This is part two of my real-life experience with surgery.
Down The Rabbit Hole
When I was a kid, I had read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. They had been called classics, highly recommended, and I was a voracious reader. Sounds like the perfect combination. But I didn’t like those books. Not at all. I remember thinking that the stories had a surrealistic dream-like quality that was eerily unsettling. As an adult, I re-read the books and did some research on the author, and found out why those stories were so odd and uncomfortable. There is no mistaking that altered state. And I knew I was in an altered state now. Waking up was weird and disorienting. First I could hear, then I could see, but I couldn’t respond or move my body. I’d woken up from surgery before, so this effect didn’t freak me out. What did freak me out was the amount of time that had gone by – like maybe eight hours?
I was so happy to be through the successful reconstruction, and very very alive. I ran my tongue over my teeth – yup, all still there and no damage (another possible effect of surgery). Another reason to be happy. The recovery nurse told me that my room wasn’t ready yet. I laughed and replied “I’ll just wait here.” Like I could do anything else – I was stuck on that stretcher, tubes and IV’s connected to my body. My husband was waiting outside the recovery room, joining us in the hallway as the porter wheeled the stretcher to the elevators. I was so happy to see him. Things like this test your relationship, and we’d been through so much already, but when you really know you can trust somebody, that you can let yourself fall and they’ll catch you – that’s special. As the hospital corridors flashed by, I fisted my hands. They felt like they had woken up, too. I could feel all my fingers, no numbness, no pins and needles. I hadn’t felt them in their entirety for years. I wondered what medication they had given me, because to have your hands wake up like that was weirdly delightful. Everything was weirdly delightful. Let’s face it – being high is grand. I was so happy to be alive, that I got to keep my kidney, and now on the road to recovery. Happy, happy, happy. Yeah, cue the ominous music.
I don’t remember much about the rest of that evening. Just wheeling to my room, the blip of machines, the pulsing of some contraption that was wrapped around my lower legs so I wouldn’t get blood clots. I was hooked up to a narcotic painkiller pump so I could push a button when the pain got to be too much. A catheter had been inserted so I didn’t have to get up to go pee. Oxygen was vented into my nose. A drainage tube had been inserted into my abdomen, hooked up to a circular bag. The IV kept me hydrated. Both incisions were covered, and they both felt fine. My husband told me that my spleen had been nicked during the surgery, but fixing it wasn’t a problem. You don’t need your spleen anyways; other systems will take over if it’s gone. After I got settled, my husband went home. I wasn’t really there anyways, kept drifting in and out of sleep. Blink, I was gone. Blink, I was back. Somebody came by every hour to check on me. Morning light. Fade out, fade in. Breakfast. Tick tock goes the clock. Fade out, fade in. Lunch. Tick tock. The surgeon came by, checking the incisions. He read the chart on the pain pump, telling me I had a good pain tolerance and that the pump was addictive and he wanted to get me off of it as soon as possible. I agreed – his recommendation seemed logical, a good idea. It made sense to give it up. I knew the stuff was bad for me, so I had used it sparingly and sucked up the rest of the pain. You’ve got to expect some pain after surgery, right? If only I’d known what I was going to be up against. Maybe it is better that I didn’t know. Somebody came in and removed the pump. The catheter went, too – no pain, no problem. Until I actually had to get up to go pee.
I couldn’t get out of bed. It was like going to sleep normal, and waking up nine months pregnant. My abdomen was distended to the point where it was pressing into my diaphragm, making breathing awkward, a deep breath impossible. I’d been through natural childbirth twice, surgery three times before – I thought I knew something about pain. I would have to invent a new scale; my previous “ten” had been chewed up and spit out by this monster. My legs were wrapped in those claustrophobic bindings, and I had no abdominal muscles to help me rise. Just sitting up became a huge problem, such pain rippling, cramping, hammering. I was counting the minutes between oral painkiller doses, and the nurses wouldn’t give me the meds off schedule, not even ten minutes too early. Supper came, but I had no desire to eat. It made me nauseous just to think about food. My brother and his wife dropped by to visit. I wished they’d come by a few hours earlier, when I was still high and happy. I must have looked bad, as she kept talking about patient advocates and how patients needed someone on the outside to fight for their needs. But I never once felt like I wasn’t getting the help I needed, and I didn’t want somebody sitting beside me all day, watching me sleep. It would have been too exhausting to pretend that I was okay, to put on that false front, to act like I had my shit together when clearly I didn’t. My husband came by, bringing our daughter with him. I could see the tension and shock in her face, that her mom would be such a mess.
That night I was in such pain, I wanted it to be over. The logical part of me knew that the meds were taking over my thoughts. The emotional part of me wanted to give up. Which side would win? While I was wrestling with this dark mood, a man appeared, standing at the foot of my bed. I didn’t know him. I wondered if he had wandered into the room by mistake, or had come to visit my room-mate. He was wearing a weird hat, the big brim shadowing his face. His clothes were odd too, from a different era. The strange hat tipped me off, that and the fact that nobody else was reacting to his presence. What I saw wasn’t at all like a dream – there was too much reality injected in the details. It didn’t have the weird, altered state that goes on in a dream. He asked, in an impatient, bored tone, if I was going to cross over. I always figured that when I crossed over, somebody I knew would come to get me, not this indifferent stranger. If this was a hallucination, why didn’t it contain someone familiar? It really shook me up, that the afterlife would be so different to how I thought it would be. Maybe I’d seen too many episodes of The Dead Files. Or maybe this was just the way things were going to be. Logic claimed he was a hallucination. Emotion claimed he was a ghost. Both sides agreed that he was scary. Months later, the creepy image of that man in his wide-brimmed hat still haunts me.
No way did I want to cross over. I had too much to live for, a beautiful family that was counting on me. Many people, some of them strangers, had invested their time and effort to get me here.
I told the man “no!” Adamant, final, determined. He left, drifting backwards to dissipate through the wall. He came back again later but never said anything, just stood there and waited as if I might change my mind. I closed my eyes, trying to shut him out. Eventually he left again, right through the chair and the clock and the shelf and the wall. I couldn’t fall asleep after that happening. To sleep meant that dreams may come, weird unsettling surrealistic illusions, and I had had enough of that altered state.
Morning couldn’t come soon enough.