A lot has happened since I last checked in. At the time of my last post, on March 8th, my surgery was still nine days away and the real dread hadn’t yet set in. But when it came, it came gradually and then rapidly, kind of like this:
The hours just before surgery were the worst.
The procedure, even in its abbreviated form—RPLND—sounds awful. All those letters. The full name is worse, of course. Retroperitoneal Lymph Node Dissection. “High risk,” according to my surgeon and everything I had been reading on the internet. Six hours on the table, an incision running from my sternum to below my belly button, scalpels (and whatever else they use) slicing around organs, nerves, and two major blood pipelines—the aorta and vena cava.
I checked in at 5:30 on the morning of the seventeenth. Outside the hospital it was dark and quiet; inside the hospital, the only activity was from the few of us scheduled for surgery. Me and Shannon, an older couple, and two women. It was easy to identify which person in each group was headed for the table; told to wear “comfortable clothes,” we all opted for sweats and slippers. After we handed over our insurance cards and got tagged with wristbands, we shuffled over to the elevator and headed up to pre-op.
Prepping for surgery entails getting naked, being hooked up to machines, and waiting.
When you’re waiting to do something unpleasant, time does funny things. It’s both longer and shorter than usual. At one point I lay there for what seemed like an hour to see that only ten minutes had passed; another time, the clock had jumped from 6:30 to 7 seemingly in the blink of an eye. During all of this, I was visited by various people—all kinds of nurses, members of my surgical team, anesthesiologists.
At a certain point, you just have to give in and see yourself as a piece of meat to be poked, prodded, moved around, cut open, and put back together.
Close to 7:20, they wheeled me into the OR, put an epidural into my back, and not long after that I was asleep.
I blinked myself back into awareness in the recovery room. People were calling my name. I made no attempt to move, and nobody asked me to. I couldn’t have even if I wanted because of a few new tethers—two more IV lines (though they weren’t attached to anything), cables on my chest, an oxygen line under my nose, leg massagers, and a catheter.
They didn’t have a room ready for me, so I lay in recovery for a few hours, over which time I became vaguely aware of a dull ache down my middle. I had two triggers for pain—one upped the epidural and the other Dialaudid, a painkiller. While I was there, they continued to wheel people in from the operating room. The only one who made an impression on me must have had some serious sedation based on her anesthesiologist’s half of their conversation, the only half I could hear:
“MICHELLE! Wake UP!
“MICHELLE! Can you raise your right hand?
“MICHELLE! Raise your right hand!
“MICHELLE! Wake UP!
The first day was all about immobility, and only partly because of my huge incision. The drugs from the epidural had not quite distributed themselves evenly, so my right side was way more numb than my left. I couldn’t, in fact, really move my right leg at all.
I was in the first bed of a semi-private room. My roommate was a gravelly voice on the other side of the curtain. I asked him how long he’d been there, and he just said, “Long time.” Other than that, I only heard him say “No” (in response to the nurse asking if he wanted to get out of bed), “Pain meds” (in response to the nurse on the other end of his call button), and “Nausea meds” (in response to the same).
When lunch came that first day, the voice croaked out, apropos of nothing, “You should get the baked fish. I get it every day.”
“They’re not giving me anything yet,” I said. “Not even ice chips.”
“The baked fish is good. I get it every day.”
“They said I might get some liquids tomorrow.”
“Y’oughta try that baked fish.”
Okay, I thought. Please stop saying “baked fish.”
Shannon brought the boys to visit on Tuesday afternoon. I wanted to at least be on my feet for that, but nothing doing. Instead, a nurse’s aid helped me into a wheelchair and rolled me out to a lounge area, where I had the energy to visit for about a half hour.
On the ride home, Shannon told me later, Tony said that he didn’t like how everyone could see my butt. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that my catheterized wingwang had also been on pretty prominent display.
The next day they removed the main dressing and I got the first good look at my scar.
The days unfolded in long stretches of nothing punctuated by short bursts of intense activity—a nurse appearing to check my vitals and give me a shot, a resident stopping by to look at my incision, my phone ringing. This would go on through night, too. I’d be lucky enough to slip into some pocket of deep sleep, only to wake up as a nurse velcroed a blood pressure cuff on my arm.
And everyone asked the same question—Have you passed any gas?
I slowly shed my tethers—first the EKG cables, then the oxygen, and then the epidural. I wanted to start walking, and my main inspiration was my roommate.
I never really found out what was wrong with him, but he never had any visitors, and I overheard his nurses talk about moving him to a care facility. I thought he was pretty old, but one night, there was an Emergency marathon on the retro channel that he never seemed to shut off, and he said that he watched that show as a kid.
Holy shit, I thought. I watched that show as a kid. He couldn’t have been more than fifty.
He was in a bad way, but it was also clear to me that he was playing a kind of game with his nurses. During a shift change, I heard his nurse tell her replacement that he could move all of his limbs but refused to get out of bed. And at least twice a day, when his nurse suggested that he get out of bed and sit in a chair, he’d respond, “Nice try.” Once, he even warned the nurse, “I’m going to spoil your day today.”
Near the end of the week I was free of everything but my IV (the catheter came out Wednesday, and it was not a pleasant experience). I worked hard to get out of bed and into a chair by myself. To do that, and to then get myself out of the chair, I had to focus on using just my arms and legs. This is harder than it sounds; we use our abs for nearly everything. But whenever I’d use mine, a lightning bolt of pain would rip down the front of my body.
Once I could get up and out, I would amble, turtle-like, around the halls outside—first one lap at a time, then three, then as many as I wanted. There was a magnetic board with little cars on it in the hallway where patients could keep track of their laps (twenty-six equaled a mile, apparently), so I commandeered a green pickup truck and started keeping count.
Every time I walked past that board and the sign next to it—“Bed is the patient’s #1 enemy”—I thought of my roommate, and how the nurses were now working on a new problem with him. He’d been constipated for four days.
“Ya better bring the dynamite!” he told them at least five times, inexplicably cheerful.
I’d hear this and think, Oh, hey, here’s an idea, Mr. Beddy-Bye: get up off your ass and stop packing your gullet with baked fish.
I couldn’t hang around that room. I walked lap after lap in the hall, and then I’d venture outside the ward and into the hospital proper. I kept track of the NCAA tournament games on my phone, and when a close one was winding down, I’d slip quietly into my room to catch the end.
Discharge came a day early—Friday instead of Saturday. The charge nurse removed my IV, went over instructions with me, and asked if I wanted to be taken downstairs in a wheelchair.
I didn’t. I worked hard to get walking again, and I wasn’t about to be wheeled out. Before I left, I wished my roommate luck. I felt bad for him. Life in a bed is no life at all. I had no idea what led him there or what was keeping him there, and I didn’t want to know. I hope I never know.
Leaving that hospital, I was happy to be heading home, and I felt a lot better than I had on Tuesday.
What I didn’t know at the time was that things were going to change over the weekend, and that in a few short days I’d be readmitted.