When I had my first surgery, the lumpectomy, I severely underestimated the overall effects it would have on my physical well being. After waking up and realizing that a lumpectomy with lymph node removal was quite a swift kick in the ass, I had no illusions that a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction would be any form of easy. As a matter of fact, I fully expected to be in pain for several weeks and resigned myself to a lengthy recovery period.
I was prepared for the loss of strength and range of motion; I was prepared for the loss of independence and personal ability; I was prepared for the tired haze of pain killers; and I was prepared for those times when I would inevitably wait too long between dosages and lose control of the pain.
What I was not prepared for was my role as a circus side show freak.
The first time I was not as nervous in the waiting room as I was this time — I did not cross and uncross my legs, bounce my foot, make stupid jokes or leap out of the chair when I was called to check in. The first time I had to wait for a while before I was called back to the surgery prep area, and by the time I was finally sent in for surgery, everyone was at Moffitt and I had had plenty of time to chat with all of my friends and family members that attended the cancer removal event, two at a time.
This time, however, things went much more rapidly, and by the time I was brought back for prep my family was still 45 minutes away.
At first things seemed fairly similar to how they had been with the lumpectomy; there was my one attending nurse that had me pee in a cup, put all my clothes/shoes/etc. in a bag, re-dress in the hospital gown/compression socks/warm socks, and then get under the covers on the gurney, which she then covered with some nice warm covers strait out of the cover warming machine. She then hooked me up to the heart monitor, put an IV in my left hand, started a saline drip, and left Bryan and I in the curtained cubicle. Things went more or less exactly how they had gone the first time, so I was prepared to wait quietly for the doctors to be ready for me in the OR. With the way things were rolling, though, it didn’t seem that I’d be waiting long, so Bryan went to find out how far off my family was.
The nurse told me that the surgeons and the anesthesiologist would see me before I went back, and by the time Bryan returned to tell me that my family was almost there, Dr. Dupont (the doctor who had done my previous surgeries) was in the room talking to me and doing her best to soothe my nerves.
Bryan had informed my family that I was in the same little curtained room as I had been in the first time so that they’d be able to find me easily when they arrived. As it turns out, all they had to do was look for the tumultuous sea of scrubs and white coats, though, because all of the sudden there were five young people in white coats and multiple people in scrubs clamoring over one another at the enterance of my tiny little curtained area.
My mother appeared in the midst of this sudden influx of medical personnel and parted the white sea to come give me a hug.
The Young White Coat Association took this as their queue to strike up conversation with me, and a tall, slender, pleasant young woman introduced herself to me as being from “plastics” and asked me how I was doing. I told her I was fine, at which point a thin young man wearing glasses piped up and said, reading from a clipboard in his hand, “Good morning… Ms. Dupont, is it?” I raised my eyebrows at him and said, “I’m fairly certain that Ms. Dupont won’t appreciate you operating on her while she’s trying to work on me,” and then pointed behind him at Dr. Dupont. Dr. Dupont, hearing her name, laughed and introduced herself, informing the five youngsters that she was Dr. Dupont and I was Ms. Bartell, the guest of honor. The young woman laughed and said, “Well, at least we made a good first impression,” and then the young man laughed and apologized, re-introducing himself and using my actual name. I looked at my mother and smiled, indicating something to the effect of “What the hell did they send these kids in here for?”
The young man proceeded to inform me of the procedure I was there for, saying “so today we’ll be doing a mastectomy of the right side with latissimus dorsi flap reconstruction,” which, in non-medical terms, meant they were going to cut out my right breast tissue and use the muscle out of the right side of my back to repair it. Of course that was all wrong, because I was there to have a bilateral mastectomy (both sides) with reconstruction that did NOT include cutting the muscles out of my back, something that had been decided three months prior. “NO.” I said, with a certain finality and anger. “That’s wrong.” The five of them kind of looked around at each other and at each other’s papers and mumbled some “Oh’s” and “Hmm’s” and laughed nervously. I then directed my attention past them to Dr. Dupont, who was entering information on a computer, and said, “Dr. Dupont, we are all clear on what is supposed to be going on today, right?”
She turned around on her stool and looked at me, allowing the conversation that had just occurred behind her to fully register. Dr. Dupont is a very intelligent, experienced doctor who, it seems, has the ability to record everything going on around her while directing her full attention to a particular task, easily rewinding and fully comprehending something else that happened in the same space within a matter of seconds. “Yes, yes, yes,” she assured me, getting up from her seat and walking over to me, “Everything is all clear, I think they just have some old information is all. We know what’s going on though, don’t worry.” She gave me a hug and then turned to the five stooges and said, “I think perhaps you have the old reports. That was the original plan, but then some things changed.” Apparently this was code for “God damn it look up the current information right now and stop saying stupid stuff.” My mother told me a few days later that when Dr. Dupont turned around to answer my question about having things straight, she followed her gaze to my heart monitor, positioned slightly behind my left side, and saw that my blood pressure had shot up from a nervous 115/85 to a distressed 135/100.
The young woman then tried to reassure me and said, “Well, don’t you worry, we can do whatever you want us to do.” I thought to myself that I didn’t want them to do anything to me, but instead laughed and said something about a nose job.
In a further attempt to reassure me, Dr. Dupont wrote “NO” across my back in large capital letters, since she would be leaving after she was finished with her part of the surgery, the mastectomy part, and I was worried that perhaps Dr. Smith’s team may not have gotten the memo. It was an action made in jest, really, and there was a lot of laughing that accompanied it, but it did make me feel better.
