Thoughts on Surgery

The Rule

I was told, more than once, that I shouldn’t talk about the surgery. Shouldn’t tell people my business. And I already knew that to be one of life’s rules, because I’d learned it from my late family members. You don’t talk to people about your surgery. Especially your surgery for ladies.

But why? When it came down to it, I couldn’t figure out the reason. “I’m going to be out for six weeks, so Tiffany will handle your case,” I said to people. They said, “Six weeks? You’re not leaving us, are you?” I said, “No, I’m having surgery.” They said, very kindly and with genuine-seeming concern, “I hope it’s nothing serious.”

And I said…

The rule isn’t true, is it? You know what I always hear people talk about? Rotator cuff surgery. “It’s my rotator cuff,” you hear people say. Then there’s a long conversation about the basketball that got played in college. I never play sports, but I know that rotator cuff surgery is something that happens.

I said (whispered), “I’m having a hysterectomy.” If I was talking to a man, I whispered, “I’m having… surgery for ladies,” then felt stupid and added, “I mean, a hysterectomy.”

You know who has hysterectomies? Everybody. I swear to you, 50% of the people I told (meaning, like, six people) immediately said, “OMG, I just had a hysterectomy, too!” Some of the men said their wives had recently had one. And then I was glad that I’d told them, because they shared their stories with me and it made me feel less alone.

I guess the don’t-tell rule is left over from the era when we were supposed to pretend that half the population didn’t menstruate. I never cared for that era and its rules.

I wasn’t able to have the laser surgery, like I did for my gall bladder removal a few years ago. I had to have the old fashioned gut cut, which is very similar to giving birth by caesarian section.

While I’m sitting here recovering, feeling slightly pained but grateful and relieved, I’m going to tell you the most memorable thing anyone said to me about the surgery I wasn’t supposed to mention. A woman at my work named R, about the same age as me, who also had the cut and not the laser, told me, “I’m not going to lie — the first two or three days are going to suck really bad. But after that, it’ll be worth it.”

I thought of her words every day of the last week, and they helped me get through the hard part. I’m glad I broke the rule, and that’s why I’m breaking it here again now.

Fear and Loathing

In preparation for this, I kept thinking about all the elderly people I’d known who had way more serious surgery than a hysterectomy. In particular, I thought of a friend’s very elderly relative who had issues with her mouth that required… tubes. The inability to speak. Way back before I knew I’d have to have the hysterectomy, my friend had told me about the tubes down this woman’s throat, and just imagining it made me uncomfortable as hell.

So I kept telling myself, “If that woman could live through that (for a while, at least), then you can live through this, you big freaking baby.” I’m pretty stern with myself about things like this. I have little tolerance for whining.

Some day when I’m older, I might have to have a more serious surgery. Maybe more than one. That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Count your blessings. Etc., etc. There are lots of cliches that serve in situations like this. Also, I’m lucky enough to live in the age of Web MD. Whenever I’m having health problems, I like to look them up on Web MD and meditate on the worst possible scenario. Because, when you’re mentally prepared for the worst, the second worst is easy.

I’m afraid of what will happen to my body as I get older. I don’t mind admitting that to you. The older I get, the more I admire and respect everyone who’s older than me.

The Coping Mechanisms of Others

Before I had the hysterectomy, I had a hysteroscopy, which is like an exploratory mission. It’s like minor surgery, although it doesn’t always involve being cut.

Everyone has their own least favorite part of surgery. Mine is the time immediately after waking up. (Second least favorite is going under.) A lot people told me they hate the prep time most. And I can totally see why. It’s sort of dreadful. You show up at the hospital more than an hour early so they can make you strip yourself naked and lie under thin bits of cotton. They tether you to IVs and electronic leg warmers. Worst of all, they wheel you around like that and strangers can see you. You stop being a human being and become merely a human body. You’re like a piece of meat on a conveyor belt, rolling through the nurses’ factory.

Although I’m a control freak in normal life, I can handle the prep time. I can force myself to let go of my own autonomy and put my faith in the nurses. It’s self-induced Stockholm Syndrome, what I actually do. I try to exert good will in the nurses’ direction so they won’t forget about me — won’t let me get too cold, won’t let my IV fill my bladder too quickly.

My coworker T said about this part of it: “And they don’t even let you wear makeup.”

Yes! They don’t even let you wear makeup, or jewelry, or false eyelashes or perfume or anything!

I told her, “I hate that because it makes me realize how much I rely on cuteness to get by.”

She didn’t know what I meant. I said, “You know… I’m freezing to death, so I look at one of the nurses like this [smile, almost wink] so he’ll come over and help me. But he doesn’t. And then I realize, ‘Oh, shit. That doesn’t work without my mascara!'”

