Archive for July 21st, 2009

Surgery and Recovery

I walked through the doors of The Cancer Center in Santa Fe for the first time today. I’m scheduled to go back again tomorrow for another meeting. Then, in about two weeks, I’ll begin making daily pilgrimages there in the hope of shrinking a rectal tumor down to nothing.

I got the official diagnosis of colorectal cancer three days after my 48th birthday. I spent that birthday drinking clear liquids and giving myself an enema (what more could a girl ask for?) in preparation for an out-patient surgical procedure the following day. My surgeon, Dr. Wetherill, described the procedure as “not that much more invasive” than the colonoscopy I’d had two weeks earlier. It was during the colonoscopy that a 6 cm “villous adenoma” was discovered and I was told it would require surgery to remove.

The procedure apparently went fine. My recovery from the anesthesia did not. Several hours after the surgery, I was admitted to St. Vincent’s Hospital for the night so they could keep an eye on me. I was barely conscious enough to argue.

As requested, I’d arrived at the hospital earlier in the day with no belongings, no cell phone, no make-up. (For reasons that I still don’t understand, I hadn’t washed my hair either.)  My dear friend Shawn was with me as they prepped me for surgery and would be there throughout. As I was getting ready, the doctor popped his head in to ask how my birthday had been. I looked at him with complete seriousness and said, “Champagne is a clear liquid, right?”  It took him a second to realize I was only joking. They gave me the regulation hospital gown, complete with the back wide open. They had me put on these super-tall white knee high socks intended to prevent blood clots. Over those were the steel grey footie socks with anti-skid soles. But the very best part of the ensemble was to come when I awoke: the white fishnet (yes, I said fishnet) granny-sized underwear that came up to my belly-button and held an enormous diaper-like pad in place following surgery.  As they were wheeling me to my room for the night (wasn’t this supposed to be an out-patient procedure?), I felt dizzy and nauseous, but was somehow keenly aware that I looked like a bedraggled model for “Modern Nursing Home Attire.”

It was a rough night. I couldn’t make it from the bed to the bathroom, so they installed a portable commode next to the bed. I had to use it constantly. I wasn’t in much pain, but I was very weak. Each attempt to use the toilet created an opportunity not to pass out. At about 1:00 AM, the nurse was distressed that my urine output was too low. She announced that she was going to catheterize me. That’s when I started crying. I plead with her to give me another hour to “pee” adequately. After much wailing (“I’ve been so good, I’ve been so brave, I’ve done everything everyone asked”), she agreed to wait. I tried like hell to pee for the next hour and probably nearly killed myself. But an hour later, there was just enough urine to avoid the catheter. I thanked God like never before.

The next morning, Dr. Wetherill came in around 7:30 AM, gave me a hard time for being a “pharmaceutical lightweight” and asked if I was ready to be discharged. I said yes and expected to be home in an hour. The day nurse, who hadn’t seen me before, came in, took one look and said, “I’m not sending you home. You look terrible.” Gee, thanks. They drew more blood, decided the blood count was too low, and promptly announced I was going back to the O-R as I might be bleeding internally. Emboldened by having talked my way out of a catheter in the middle of the night, I thought I’d persuade them not to take me back to surgery, but no such luck this time. I was on the phone with Shawn howling, “they’re making me go back to the O-R.” She was at the hospital in ten minutes flat. I don’t know what I’d have done without her.  She asked everyone what they’d used to sedate me the day before and if I could have something else this time so as not to repeat the trouble I’d have recovering. A different anesthesiologist reviewed my chart and agreed to give me “just enough not to care.”

[Warning: if you get really frightened during horror movies, you may want to close your eyes for this next paragraph.] I had been blissfully unaware when they wheeled me into surgery on the previous day. Shawn said I was actually smiling as they rolled me away. This time was different. I was fully aware of everything that was happening as they transferred me from the gurney to the operating table. Six or seven masked healthcare workers were all in rapid action around me. They flung my legs up in stir-ups and began strapping me down. A huge black rubberized belt pinned my waist to the table and big black bands buckled my arms in place. I was panicking and trembling uncontrollably. Next, I felt Dr. Wetherill place four shots into the skin around my anus. I shouted for them to stop. I could feel the instrument enter my rectum that would spread it open for the surgery. I screamed. Then, thankfully, I passed out.

[If you closed your eyes a moment ago, it’s okay to open them now.] I awoke shortly after that in recovery and, amazingly, did not feel dizzy, light-headed or nauseous. Shawn was shocked to see me in such good shape after the previous day’s ordeal when she witnessed me faint each time I tried to get up. Both of us were shaking our heads in wonder at the remarkable difference. I was back in my room having lunch before noon!

So, after two surgeries and two anesthesias in two days, and round-the-clock monitoring of vital signs and elimination habits, an incredible thing occurred: they sent me home.

The following morning, three days after my birthday, I was resting in my own comfortable bed when Dr. Wetherill phoned with the news: the pathology report found cancer in the tissue he had removed. I heard him say some other things about appointments with oncologists and scheduling an ultrasound to “stage” the cancer and then something about feeling sure “we’re going to get you through this.” I was hanging up the phone just as Tim came into the bedroom to see who had called. A moment later, he was the first one to shed tears.

Next: My first appointments at The Cancer Center.

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