After learning that a tumor the size of a grown man’s fist was clinging to my spine, life got more hectic. Telling my family. Sorting out work. Telling my best friends. Doctors offices, blood work, cat scans, MRI’s, height, weight, blood pressure on repeat for almost 8 full weeks. Bonus: after getting a biopsy and waiting for the results for what seemed like 19.2 years, my cell phone rang at 7:50pm the night before my birthday. A pleasant dude by the name of Sean informed me that: hey guess what, happy birthday, the tumor’s benign. So with that out of the way, all I had to start mentally preparing myself for was the surgery itself.
Since the spine was involved, my procedure would be handled by two categories of specialist: thoracic and neurosurgery. (Hands up for anyone other than me that had only heard the word ‘thoracic’ mentioned before on Grey’s Anatomy circa 2007…)
Becoming part of a large healthcare system in such an intimate manner changes how you view hospitals. To the people working there, it’s another day at the office. For the patient, however, you’re looking for the most nearby trash bins so you know how far you have to run if you need to puke from the nerves.
The morning of February 23rd began like any other: with Brian hand grinding coffee…except we had a houseguest in the form of my sister, Anna, who had flown in from Berlin to be a surprise support system. I packed my bag full of important things for the four day stay: pens, laptop, underwear, sweatpants, deodorant, brush, extension cord, charger and lotion. (I heard your skin gets really dry in the hospital.)
When you’re sitting in that little curtained space before you get wheeled off, I can only compare it to being stamped and tested like you’re cattle. What’s your name? Do you know what procedure will be occurring on your body today? On what side? Who will be performing the operation? Sign here. Initial here. Turn to the side, lift gown up, I have to initial in marker where you’re going to get cut open.
Watching my sisters and fiancé walk away from me as I was sitting on the pre-op hospital gurney was the scariest moment of my life…until two minutes later when I saw the epidural that was to be inserted in to my spine. Before I was completely sedated, I asked if there was a high percentage of people that wake up on the table. The anesthesiologist very confidently said, “oh –very few people do; probably only one patient every three months.
Me. I was the once-every-three-month patient. I came-to, legs flailing, my right arm swinging (I had been laid out on my left side – not on my back, not on my stomach, but my side, as if mid-stroke in a pool). I recall trying to scream as someone was removing a tube from my throat and all I could keep yelling over and over again was that I needed Brian. Where was Brian? I remember two masked zombies securing my extremities, attempting to calm me down. If you are picturing a sea creature at this point – turtle, dolphin, orca – writhing in agony on a beach with plastic wrapped around its throat while humans try and free it back to its home – you wouldn’t be far off from envisioning the sci-fi experience of waking up on an operating table.
The surgery was successful – the tumor was about 90% removed, (as it was benign, the thoracic surgeon graciously kept some of it in so he would only have to crack one rib versus five) and I proudly boast some gnarly scars.
If you write emails all day for work, surgeons cut all day. It’s no biggie. Their version of editing a sentence is removing layers of nerve and muscle from bodies. Like mine. I no longer sweat in my right armpit, because the nerves were severed. Now, my right under-arm sweat is located in the middle of my back on the right side. The doctor happily exclaimed this as he was leaving my room on his rounds, as if it were the post-script to an already discussed topic. Except he anticipated that my body was going to re-route that sweat to my right ass cheek. Thank Christ he was wrong.
It didn’t occur to me why the nurses kept promoting breathing exercises as part of my recovery: during the operation, my right lung was deflated in order to reach the mass behind it. NO ONE TELLS YOU THESE THINGS.
Bodies are resilient and complicated. Their mission is to survive. The recovery process was comedic, painful and stressful – it made me fall deeper in love with Brian. It forced me to slow down. It forced me to be thankful for the littlest things like being able to reach in to the washing machine to take out wet clothes. The love and care bestowed upon me from my family, friends and medical care givers is a generosity I’ll never be able to repay, but I’ll never stop trying.