am committing them to text for the first time. Read stories about sound torture, abortion, my awesome tattoo, and the infamous Tragic Hand Button.

I awoke at one o’clock in the morning with a sharp and intense pain in my abdomen. Guessing that I had food poisoning, I sat on the toilet for a while expecting something to come out of either end. Nothing did. But I had dealt with this kind of thing before and, in my experience, it operates on its own schedule. I went back to bed to wait for instructions from my body.

I tried to sleep but it was difficult. Every position seemed to exacerbate the problem but at some point I did doze off. In the morning, my whole body was humming in pain and still no substances had been ejected. I recognized this as a different kind of problem. I knew that consistent and unchanging discomfort indicated that something is notably broken. I decided to take myself to the hospital.

Ever the frugal fanny, I paid my three dollars to get on the subway. I was waiting to transfer to a streetcar when my body was wracked with a spasm of pain. It forced me up against a pillar in order to stay upright. I thought I was going to pass out. Hungrily, I eyed a taxi across the street but felt guilty about having already paid my fare. There was another surge and I began stumbling toward the cab. Before I made it off the platform, the streetcar pulled up in front of me. I got on.

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How much would you pay to save your own life? My maximum is three Canadian dollars.

Upon meeting the triage nurse at Toronto Eastern Hospital, I implored her for a painkiller. She told me that the hospital could not distribute any medicine without identifying the problem and directed me to the waiting area. Finding a comfortable position was difficult. I settled on a careless sprawl that spanned several of the rigid metal chairs and laid there for an hour or so. No one asked me to move but that’s the social order of hospitals. In a hospital, unlike, say, on a bus, the more inappropriately placed the human being is, the higher they are on the social hierarchy. If there is a groaning man fading in an out of consciousness on a bus, you call the police. That same man in the hospital is the king of the waiting room. He is absolutely allowed to build a mattress out of magazines in the middle of the hallway. No, don’t bother him to get a copy of TIME. That’s his pillow now.

Eventually I was admitted and had an ultrasound performed. The technician confirmed that the problem was my appendix but a few minutes into the examination she squinted at the display and said, ‘Huh!’ I asked her what that meant but she didn’t respond. She left the room and returned a moment later with another technician. “Look at this,” she prompted, jamming the probe again into my side. The second technician said, ‘Huh!’ They both left and returned with a doctor. She was a bit more loquacious. She said, “Interesting.”

No one responded to my questions until I returned to my bed and waited for an hour. The doctor told me that my appendix had ruptured, migrated up my body, and had wrapped itself around my intestine. Apparently this is super weird. That’s when the nurse arrived with a bag of morphine. It was one o’clock in the afternoon, exactly twelve hours since it began.

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All of this was new to me. I had never broken a bone or suffered from an illness worse than the flu. I had never been prescribed a painkiller or any serious medication. So even though I was very unhappy, my curious side had things to appreciate. For example, I was soon introduced to the nurse’s numerical pain scale. Because pain is a subjective experience, they ask patients to rate theirs on a scale from one to ten. They use that number to determine how much painkiller a patient requires. When the nurse asked me for my number, I interpreted the question like this: one is the lowest so it’s actually no pain, effectively zero; ten is the most which is as much pain as I could possibly feel, a level of pain so intense that I would do anything, including taking my own life, to stop feeling it (somewhere in the category of cluster headaches). I placed my pain in the eight position which was my way of saying “It’s bad but it could get worse and if it does get worse, please render me unconscious.” After the first bag of morphine drained, the nurse returned to reassess my level of pain. I really had to think about it. I shook my body a little to feel it out and answered, “Seven point five?” She brought me another bag.

After the second bag, I felt worse if anything. In addition to the dense throbbing were these sharp convulsive jolts. I picked up my red button and mashed away at it like an asshole on airplane. When the nurse arrived I asked if she could bring me another bag of morphine. She poked the one that she brought half an hour earlier and said, “I’m sorry but legally I can’t bring you more than one per hour.”

“I understand. If you don’t mind, I’m going to be buzz you at three o’clock. I would appreciate if you could bring me another one then.”

