My Surgical Experience
Adam dropped me off at Long Beach Memorial surgical center at 5:30 am April 9th, with a very big hug and kiss! He was not allowed to escort me into the hospital center or beyond the parking lot really, No Guests Allowed, thanks COVID.
After getting my temperature checked and answering the screening questions that I did not have flu like symptoms, I could proceed...to the surgical center...to an empty waiting room. I handed the
front office gal my advance care directive, signed-in and took in the 800 sq ft room that is usually filled with 20+ surgical candidates and their loved ones. I found my spot in the corner and started doing my morning yoga practice of course. Thought it best to stretch my body, take relaxing deep breaths and feel as healthy and normal as I could, in the body I have known for 32 years, prior to a surgery that would change me forever. Wearing my usual attire of magenta yoga pants and an electric teal Patagonia hoodie, I must have looked like a rainbow moving in arch-like shapes. The admitting staff and surgical nurses that were around smiled at me and commented, "If I did yoga with you, you'd never get me off the floor!" To that I always follow with, "Well then it sounds like you really NEED to be doing yoga!". This physical therapy brain of mine NEVER shuts off.
Within 15 minutes of arriving I was called back and handed a purple gown (that blows hot air onto the body to prevent hypothermia during surgery, (I wanted to take one with me for camping!!)), hospital socks and a hair cap. I changed out of my familiar yoga attire and for the first time in my life stepped into the wardrobe of a patient. SHIT, this is really happening.
I hoped onto the gurney in my station and met with my pre-surgical nursing staff. Everyone donning booties, masks, gloves and smiles you could see in everyone's eyes. There were maybe 4 other folks there getting surgery, from what I could tell were medically necessary. Elective surgeries were put on hold due to COVID. Hooked up to blood pressure, oxygen and heart rate monitor right away, I could see my slow, relaxed breathing rate was working, but my heart rate was over 100! I answered about 90 minutes worth of screening questions about my medical preferences and medical past. At this time, the surgeon comes out to ensure you know exactly what you literally signed up for, and reminds you "you are going to do great". She questioned my decision for going ahead with Mastectomy versus opting for the drug course that could have shrunk the tumor, warning that a very large portion of my skin would need to be removed during surgery. Of course I second guessed myself in that moment, but I was ready in my mind for surgery. I was going to remove the tumor with a nipple sparing Mastectomy, lymph node dissection and have a plastic surgeon place an expander to begin the reconstruction process. My favorite person was the anesthesiologist who walked me through the phases of drugs that would be given to first relax me, then sedate me, then wonderful nerve blocks that she would administer around my chest wall for pain management during and after surgery.
As they rolled back my gurney I could not help but feel I was on the show ER or Grey's Anatomy, but without the support of a spouse to hold your hand as you go back into the surgical room. The anesthesiologist had just given me a few pills to 'take the edge off' and asked how I was feeling. I responded, "I do not think the pills are working yet" and in 3...2...1...I was out.
I 'woke' in the surgical recovery room with my head and arms elevated on a mountain of pillows. I heard nurse Gina say, "You had your surgery, it went well, but they could not do the reconstruction". It was so blurry, I was fighting the sedation, I was not sure if I was dreaming or not, it was confusing. I decided to fall immediately back asleep while wondering, well maybe the plastic surgeon did not show up, or maybe the cancer was worse than they thought?
For the next few hours I slept and woke, slept and woke. She asked if I needed pain medication, and I had no sense of pain, the drugs were clearly in my system full force. She asked if I wanted to speak to Adam, since he was not able to visit me in person. YES PLEASE!! Gina asked if I knew my husband's number, or if she needed to look it up! HA! To that I replied, "I have been dating my husband since high school, since before cell phones! How weird is it these days that people meet and immediately put that person in their contacts but never memorize their number?!" Gina was delighted that I was married to my high school sweetheart and commented that she was just engaged and in fact did not know her fiance's number! I giggled.
