What’s it like to have something stuck to your skin, year in, year out? When I was writing about Judy Taylor, I didn’t spend a lot of time imagining this, probably because for her, the G-tube (gastrostomy tube) consumed much more of her thoughts with its incessant leaking onto her skin than her catheter or lifeline did.
Still, I’m not Judy, and I could’ve spent more thought on this detail. I had cause to think about this, this past weekend, for I myself had stuff stuck to my skin. I had to wear a Holter monitor with about five electrodes stuck on and taped for good measure to my chest for 48 hours. Ack! I thought. How will I endure this? What shape will my poor skin be in?
The electrodes were self-sticking, thick and soft little squares with a round metal connection in the centre. After sticking the electrodes on and snapping on the leads, the tech ripped and pressed on medical tape over the electrodes and the wires. I could feel each electrode cosying up to my chest like little Doctor Who aliens, and one electrode in particular pulled on a muscle when I moved or my clothes pressed on it. Slowly the tape started to make my skin itch and turn red round them. Virtual scratching did not help. All I wanted to do was grab each electrode and pull it off. How will I endure this?! And then I thought of Judy with her daily taping and untaping of the dressing around where her catheter exited her chest. How did she tolerate the itch underneath the dressing? (Did she itch?) How did she tolerate the objections her skin raised up to the regular peeling off and pressing on of tape?
People often say to me that they could never live the way Judy did, never tolerate the tubes or the pain or, particularly, the not eating. But, you know, I bet they’re wrong. God gave us an amazing ability to adapt, otherwise we, as a species, would have become deader than the dodo long ago.
After 36 hours, I adapted. I became less aware of the electrodes. And with liberal use of cream around them, my skin stopped screaming. No longer did my thoughts centre on the number of hours left before I could remove the Holter. Yes, electrodes are pretty minor compared to a catheter implanted in one’s vein and emerging out of one’s chest that one has to keep clean and use every day. And yes, I knew there was an end time, which makes a big difference in being able to endure. But imagination is a great gift. It gives one the ability to use one’s own experience to think about and learn about another’s. And what I learnt is that the human ability to adapt allows us to go beyond what we think we are capable of.
Judy knew this intuitively. She did not diminish herself by believing adaptation to a life without food was impossible for her. And, as a result, thousands benefitted, including her daughters and her husband who got to live with her many more years and she with them.