Plumbing problems

By Phil Horner

The day of my hernia operation, two guards handcuffed me, loaded me into the back of a van, and drove me from Concord to Manchester. I can’t remember much of the trip. Those anesthetic drugs sure mess with your memory. I was still groggy when we got back to the prison.  I slept for a few hours in the infirmary.  They sent me back to my cell for the night.

I woke up the next morning and I had to pee. I climbed down from the upper bunk, trying not to disturb my cellmate. At least I didn’t have far to go. Living in the South Unit is like living in a public restroom. You’re never more than twenty steps from the toilets and the accompanying sounds and smells. I stood for a while in front of the urinal. 

Nothing happened. “That’s just great,” I thought, “post-operative urinary retention.”  It’s a complication of abdominal surgery. Maybe a warm shower would help. No luck.

Things got worse as the morning wore on. I made innumerable unsuccessful trips to the john. I tried straining. I tried relaxing. I tried drinking water. I tried running the faucet. I tried thinking of Niagara Falls. I tried thinking of nothing at all. Standing up felt more hopeful than sitting down, but there is only so long you can stand in front of a urinal in prison before someone starts making rude comments. “What’s taking you so long, Horner? Can’t get it off?”

Until now the freedom to urinate was a thing I took for granted.  But this day pushing the usual buttons in the mental control room wouldn’t unlock the sphincter door. I was a prisoner of my own bladder. It felt like torture - like water boarding - or rather, like inability-to-make-water boarding. I would have admitted to anything to stop the mounting pressure.

About one in the afternoon I resigned myself to the embarrassment of asking for help. I walked gingerly to the control room, trying not to jounce.

“Can I have a pass to the infirmary?” I asked the guard.

“What for, Horner”

“I can’t pee.”

He looked amused, but wrote me a pass. “The next movement to the infirmary is three o’clock med call. You’ll have to wait.”

I groaned and tiptoed back to my cell. Two more hours. I tried distraction. I made a mental list of all the euphemisms for urination I could think of: make water, go number one, visit the loo, answer the call of nature, commune with nature, relieve oneself, recycle the coffee, tinkle, piddle, piss, see a man about a horse, take a leak, powder my nose, whiz, paint the wall, drain the lizard, point Percy at the porcelain. I remembered a Russian once told me they say “going where the Tsar went on foot.” The minutes dragged by, even for prison.

After an eternity, I heard the intercom announcement, “Yard Open!”

I shuffled down the sidewalk, across the yard, and up the metal stairs, trying to minimize movement. I joined the line of prisoners getting meds from little white paper cups. When it was my turn, I told my problem to the nurse. She didn’t look happy. She was one of those no-nonsense types.

“You’ll have to wait until I’ve finished giving out medication.”

I eased myself into a chair and fidgeted.

When the last pill was dispensed, the nurse went to a cabinet and produced a sterile-wrapped straight catheter, a package of lubricant and a pair of latex gloves.  She handed them to me and pointed to the washroom.

“You know what to do, Horner.”

This was not what I’d expected. But, I obeyed the pointing finger, closed the door, lowered my pants and sat down.  It was one of those high toilets made for wheelchair access.

“Okay.” I told myself. “You can do this.” 

She was right. I learned bladder catheterization twenty-five years ago as a medical student.  Sure, I was out of practice, and I had never catheterized myself. Desperate times call for desperate deeds.

I put on the gloves, peeled back the sterile wrapper and squirted a glob of lubricant onto the paper. Starting the process was hard. Imagine shoving a ball-point pen cartridge...up …there. My urethra warned, “Don’t do that.” But my bladder insisted, “You don’t have a choice.”

I can tell you that last little bit going through the prostate gland is a trip, then resistance ends and flow begins. How do you spell relief?

I watched the last few drops leave the end of the catheter before I remembered removal is worse than insertion. It’s been described like running a razor blade down yourself. Faster is better, I told myself. Yeow! I waited for the nausea to pass, wiped the sweat from my forehead and returned to the nursing station.

“Lot in there, huh?” she asked.

I nodded.

“So, have you had a bowel movement since surgery?”

“Uh, no.”

She handed me a Fleet enema bottle and pointed back to the washroom. “I don’t want to see you back here because of that.”

“Gee, thanks.”