T looked at me askance and I thought, “Okay, maybe that’s something I’m not supposed to talk about.”

But, like I said, I’m okay with the prep time. I can’t be cute without makeup, but I can be pitiable if I have to. I can get extra blankets when I need them, using a certain voice. (God, that poor woman with the tube down her throat. Don’t think about it.)

Before my hysteroscopy, I had extended prep time. I was in a tiny hospital and my surgery room wasn’t ready at the scheduled hour, so my doctor ran off to do a pending caesarian and I had to wait on my stretcher for an extra hour. Next to me, on the other side of a nylon curtain, was another stretcher containing the woman who’d ridden up on the elevator with me 90 minutes before.

This woman was apprehensive. She had a lot of concerns, and she told them loudly to her nurses, her anesthesiologist, and everyone else in the room. Her doctor came by and she asked him in-depth questions, like how he’d done in his classes at Baylor and how he was going to avoid severing her nerves by mistake. She gave orders for specific drugs during the surgery and after. Eventually, she mentioned that she was a nurse, and I was glad because listening to her was making me feel like I hadn’t done enough research, myself.

This woman said, “I just can’t… I just can’t…” and then she stopped talking for the first time in a long while. Having received their fill of orders from this woman, apparently, all the doctors and nurses left the prep room. Then a new patient was wheeled into the room and deposited into the bay on the other side of my neighbor. The new patient started to snore. I remember feeling envious. I would’ve slept through those hours if I could.

Nurses and doctors filed back into our room and went to check on my neighbor. She told them, “The lady to my right was snoring really loud. I bet the lady to my left, who came up on the elevator with me, thought it was me snoring like that.” She said that two or three times, seemingly begging me to confirm or deny. So I called through the curtain, “I didn’t think it was you snoring.” She said, “Oh, good.” Then she told us all, “I had a panic attack, a little while ago. When I stopped talking? I couldn’t talk anymore, because I was having a panic attack.” She seemed proud that she’d been able to keep that from us.

Overall, she seemed desperate to cling to any invulnerability she had left. She may have been indisposed, but at least she wasn’t snoring. She may have been panicked, but at least she’d kept it to herself.

I couldn’t help but feel love for her, in a sisterly way, and wish her well. But silently, and not until I’d gotten the extra blanket.

My Worst Part

I’ve had about five surgeries now, throughout my life, and hands-down, the worst part is always when I first wake up. Every time, I’ve been in pain and very thirsty. Every time, I said so to the nurses standing near. Every fucking time, they gave me pain killers but not water. Not even ice.

After the gall bladder surgery, I couldn’t open my eyes but I could hear a young male nurse beside me. I asked him for water. Instead of answering me, he said, “She’s asking for water.” A female nurse, farther away, said, “She can’t have any. She’ll throw it up.”

I asked for ice. He said, “She’s asking for ice.” I heard no response but got no ice, either. I kept asking and he kept relaying my words with a slight tone of surprise, as if I was a cockatoo saying sentences that almost made sense. I got the impression that he was new at his job. Eventually, I said to him, “I can hear you. I can hear you ignoring me.” He shuffled away from me then and never came back.

After the hysteroscopy, there was only a female nurse seated on a stool ten feet away. I know because I was able to peek this time. I said, “Thirsty.” She said, “You’re thirsty? Okay. I’ll bring you some ice.”

I waited. No feet shuffling. I used all my strength to open one eye. I saw her sitting on the stool, writing in a file folder.

“I’m thirsty,” I said. She said, “Okay. I’ll bring you some ice.”

I passed out. I woke up again. I told her I was thirsty and she said she’d bring me ice. She lied. Again and again. I passed out two or three times, and every time I woke up, she was a liar. When I opened my eyes enough for them to wheel me out of that section, I told her — that liar, that Nazi — I said, “I remember all the times you said you’d bring ice and you didn’t.”

I bet she didn’t even care, though. I couldn’t turn around to catch her reaction because my neck was hurting like hell from the tube they’d apparently shoved down my throat when I was knocked out and couldn’t stop them. So I stayed still and imagined that Nazi Nurse looked chagrinned. And I made myself look pitiable again, and they rolled me to the room where the honest nurses feed you ice with a spoon and cranberry juice in little foil-topped containers.

It wasn’t until I got home that someone remembered to tell me that the hysteroscopy was unsuccessful. Because I’d read Web MD, I knew then that I’d have to go back to the hospital to have a hysterectomy. I didn’t cry when I realized this. I was disappointed, but mentally prepared.