Adam's voice was so sweet and lovely and somewhat concerned. HE was the one who told me that a large section of my skin needed to be removed to cut out the tumor. In order to save my nipple, my surgeon did not feel it was safe to further stretch my skin to accommodate the tissue expander that we thought the plastic surgeon would place. He told me that 2 lymph nodes were cut out of my armpit and that they came back clear of cancer markers!! The surgeon told Adam she was, "Happy with the surgery". He and I were relieved. I was grateful to have some clarity, but starting to wonder what it would be like now to have no breast where a breast is normally located. I was going to have to have an extra surgery?! Extra time for recovery, extra chance at infection?! Yikes. I did not have much more to say but I was doing well overall and it looked like I could go home in a couple hours! YES, I was going to be able to go home 8 hours after this major surgery, because of COVID risk and my insistence! I made it very clear that I did not want extra pain meds, a catheter or anything that would prevent me from being able to go home on the same day. Typically, after Mastectomy you will stay a night in the hospital, but COVID changed the way I saw recovery. I wanted to be in the comfort of my own, quiet, clean and safe home with Adam!
The nursing staff brought my bag of belongings to me, just my clothing, a magazine I brought, ear plugs and chap-stick,I am a simple girl! I went back to sleep, after putting the ear plugs and covered my eyes with my shirt to eliminate the bright florescent lights and the plethora of sounds in a 'recovery' room. It is SO loud in hospitals, I knew this, as I worked in one for eight years, and that was the recurrent complaint of the young and old. The earplugs helped a little! For the next four hours I slept and woke and slept and woke, then ate some applesauce. Gina brought me a ham and cheese sandwich, which would be lovely but I am a non-flour eating, lactose intolerant vegetarian. So I asked for more applesauce!! From working
in the hospital, I knew that applesauce is the only real food that doesn't have high fructose corn syrup and buckets of sugar that is not in my usual diet. My food snobbery is REAL and does not change when I am heavily medicated or in pain. How to eat when you have a chronic illness or cancer diagnosis will be another post!! I have A LOT to say on using FOOD AS MEDICINE.
Each time I woke I was getting more lucid and starting to feel the magnitude of the surgery. My vitals looked good except for my heart rate which was 120. I suspect it was from the cocktail of drugs that my system was not used to. I figured it best to take the smallest pain pill I could before getting myself dressed, Gina agreed. Moving slowly, I removed my gown and Gina took off all my monitors. She gave me privacy while I put on my rainbow colored outfit, donning my socks and shoes too. I said many thanks to Gina who was a patient, applesauce fetching angel and wonderful nurse. A nursing aide brought a very cool transport chair and escorted me out into the rainy afternoon where I saw Adam waiting for me. Adam said it had rained all day, just like on our wedding day 7 years earlier, and I thought that was a kind of lucky sign!
Adam buckled me in to my trusty Subaru and we drove home in the rain. I was so grateful to be in my home where Adam had placed blankets & pillows on every sitting surface in the house so I could be comfortable anywhere I chose to sit. I was grateful to have my dog curled up at my feet acting as my nurse, for the fridge full of healthy food I'd prepared earlier, and for the peaceful, quiet, dark bedroom to sleep in. My home is a healing place.
Adam was a stellar care giver, tracking all of my meds, keeping me warm and comfortable in those early days and ensuring I was eating around the clock. Without him, I would have needed to stay at the hospital for several days to help manage as movements such as getting in and out of bed required assistance, wound care that I could not reach, and monitoring and cleaning my surgical drain was too tricky to do alone at first.
My goodness it is one thing to be a health care provider, and something so very different to be the patient. I have learned so much about both sides of the spectrum, though I never wanted to know what this role was like. I sit here with patience, using my loving, healing energy I offer to my clients, on myself for the first time. It is nice to know I was in good hands in the hospital and still am at home! THANK YOU every day, every moment my dear Adam!