Tag Archives: robotic surgery

99 Hours in Joanland – Part Two

21 Aug

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.

99 Hours in Joanland

23 Jul

I barely ever journal. Usually I prefer to take my life experiences and camouflage them into fiction so the emotions are true, if not the details of the events. This time though, I felt compelled to write it all down before the experience faded. I don’t want to forget. The pain can fade, gladly, and the scars too, but not the other truths. You need to understand one thing: when a writer stops writing, it is serious. I had used writing to purge my soul; it ended up in my fiction. But for many months that internal drive fell silent, and I didn’t have the energy to miss it. I’m glad that it woke up again, even if it’s not what I’m accustomed to. So this is what I want to write about, my life-altering event.

Letting Go

Nobody likes hospitals. Especially the one in which your mom died while you held her hand. Sad memories surround this building. This is where my surgery would take place. Everybody there calls me Joan. I’ve never used my first name. Not even my mother ever used it. Joan became my alter-ego, a depersonalizing label that cloaked my real self from that invasive world. After a while, I just embraced the alternative name. Being called by the wrong name used to piss me off, but somewhere along the way I stopped caring.

I’ve had surgery before, but nothing on this scale, never on an organ. My kidney wasn’t working properly, like a kitchen sink with a clogged drainpipe with possibly damaging repercussions. I had an UPJO, an ureteropelvic junction obstruction. Sometimes my kidney wouldn’t drain, which caused painful swelling. Like puke your guts out, curl up in a ball and involuntarily cry kind of pain. Most of the time I would ride it out, down some painkillers, but sometimes the pain would go on for hours, requiring another trip to the ER. An ultrasound would confirm whether that kidney had ruptured. UPJOs can be corrected by robotic surgery. The machine is named DaVinci, an apt label for something so inventive. My surgeon is top-notch, a pioneer in the robotic laparoscopic field. He’s the co-director of the multi-organ transplant program. A Google search brings up plenty of positive information. And he’s been on the news. If anybody can fix me, he can.

It’s no wonder that after the long, long wait for this very specialized surgery, I couldn’t sleep that night. The clock finally showed 4AM. Good enough. My husband couldn’t sleep, either, getting up when I stirred. We quietly got ready to go, not wanting to wake our kids. I peeked into their rooms. My son was out cold, sprawled across his now too-small mattress, the blanket thrown off like usual. My daughter was tucked under her blanket, her exposed face tempting me to plant a kiss, so I did. This could be the last time I saw either of them. One of the possible unfortunate effects of surgery can be death.

The roads were clear that early in the morning, the sky gradually lighting as we drove across the city. We arrived at the hospital, well before the assigned time, but we were not alone. Another patient was already there, lugging the crutches he would need later. After a quick visit to pre-admit, we were directed upstairs. A long wait in a soon-crowded bland waiting room was followed by another long wait for just patients in another room, followed by a trip to the intermediate destination: a stretcher in a curtained cubicle. I removed everything that made me unique, changing from an individual to a patient when I donned that hospital gown. IVs were inserted, one in each hand. An injection of blood thinner went into my thigh. The anesthesiologist introduced herself. Somebody told me (her?) that I would be given medication so a pre-existing problem wouldn’t flare up, another possible effect of the stress of surgery. I’m not sure who said this – I had met lots of medical staff that morning and everything was a blur, lost in tension and anticipation and the literal blur of not having my eyeglasses anymore.

I said goodbye to my husband – my rock – wondering if I would ever get to see him again. He’d taken me to ER many times, seen me through visits to the oncologist when cancer was a consideration, and managed to remain positive through the months-long wait for surgery. I devoured the details of him, just like I’d stared at my kids earlier that morning.

The surgery room wasn’t at all what I expected. I’d had surgery three times before, yet this was completely different. The room was huge, with lots of people working inside. They all said hello, a friendly greeting to somebody who would soon be carved up by this team. I expected to see my surgeon, have him say something, but he wasn’t there. They helped me onto this weird bed, lie on my right side, raise my arms, wiggle so my head was on this odd platform that felt like a bean-bag.

And that was it. Blank. No nothing. No winking out. No sensation of fading, like I’d experienced with the other surgeries. Just one second I was on the operating table, and the next second I was gone.

Trust is a conditional gift. You break it, and it’s gone. I had to trust that this team would fix me, wake me, see me through. Letting go of control of your life is a hard, hard thing to do.