She said that would be fine and so that’s what happened, every hour, on the hour, for the rest of the day, until 9:00 PM. It is possible that because of delays the total might have been less but nine fits the math.

Pain is such a strange thing. It’s tiring. It takes energy even though you’re doing nothing. It requires constant attention from your mind. And even after a restless night and a day of mental and physical exhaustion, it does not let you sleep. All I could do was feel it and try to enjoy my occasional half point of placebo-induced relief.

I honestly didn’t know what I was supposed to feel. Yes, I had definitely seen friends return from a hospital visit and speak glowingly about some medication they took. I’ve heard people praise the pills they were discharged with, Disney Land condensed and made ingestible. In the moment I thought, they must have exaggerated. So I just laid there quietly, curled up in a ball, and waited for surgery. Occasionally the nurses would walk by and ask me how I was feeling. I gave up on the number system because I worried that they were not taking my number seriously. Maybe a seven or an eight is pretty reasonable by hospital standards. Maybe there was a whole wing of tens just around the corner.

So instead I would say, ‘Not good,’ and they would hook up another bag.

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What I expected morphine to be like.

Three friends arrive around nine o’clock PM. Catherine, Dominique, and Leah sat by the bed and asked about my day. I didn’t say much. I think they understood that I wasn’t in good shape. Catherine, a pharmacist, asked me what they were giving me and I said, “Morphine, but I don’t know if it’s working.”

“Why is it not working?”

“I don’t know what it’s supposed to feel like. I doesn’t make me feel much better and I’ve gone through a bag every hour since I was admitted.”

“Every hour!” cried Leah. “You should feel amazing.”

Catherine shrugged. “It’s not uncommon. You’re just a *complex science term* metabolizer. Your body is burning through the drug before you can use it. Did you ask for something else?”

“I didn’t know I could ask for something else.”

“Well, they should have noticed the morphine wasn’t working and done it anyway.”

Catherine buzzed the nurse and asked her for an alternative. The nurse replied, “Oh yeah, sure.” She said it casually like it was an obvious request, like she was going to get me some water. I was so mad.

A minute later two doctors arrived to prep me for surgery and take me upstairs. I never received whatever something else was.

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Something else. 300 cc’s to the head.

Surgery went well and I awoke the next morning alive, fixed, and with an aching body. Soon the nurses were cajoling me to get up and walk around. As soon as they saw me shuffle to the bathroom I was discharged. On the way out, I was handed a prescription for Tylonel 3.

Dominique took me home and stayed with me for a day. I really appreciated her presence since I could barely walk and my back was so sore that I couldn’t lie down. Happy that I had access to a painkiller that wasn’t morphine, I eagerly popped my first pair of Tylonel 3s and waited. Nothing. A few hours later I took another pair. Nothing. I said to Dominique, “How many of these do you think I can take?” She’s not a pharmacist but she has a PhD in *complex science term* so I trust her. She checked the bottle and said: “It says take two every four hours or as needed. So, take as many as are needed.”

I began taking them in fours and I did that every hour until I started to feel marginally better. That was somewhere around twelve pills. I knew that they were kicking in when the pain in my back started to feel slightly better (Back pain is common in abdominal surgery because your sciatic nerve does a terrible job of communicating to your brain where exactly the pain is originating).

I mentioned their ineffectiveness to my pharmacist friend the next day and she rolled her eyes. “They gave you Tylonel 3s? That’s stupid.”


“The active ingredient is codeine. People are not capable of processing it so your body must metabolize the codeine into something it can use.”

“Which is…?”


My bottle of Tylonel 3’s was supposed to last a week. I went through it like a box of raisins. It was empty the day after I got home.

In August, I was well again and flew home to see some family. I visited my aunt, Dr. Jeannie as we call her, and told her about my appendectomy and related painkiller problem. Her response was, “What the heck is wrong with you?! Are you on drugs?” She explained that it’s common for cocaine users to have this kind of resistance.

No, Dr. Jeannie, I’m not a drugs. I’M NOT ON ANY DRUGS! THEY DON’T WORK!