My Neighbor in Everyday Life

Today is Tuesday. My hysterectomy was the Friday before last. I’m not supposed to drive until this Friday. But I drove a little bit this morning, and it felt so good. I can’t tell you why I like driving so much (or, if I could, it’d take another really long blog entry), but it felt so, so good to drive my car this beautiful spring morning with my MP3 player on. I will admit to you that I cried. Even when I went too far and my stomach began to hurt, I cried from happiness and not pain.

That’s very dramatic, isn’t it? It’s only been a week and a half since the surgery, and the recovery wasn’t that bad. What was it, but a few days of chanting, “It’s gonna suck real bad, but it’s gonna be worth it”? Easy breezy Cover Girl. I’m wearing tons and tons of mascara right now. I have nothing to complain about.

One of the places I forbidden-ly drove this morning was my neighborhood Starbucks. Yes — the Starbucks that I complain about on Facebook, because I prefer the more urban Starbuckses inside the Loop, in the neighborhoods I haven’t sold enough books to afford.

Our neighborhood Starbucks is a stage for a certain cast of characters. My neighborhood used to be classy in the ’80s, and now it’s far away enough, old enough, and cheap enough to host a certain demographic. That is, people my age who manage to work from home or retire early. I myself work part-time right now, so I can tell the difference between these people and the mere unemployed. These people hang out all morning at the Starbucks, chatting and leisurely fingering their laptops. They’re not feverishly searching like the people at the cheaper independent coffee shop down the street.

There’s one guy who hangs out at our Starbucks every day, and he knows every single person there. He’s an older guy, and I think his name is D. Every time I go there for an Americano to go, D is carrying his latte from table to table, conversing with every single person in the place. If he hasn’t yet met them, he introduces himself and then finds out everything he wants to know from his newfound friends. I imagine that he’s a retired cop, but it’s hard to say for sure since I grew up in a neighborhood where the cops never stopped to chat.

I’m kind of a bitch. I mean, I’m not a very social person and my facial expression — when I’m not hoping for extra blankets — is a ghetto-wise, off-putting scowl. I’m an introvert, to put it kindly. If you’ve seen me do a reading out in public somewhere, you’re saying, “No, you’re not, Gwen! I know you. You love people and you always smile and you’re very, very, very nice!” (People say that. My own friends say that to me.) But no, performances don’t count. Ask my husband – I do not invite friendly overtures in public.

I hadn’t been to my neighborhood Starbucks in a good long while — not since I bought a fancy new coffee machine a few months ago. But, being out of heavy cream this morning, I drove there against my doctor’s orders and stood in line with my bitch face, lost in my world of MP3-fueled thoughts. I placed my order and then waited in the corner where you wait while the suburban barista misunderstands or messes up your drink.

In walked D. I recognized him right off the bat, even though his face looked a little different — swollen? more lined? — and he was leaning on one of those roll-y wheelchair-y walker things. Why was he walking with that thing? It startled me so much, I looked him directly in the face and smiled.

While I waited, D greeted everyone else in the Starbucks. For one guy, he bought a drink. When my drink was ready, I turned to leave but D’s wheel-y walker blocked me. He’d rolled all the way through to me by then, and he asked me how I was doing. He didn’t know my name because he’d only spoken to me once and I’d been standoffish enough not to give it to him. But this morning, when he greeted me, I pointed to his walker wheeler and said, “How are you doing? What happened to you?”

He said he’d had leg surgery following heart surgery, and both of those had been followed by surgery on the other leg due to infection. “Oh, no,” I said. In a more labored voice than I’d known him to use before, he described waking up in the hospital and finding his leg tied up like a pork roast. “Oh, no,” I said again, meaning it sincerely. He said he was in pain but was holding up as well as could be expected.

He looked at me as if something had changed and he couldn’t figure out what. Maybe, I thought, he could tell that I’d had surgery recently, too. Like we were fellow veterans in a way (but he a lieutenant and me no more than a private or corporal at the most).

He pointed at my wedding ring. “You’ve done well here.” I shook my head. “I’ve been married, but sometimes I forget to wear it.” I remember the lady beside me made a face when I said that. A lady doesn’t forget to wear her wedding ring! That’s almost as bad as talking about a surgery in her lady parts!

I told D that I hoped he’d recover soon. And I really, really meant it, so I went so far as to touch him on the arm. Then I left.

I know there is way more suffering in the world than I will ever feel. Way more than anyone in America will ever feel. But I hope that, if you have to have a hysterectomy in the future (knock on wood!), having read this will prepare you, mentally, a little bit more.

I Can’t Take the Time to Tell You These Things

… or write this site off on my taxes unless I say “Hey, guys, my next book is coming out in July. Don’t forget to buy it if you’re so inclined.”

Duty done. Until next time, peeps. Cheers.

Be Sociable, Share!
Posted in Uncategorized on 04/03/2012 02:29 pm

Leave a Reply

Comments are closed.