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Amy Brenneman: Lessons from My Hospital Stay

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So I had that surgery on January 26. I told you that there were many lessons and stories, and here's a few more ...

amy brenneman

Amy Brenneman: I tried to stumble through work the week before my surgery, as was the original plan. And when that original plan was made, there was no reason to think otherwise. I am a strong person. I am a healthy person, at least until this illness hit me. And most importantly, I am a stubborn and willful person and if I say to my body that we're going to power through something, we damn well will power through it. I danced onstage when stricken with Bell's palsy. I triumphed as Joan of Arc with strep throat. I worked up until two weeks before Charlotte was born, and was back at work three weeks later with most of my weight lost. Yeah, it was like that.

So it was shocking and humbling to watch my will be outgunned by my illness. My kind producer Ann watched me with concern as I acted my heart out in my required scenes, then collapsed in my trailer in between. She asked me if I could finish the week. I said of course (as my eyes were fluttering with fatigue.) Out of denial? Willfulness? Show-must-go-on training? I could not say "No. I'm done. I need to go home."

So she said it for me. She literally said, "You are unable to make this decision right now, so I'm going to make it for you. Go home. Get well." I wept with relief, from receiving some loving parenting I hadn't even realized I needed.

I went home and waited the five days before surgery. I was exhausted, anemic, uncomfortable, essentially bed-ridden, waiting for the relief that the hospital stay would eventually bring me, and did.

The TV was on constantly (not my normal behavior) and out of the corner of my hazy sleepy eye, I saw it. Haiti.

The earthquake had happened the week before. Image after devastating image passed before me, and with each a call to action. My friends were going there to help. People were organizing bake sales. There was aid to be given and money to be raised. My natural instinct to get busy, make it right, save the world was stymied by the fact that I couldn't lift my head off the goddamn pillow.

Yet in that state I gained an empathy that health could not have given me. I understood the pain and fear and dehydration that I saw in the Haitians' eyes. My heart was cracked open to feeling broken and unwell. I identified now with suffering, which had always been a foreign land before.

But. But. But I was going to be okay. Haitians were being given Tylenol for pain before surgery. They had no water or shelter or future. My suffering was temporary and soon I'd have a clean hospital and attentive nursing and a morphine drip to see me through. There was no way I was not going to be okay. There was very little chance that many of the earthquake survivors would ever be okay again.

However, empathy is an opening, a start, a bridge. It's all well and good for me to want to save the world and help "those poor people" but without empathy, I remain in an "us and them" world, which is a lie. We are all humans, with frail (and strong) bodies and strong (and frail) spirits. Suffering, it is the great equalizer.

I never knew that before.

amy brenneman

Amy Brenneman

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4 comments so far | Post a comment now
Sabine March 8, 2010, 4:57 AM

You learn pretty quick ;) Even if it takes a producer to kick your butt. I feel that often the mere fact that you are able to sympathise is what helps the most, frustrating as the pillow may be. Glad you’re able to save the world again tho. Stay well!

Julia  March 8, 2010, 7:54 AM

Wow, I can hardly imagine what you or the haitians went through, but I was truly touched by this post. I believe that not only pain but all human emotions and needs make us more equal. Hope you get better soon!

annie September 18, 2010, 8:04 PM

Your post moved me in so many ways. I too suffer from ulcerative colitis and know how humbling it can be. Thank you for sharing.

Keith January 4, 2011, 12:54 PM

Thanks Amy for revealing what your surgery was all about. My 16 year old son suffered for over a year with ulcerative colitis before having his colon removed. We need to find a cure for this disease and other’s like it. I’m so grateful that you have brought it into the spotlight so everyone can get a better understanding of how horrible this disease is. Thanks again!!

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