Prostate Chronicles - Chapter 5: Catheters And Leg Bags

The sunshine and the breeze and the contrast of colors and sound were bracing. For the past week, I had been ensconced in a safe and contained world that I was slightly hesitant to leave. Everything had happened so fast: my diagnosis…my two surgeries…my rehabilitation…and now, my discharge. Was I ready? That question was answered as soon as I hit the fresh air: Hell yes! But, there were many adjustments ahead.

Not the least of which was the fact that I…uh…how can I put this delicately? I had a little rubber tube coming out of my penis. In medical lingo, it’s known as a catheter and its function was to drain the bladder while my own plumbing was on the mend. Along with the catheter came a 70-ounce plastic “foley bag” that collects the urine. Not exactly an ensemble that you’d like to display on the street.

The healthcare products industry rose to this sartorial challenge and came up with a solution for the man-about-town who wants to remain discreet, but still part of the social scene --- The Leg Bag! A couple of Velcro bands hold a 10-ounce bag to your leg. You just slip on a pair of pants and no one’s the wiser. Rev. Marvin McMickle, pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland says this generally worked for him, although there were some issues when he would go to a movie and get a 12-ounce drink from the concession stand.

I decided to go with the advice of Robin’s husband Glenn, who had experienced his own frustrations with the leg bag. His solution was to stay hooked-up to the big bag, but to carry it around… disguised. During his recuperation at home, he would carry his excess tubing and urine bag hidden in a canvas tote bag he’d gotten from the Nature Conservancy. It was summer, he was wearing shorts, and the tube ran inconspicuously out from his pant leg into the bag. That way, he was able to take his daily exercise walks and carry around an advertisement for environmental preservation at the same time. Brings a new meaning to the term “when nature calls”.

Are you totally grossed out and disgusted by now? That’s kind of how I would have felt before my recent medical adventures. I grew-up in a family that was shy about bodily functions, and I have a feeling we weren’t alone. I’ll never forget, as a kid, waiting in line in a restaurant bathroom. The big guy ahead of me finally finished his business at the urinal, turned and looked down at me with a smile, “There you go, boy, it’s all your’n.”

Gross. I was mortified. Many of our culture’s most popular comedians mine this unease in their club appearances, where scatological jokes seem to draw the biggest laughs. Our bodies are the closest, most personal things to us, and to talk about some of the individual parts in public can be difficult. I lost all that hesitation in the hospital. After the operations, I was subject to almost daily inspections of my incisions…my drains…and my catheter by various doctors and nurses. One’s sense of modesty is profoundly altered under such circumstances.

My brother Frank came out to greet me as I gingerly lowered my foot to the driveway. As he and Robin brought in all my stuff from the car, I headed into the house and sat down at the dining room table. I looked over the Get Well cards I’d received both at home and at the hospital. I’d also had a number of visitors at the hospital, and a variety of prayers from many faiths --- everything from an order of nuns in New York City to a beam of Reiki energy from a group of friends in Washington. But, some of the most satisfying sustenance came in the form of food from my work mates, who delivered daily meals of stuffed peppers, salad, barbequed chicken, meatloaf, lasagna, and pasta, with sauce. For my first week out of the hospital, they made dinner while I began the readjustment to the outside world.

And after dinner, Frank and I would walk the meal off by circumnavigating the neighborhood. I tried to stand-up straight, but it was an effort. The clutch of my stomach incision pulled me forward into a slight stoop. I had visions of popping my staples and then having to make a late night run to Office Max. We passed people on porches who said hello, not having any idea what I was toting in the Nature Conservancy bag.

I wouldn’t be toting that bag much longer. After a few days here, Robin would be driving me to her home near Washington where her sister Kathy, a registered nurse, would pull out the catheter. And then, I would spend the rest of my recovery liberated from thoughts of urine bags; finally freed of the occasional tug one gets from the little rubber tube. Of course, once the tube was pulled, we still had the question of whether my internal tubing and muscles were up to the task of taking over again. It might take a few weeks for me to regain continence --- maybe longer. That brought visions of me strapping on a diaper each morning, hoping that I wouldn’t leak, and that my pants wouldn’t look too puffy.

But, that was a few days away. For now, it was nice to be on my feet in my own community. A number of the houses we passed had those little path-marking lights in the front yard. These little beacons spend all day soaking up the sun’s rays through solar panels so that they have the power to glow at night. It made me think of the cards and phone calls and e-mails and visits and meals and prayers that came from my friends --- each one sending some energy to help me make my way through the dark.


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