This may sound odd, but sometimes I have fantasies of a strange sort of sanctuary. The hospital. Penn Presbyterian Hospital in West Philly, to be exact.
Five years ago I was rushed there by my good friend Gabriela (Gaby) Sanchez. We happened to be together during my time of need because we were both producing and starring in a play I wrote for our theater company Power Street. It was only our second show ever, and we were still like fish without fins, learning the ropes of what it takes to run a theater company from the ground up.
At that time in my life, I was rehearsing many hours a week for our show “Morir Sonyando,” baby-sitting to pick up a little money, partying like a rock star, not sleeping much at all, and generally abusing my body. I ate most of my meals on the train or bus — like one of those people you hate.
I was so broke that I didn’t even have television, internet, or a smartphone. But I was happy. I had a one-bedroom apartment and two sweet cats. That apartment was my sanctuary for many years. After a long day of dealing with toddlers — and everyone. needing. something — I craved coming home to a quiet, friendly space where my only responsibility was cuddling the cats.
I felt in tune with my ambition and my motivation, but I was not in tune with my body. I constantly had sharp stomach pains. My belly would blow up to twice its size after I ate anything. I figured this was the way it was when people ate. It didn’t register that I was waking up every night in a cold sweat with my body fighting something I couldn’t see. I was not well, but I refused to acknowledge it.
Body of evidence
The show must go on! I would go to the doctor when the show closed, I reasoned. It would be fine.
It wasn’t “fine,” of course.
Back to Gaby rushing me to the hospital.
We had just locked up the theater after another great show and full house. We had planned to go for drinks with friends after, but I couldn’t do it. I was exhausted. I felt like I was getting a fever, and my stomach hurt.
Within minutes I was in agonizing pain. I called my mom crying, telling her Gaby was taking me to the hospital because I thought my appendix had just burst.
By 3 a.m. that night, I had antibiotics and morphine in my system, and a doctor telling me I had a perforated (burst open!) intestine most likely caused by Crohn’s disease. Telling me I needed surgery, telling me I wouldn’t be getting out of the hospital any time soon. In a matter of hours, my life had unraveled.
Gaby canceled the show. I called and texted all my commitments for the following days letting them know what had happened. It was shocking how easy and quick it was to clear up all my obligations, all the things I thought were so important that there was no way I could say no.
My whole family had planned to see the show that weekend. They came to visit me in the hospital instead. That first weekend, I was filled with joy in a sadistic way. My room was overflowing with flowers, teddy bears, balloons, and extra chairs for all my visitors. I kept thinking, “Wow, if I died there’d be a lot of people at my funeral.”
The one thing that was not allowed in my room was food. I was “fed” liquid nutrition through a tube in my arm. At first not being able to eat whole food was like a joke. Ha ha, man, I’m gonna get in shape! But it quickly became not. funny. I had intense sensory dreams that felt epic where I was simply eating a sandwich. You don’t realize what an emotional part food plays in your life until you can’t even have an ice cube.
A loving harbor
After 12 days, I was discharged with my liquid nutrition. I needed some time to gain strength and to let my intestine heal a little bit before going in for surgery. I headed to Reading, Pennsylvania, with my two cats in my lap to live with my mom since I couldn’t take care of myself.
I learned a lot about true love during this time. The way my mother cared for me was selfless, and I was finally old enough and sick enough to appreciate that she had been doing it my whole life.
The emotional pain of everything I had suddenly lost was still there, but so was Netflix. I fell into sort of a sick person’s routine dominated by what was on TV. I woke up in the morning and watched “The Price is Right” while pumping my nutrition into my arm. I watched “Chopped,” “Pit Bulls and Parolees.” And, oh! There’s a new season of “The Walking Dead.”
I went for short walks around the block. I fell asleep wherever I was sitting. I talked to friends on the phone. I enjoyed my little vacation because I thought I’d get back to my real life soon.
For almost a year, I was in and out of the hospital every few weeks. Sometimes I’d stay for a day or two, one time I stayed for a whole month. A surgery, a complication, another surgery, a procedure, a complication. It seemed never ending, and I thought, I guess this is my life now. I’m a sick person. When I embraced this, took it on as an identity, an armor, that was when I craved the hospital. The clean white sheets, my remote with the TV button and the nurse button.
My nurses were always amazing. The order, the perfectly curated sterile room. I had the beep beep beep of my medicine pumping machine. I had a routine that was identical every day. When I was home with my family, I felt like everyone forgot about me. When I was back in the hospital, everyone checked in on me, but the balloons and the flowers were no more.
The only one who always brought me a balloon was my mother. Even when she was the one checking me into the emergency room, she’d run to the gift store and get a balloon that said “Get Well Soon,” as if there was no way I would unless I had that message nearby.
By my fifth hospital stay, my mother couldn’t take any more days from work to stay with me. Friends and family still cared about me, of course, but people have their own lives to live. I got used to being alone. Eventually, I started dreading phone calls and visits, things that would break up my orderly, sterile life. Sometimes, when visitors came, I would pretend I was asleep. I didn’t have anything to talk about with them except the fact that I was sick, and I was tired of talking about that.
There were a few people who were consistent in their calls and visits who didn’t just want to talk about me being sick, and Gaby was one of them. Maybe because she was the one that had taken me to the hospital in the first place, but somehow through it all she always found a way to let me know she was thinking of me.
I told her one day that I had an idea for another play and she told me to write it, “We are going to produce that play Erlina, and you are going to write it, and it is going to be great.” Gaby always had a vision, and she made it clear to me that this was temporary, and even if it wasn’t, my hands worked and nothing could stop me from writing.
My hospital sanctuary became my office. I wrote my play “She Wore Those Shoes” in my hospital bed 30 minutes before being hauled off to my third surgery. About a year and a half later, Power Street produced that show just like Gaby said.
It has been three years now since my last surgery. I haven’t had an overnight hospital stay in almost all that time. My life is back to a new normal. There are more challenges living with a chronic illness, but also more gratitude and joy for the small moments.
I don’t dream about the hospital. I dream about the future. I’ve become braver since my ordeal, I take chances, I love hard, I speak my truth. My community is my sanctuary.
I have never forgotten what it meant to me to have all the visitors I did during my hospital stays. I take time now to nurture the relationships I’ve cultivated, I know how important that community is — especially when times are tough.
I’ve also completely overhauled my eating habits, I value sleep above all else, I listen to my body and don’t ignore the signals she’s sending me. My body is my sanctuary. It’s the only one I have, and I’m going to do my best to treat it right.
Power Street Theatre Company artistic director and resident playwright Erlina Ortiz will host the WHYY storytelling event Thursday from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia. The theme is “finding sanctuary.”