The Surgery

doctors-call-768It was planned, this surgery, and while the particulars aren’t important, I found the process worth writing about. After all, people poking about in one’s body has become remarkably commonplace in the last century.

No one holds the gas light anymore, since Nikola Tesla blessed us with alternating current and Edison takes credit for the light bulb. Centuries prior to that, bacteria was discovered by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek in 1676. Robert Hooke who described the fruiting structures of molds in 1665, which also puts him in the running on that. We could go on and on about all the technology that brought us to modern medicine, and we probably should at some point though I leave it to the reader to affect their own diversion on this.

Suffice to say, medicine has come a long way, and as an old Navy Corpsman who had peered into the insides of others, I was well heeled for this. I went in at the appointed time, was promptly tested for Covid-19, the ever present reality of our time. I then found myself upstairs with a Cuban nurse who matter-of-factly told me I should take everything off and put on a gown, surgical slippers and a hairnet which I was told was for my hair – and I had to wonder where someone else had placed it in the past to create such a need.

A young man, 19 years old, was in line before me for the Surgeon, so I knew I would wait until he was off the assembly line. He looked calm up to I last saw him, but his calm was that of a bomb, appropriately scared of what would come next. At 49, with the life experience I had, I had an idea.

The anesthesiologist came in and saw him – quite clear and calm, hailing from India if I had to guess, brisk and efficient, which promoted confidence in me but not as much in the younger man as I heard his voice quiver with answers. He would not be getting the general anesthesia I would, and he had concerns that he felt he was being rushed through – but it was just the unfamiliarity of it all, I think. There is little that really prepares you for this sort of thing except actual experience, and mine was not that of being on the bed that much.

Myself? I have been poked, I have been prodded, I have been stitched and I have stitched, having performed minor surgeries myself in the Navy. Still, the mind wanders. I would not calm him with the history of why Surgeon’s are called ‘Mister’ in the UK, a history of the surgeons being that of butchers – really, butchers – that came in through the back door to homes to ply their trade. We are all simply slabs of meat made kinetic through ways we still do not fully understand. Admittedly, I am more marbled than I used to be, but this surgery would allow me to lean up again.

The anesthesiologist then visited me, a loud and clear voice, and we spoke at length about pain management, alternative pain management (he had just read a paper out of Jamaica on the use of marijuana for pain management, a topic we both warmed to), and I was comfortable with him as I was the surgeon who showed up not much later. 

The young man left for surgery, and I wish I had brought a book though I was not comfortable with the gown. I understood why I needed to wear it, but I did not like wearing it, but preferred an attempt at dignity provided rather than what I knew was coming.

Time passed.

I heard him come back and his discomfiture. The nurses had their hands full, he was panicked and possibly in pain and cold. I empathized knowing my time was coming, but with a bit more experience. I’d never worked the OR myself, only in emergency situations at that old Naval Hospital in Orlando, now a VA clinic. My experience was all about emergencies. It was not about the planning and hoops one must jump through for a planned surgery. He calmed, I suspect that they sedated him while piling a blanket on him.

Now they would be prepping the OR for me. It took an indeterminate amount of time – my timepieces were not with me, but it seemed long waiting and short in retrospect. And then I was wheeled off, an uncomfortable experience. And then the worn ceiling tiles made way for the solid ceiling of the OR, two lights above and I commented to the nurses and anesthesiologist and scrub nurses that they really had a nicer ceiling than elsewhere. We wrestled me over to the surgical table, parts of me helping and parts of me not for reasons I could not describe. I was told firmly that they would be doing everything and I should stop helping.

“I’m not used to that.”
“We know. But you have to let us do this.”, the Cuban nurse said.
“OK.”, I responded, sounding hollow. I do not like losing control. I do not like it at all, but I knew I had to, and thus… I tried.

The gas mask came down, “Breathe in deeply, then breathe out”. Simple instructions, easy enough, though the gas took me back to when I was a young boy – I knew the smell. It was the smell of the gas that a dentist once tried to use on me and failed – his mistake being telling me about pink elephants, which through power of suggestion, I saw. He and I did not know until then that I was not fond of pink elephants, trunk to tail, one baleful eye each staring at me as they slowly trudged.

I struggled, surprising myself. The anesthesiologist had it under control, “You are anxious. It’s ok. You know this, you can do this, breathe in and out.” Perfect. Had a dentist told me that 4 decades prior, I would not have reacted this way that time, but there it is. In, out. Deeply in, deeply out. Deeply in, deeply out. 

The recovery room. Surgery was over, I was awake and hooked up to monitors – my oxygen saturation was low 90s and high 80s, so I focused on my breathing through the remaining haze of the anesthesia. I needed to get that sat up. I could hear the young man going downstairs in the wheelchair. It had not taken that long, this surgery.

Within about 15 minutes of consciousness, my mind was clearing – I had latched onto my pulse oximetry as a thing to focus on and change, and change it I did – getting back up to the high 90s, then rewarded with the removal of all the equipment and the ability to get dressed – the nurse let me know that she could help. I dressed, practiced as someone who had pain but working through and around it. She was back within moments, I told her to come in – I was fully dressed.

And within another 10 minutes, I hopped in a friend’s car after following protocol to be wheeled down. That part was over.

Now, the recovery, which seems to be going well enough at this point. Everything works. Swelling is going down, and pink elephants no longer are an issue.