The Post Surgery Blues

Since you are reading a column and not an obituary you know that I survived the surgery of the century (at least for me).

As much as medical personnel tell you what to expect for a surgery, accompanied with glossy brochures of smiling patients and cartoonish drawings of incisions, nothing can prepare one for the ultimate loss of control over your life once you enter the prep area.

Shedding one’s clothes is akin to shedding one’s protection of what is to come as you lay there helpless in a large room of other pre-op patients, a drawn circular curtain the only semblance of privacy.

I lost track of how many people popped in, each with a greeting of “hi, my name is and I will be doing this to you,” introductions I only half-heartedly paid attention to; after all, these folks were opening acts to the real star of the show, the surgeon.

There’s the woman who will insert the IV, there are the residents who look more nervous than me, and there’s the man who will shave parts of my body which have never been shaved before.

I met so many employees proving how healthy (pun intended) the health care field remains for those looking for a stable career.

No matter how many movies and TV shows one has seen where the camera is the point of view of a patient lying prostrate on a gurney looking up as florescent lights fly by, when you become the camera, it acts as a lightning bolt dose of reality that this is really happening.   Luckily, by the time I was positioned in the operating room, I fell asleep, feeling terribly cold.

Waking up in recovery, there was a new nurse assisting and my wife by my side.  I didn’t know until later that my brother and sister had visited me and that I appeared awake but groggy.  I had no recollection of that.  I apologize for any foreign tongues that may have uttered from my mouth.

My post-op fear was that I was going to throw up in the car on the way home which is why I brought an old bath towel just in case.   Fortunately, I never needed that towel.

The day after the surgery was the most uncomfortable as the main drugs had worn off.  More than anything, I felt discomfort not sharp pain.  For the first couple of nights I could not sleep in bed even with added pillows; the living room chair with an ottoman was my bed.

In 29 years of teaching, and in 42 years of working, I have never taken off so much time due to my health.   Sure, I was able to read three books in five days and binge on Netflix’s “Seven Seconds.”   And my dog and I have bonded even more than before (if that’s even possible).  I’m worried about any post-surgical depression setting in for him without me by his side once I return to work.

Unlike the summer when I’m not working, however, this time felt different.  Convalescing with its restrictions on exercise, limited to small errands and short walks—the elliptical machine and racquetball off limits—bred restlessness.

In this September of my years (to borrow from the Sinatra song), the notion of retirement ebbs and flows, anticipating unrestricted time to enjoy life.  However, that fantasy only works if one is healthy.

As one ages and the future shrinks, the truth to the axiom of making the most of each living day crystallizes.

If you can wake up and feel well, that is a present that comes with responsibility to not fritter it away.   Life comes with a limited supply of those days.

“You Don’t Have the Gall” Will Now Be a Reality for Me

By the time you read this column, I will not be the man I was when I wrote it; I will no longer have a gall bladder.

It is hard to accept that an organ which has been with me since birth will be removed.

When my brother had his taken out more than a quarter of a century ago, it was a major operation where surgeons made a huge incision and the patients had to be hospitalized for several days.

Now, it is a laparoscopic procedure (doesn’t “procedure” sound less intrusive than “operation”?) with four small incisions to insert cameras and tools.

The technical name for it is a cholecystectomy.  One thing that scares me is that as an English teacher I can’t pronounce it (koh-luh-sis-TEK-tuh-me, if you are curious).

Such an operation is the number one outpatient procedure done in the country so I am not alone (though that does not make me feel any better).

My surgeon told me that he does hundreds of these a year.  I hope that doesn’t mean he has the chutzpah to perform mine blindfolded.

My son found an online video of the procedure.  I declined to see it.

Once I began telling people about my upcoming surgery, everyone had a story to share:  “Oh, my mother had it, my brother-in-law had it,” etc.

No big whoop.

Well, when it’s happening to you, it is a big whoop.

Plus, tragedy struck my mother back in 1982 when during a routine hernia repair operation, the anesthesiologist who was intubating her mistakenly ruptured her esophagus.  She nearly died, but even though she recovered, she was never able to eat properly again for the remaining 24 years of her life.

That plays a vital part in how my mind works.

About seven years ago is when I first had the symptoms:  my stomach hardened tight as a drum, my back hurt, my breathing became rapid, and I was drenched.  I thought it was a heart attack.   Each episode lasts about 90 minutes, averaging one every 10 months.

Finally, I had an ultrasound which detected gallstones.  Ever since I found that out in November and met with a surgeon who recommended the gallbladder removal, I have been on Surgery Watch 2018, obsessed with the impending surgery.

The only previous surgery I have ever had was back in high school when I had all four wisdom teeth extracted.   Not even when I had a colonoscopy was I completely under, choosing twilight sleep instead.

People tell me that having a positive outlook is essential.   With that in mind, in preparation for my recovery, I’m stockpiling chocolate pudding, true crime books and Netflix shows.

However, anytime I do not have control over my fate a sense of uneasiness strangles me.  Remember the old cartoons when a character had a little angel on one shoulder and a little devil on the other, both persuading the character how to act?

For weeks now I have had two voices inside me, call them “Smart Brian” and “Scared Brian.”

Smart Brian knows that this surgery is the best thing for me.

Scared Brian doesn’t know that to be 100 percent certain.

Smart Brian knows that a week or so after surgery, I will be fine.

Scared Brian pictures a life-altering diet of soft eggs and bland toast, which is why I used the last weekend as a farewell to my favorite foods, planning my final meal.

There is always that nightmare scenario reminiscent of the climactic scene in “Kings Row” when the Ronald Reagan character wakes up and screams, “Where’s the rest of me?” upon realizing his legs have been amputated.

I told my surgeon, “On March 7, you are the most important person in the world to me.”

And he replied, “And on that day, you are the most important person to me.”

I will let you know how it all turns out.