Bryan had left right before that whole fiasco to get my brother, who came back right after the young doctors had finished upping my blood pressure. It was clear that it wouldn’t be long before I was wheeled back to the OR, so my mom asked if I wanted her to go see where Carrie was at. I told her yes, but that she’d better hurry. I don’t remember exactly when my brother left, because by then the attending nurse had given me a shot of something to calm me down (and, perhaps, relax my memory), probably compliments of Dr. Dupont. Whatever it was made me feel much more relaxed, although not exactly happy or confident in Dr. Smith’s medical team. Anyway, at some point between my brother coming back and my mother going to find my sister, I found myself alone among a bunch of medical personnel that I had never met before in my life.
At that point, the point where I found myself alone, the anesthesiologist and his student follower appeared. They quickly moved in, closed the curtain, pushed my bed toward the opposite wall, had me sit up with my legs off the side of the bed with my feet on the seat of a chair and my hands on the back of the chair so that I was hunched forward with my back facing them, checked with Dr. Dupont to make sure that the “NO” wasn’t for them, and proceeded to preform some kind of spinal block, the name of which I forget at this time.
The anesthesiologist didn’t exactly explain what was going on to me, per se, but I got the gist of it while he was explaining it to his student, and then fully understood as he was doing it.
He felt with his gloved fingers up and down both sides of my spine, first the left side, then the right, and drew dots on certain points that corresponded with certain medical mapping terminology, four on each side, eight in total. He cleaned my entire back with antiseptic, I believe after he drew the dots, although I could be wrong, and then began explaining to the student how to do the injections as he performed them. “You push the needle in to the rib, then angle down and push under the rib until you feel a pop.” As he explained what he was doing, he pushed the needle in to my rib, stabbing it lightly with the needle point, then angled down, pushing under my rib, the flat part of the needle pushing my rib up with an unnatural force, and stabbed something beyond the other side. There was something that he did with the syringe that he did not explain out loud to the student, but each time there were a few moments of slight needle movement between when he got the needle to the right spot and when he injected the anesthesia. When he finished doing whatever he did, there was a slight increase in discomfort before he slowly pushed the fluid in, which caused a great deal of burning and pressure.
He did the four on the left side first, the lowest two causing the most amount of pain. When he finished the last one he asked the student if she wanted to do the other side. “I’ve only done it once before,” she responded, and then I almost leaped off the table. “Do NOT use me as your experimental dummy,” I wanted to tell him, “YOU do the injections and just let her watch.” But then I thought, “how else is she supposed to learn?” And I kept quiet, thankful that at least it was me and not Carrie or some little old lady. “Alright,” the anesthesiologist said to his student, “How about you keep watching me and then you can do the last two.”
God damn it.
At this point I heard Carrie’s voice on the other side of the curtain. I really wanted to shout to her to come in, wanted her to be there, but I didn’t want to make any sudden movements, or make the student nervous with an audience, so I kept quiet and held on for the ride.
When the student had her turn, she messed up both times. The first time she dug into my rib bone repeatedly, jabbing so hard one time that I could feel the needle dislodge itself from the bone when she withdrew. When she angled down, she either drove the needle in too far or not far enough, causing her to stab my rib once and to pull out and retry twice. When she did the syringe change out / needle jiggling thing there was more discomfort than when her mentor did it, and when she pushed the fluid in, she also pushed the needle in, and she pushed too fast, causing more intense burning and pressure than before. The second rib bone was slightly more fortunate than the first, and she only had to pull out and retry once, but she still pushed the needle in with the anesthesia and injected the fluid too fast.
When they finally finished, everyone was pretty much ready for me to go back into the OR, and I was already feeling exhausted. Carrie and my mom gave me a hug and said they’d see me when I got out, standing by my bed for the five minutes before I was wheeled back.
Once I got back to Room 5 (which was the same one I had been in the first time, someone told me) they moved me from my bed on wheels to the operating table and then started sticking electrodes to my front and back. When they were hooking them up to my back I had to sit up from a laying down position, which I found unusually difficult. We discovered that either I was dead or something wasn’t working properly. As it turned out the electrodes they were trying to use were faulty, and after trying to reconfigure them three times, they found a new set. By the fourth time they needed to put the electrodes on my back, I discovered that the spinal/nerve block they did on me more or less paralyzed me, and I was no longer able to pull my back up off the table without considerable assistance. They finally got the electrode situation worked out and I was allowed to lay down again.
They put a pillow under my knees and then a woman came to the foot of the table and told me that she was going to put a blood pressure cuff around my calf, warning me that patients often complained about how hard it squeezed. When she turned it on it came to life and started to constrict. It became as tight as your usual blood pressure cuff and then kept on squeezing; it squeezed until there was a tight pain in my muscle and then continued to compress; it continued compressing until there were white electric shocks in my leg, and just when I thought I couldn’t stand it anymore, it finally released. “Yeah, that is pretty uncomfortable,” I said to the nurse. She smiled and told me that “It only goes that tight the first time. After that it’s much better.” It began to constrict a second time, but thankfully the nurse was right and it didn’t hurt nearly as much.
Dr. Dupont came into the room and asked me how I was doing. I told her I was ok and she told me I was a trooper.
Then I went to sleep.