I’ve thought all week about how I want to wrap this story up, and I’m still not sure. I’d hoped to have some profound point to make by now, but I don’t think I do. I’m not even sure how interesting it is.
For those who have asked, though, here’s how it went and what I remember along the way. It’s going to be pretty chronological and pretty stream-of-consciousness. And it’s going to be way too long. Most of it won’t interest you, I suspect.
As I got ready for surgery the day before, it didn’t feel real. In fact, the preparations I was making felt more like I feel before taking a trip. I had a checklist of what all had to get done — such as taking my dog, Lucy, over to a friend’s house to spend a couple of days — and I had to get to bed early in order to get up early. It was hard to go to sleep.
I was up at 4 a.m. As soon as the alarm went off, I was wide awake. It still didn’t feel real. I was on a schedule and I’d meet the schedule, but I still couldn’t really feel anything about it. A friend who lives nearby, Carole, took the day off from work to drive me to the hospital and wait around for me. My sister, Rebecca, had planned to come down from Nashville, but I asked her to wait until Tuesday. I was taking up Carole’s Monday, so I figured Rebecca could take over on Tuesday if I needed it.
There was more traffic on the way to downtown than I had imagined there would be at 5:30 a.m. The Birmingham economy is dominated by the medical industry and downtown is stuffed with hospitals and medical research buildings, so maybe it was all people who work in those places. I just know I was surprised. As we got to the hospital at 6 a.m., I sent one last brief email to someone and turned my phone off.
After reporting to the assigned room, a nurse came to get those of us who were going in to be prepped for surgery. I turned over my keys, billfold and iPhone to Carole and went down the hall toward surgery. I found myself making small talk with the nurse as though we had met at a random social event.
Something felt different after we got past some big double doors that were closed to the public. The room had a number of small rolling beds with curtains between them. I was sent to one where there was a gown, a hair net, socks and a bag for my clothes. At the end of the bed was a stack of paperwork with my name on it. I had to change into the gown and put my personal clothes into the bag and then get into the bed. It was the last time my feet were going to touch the floor for hours.
A nurse came and confirmed who I was and what surgery I was there for. I couldn’t help trying to be funny, because that’s just what I do when I’m nervous. There was a part of me that wanted to get up and walk out. If it hadn’t been for the embarrassment — and the knowledge that I’d have to come back anyway — I might have.
A nurse first told me that I was the third patient scheduled for the surgeon, so I’d be waiting for two or three hours. In the meantime, a nurse working with anesthesia came and hooked an IV up to my right hand. Every step they were taking was making it feel more and more real.
Then one of the doctors came out and reviewed my paperwork with a nurse. She was confused because there were two sets of papers for me telling what was being done — I called them “work orders” in my mind — so she asked him which set was right. It was odd to listen to people talking about a paperwork mixup about your own surgery. I know it’s just a job to the employees there, but it was a bit unnerving, too. Given that I was nervous, it felt especially odd to me just how routine everything was to these people. I understand, of course, but it felt weird.
After the paperwork mixup was settled — by the doctor pulling one set of papers out and marking those sheets to be thrown away — he came over and looked at my chest. He felt to make sure he was right about the side where the tumor was — and then he used a marker to put an “X” on the left side of my chest.
Then I was alone. I’d been feeling alone for weeks, but this was even more alone. I laid in the bed and stared at the ceiling. I studied the arrangement of the lights in the ceiling. (It’s an old semi-OCD habit. I can’t help it.) Then I studied the construction of the vents in the ceiling, paying more attention than I probably ever had to how many pieces of metal went into the device and how it must have been welded. I guess I would have thought about anything to avoid thinking about what was going on.
Just minutes later, a male attendant from the operating room came and said he was there for me. I thought he must be mistaken. I told him that I was scheduled to be third for the surgeon working on me, but he said they were ready. I was going to be first. I can’t say for sure what time it was, but it was probably around 8 a.m. by then.
He wheeled my bed through several rooms and down a couple of halls. Even though they do this every day, the people working in there stopped to stare as I would come through an area. I’m still not sure why, but it felt odd, as though I was a specimen in a freak show. We finally stopped outside of an operating room. As I waited for a few more minutes, I talked to a couple of more people involved with the anesthesia. Another nurse introduced herself to me and told me that she was in charge of something or other during surgery and would be with me in the recovery room. It was oddly like meeting the flight crew when you’re about to fly on a plane.
Then the surgeon came over to me. He’s a gray-haired man of about 55 or 60, with a very competent, reassuring and confident air about him. He’s the kind of guy you’d cast to play an experienced surgeon in a movie. He asked if I had any questions. My mind went blank and I stared at him rather dumbly. He said, “You don’t have to have any questions, you know.” I finally said, “I have a lot of questions, but I don’t guess you’d have the answers to any of the ones I really want answered.”
Then it was time to go into the operating room. There’s no telling what all I didn’t notice, but I did notice odd things. I clearly remember seeing a sign next to the door saying the temperature in the room had to remain at 68 degrees, but the surgeon could order it lowered to 65, but no lower. Why did I notice that? Who knows? Maybe it’s because it was words, and since words are so important to me — written, spoken, typeset — I could take comfort in thinking about the words and how they were written and what the typesetting looked like.
I thought a lot about one particular person at this point, but my mind couldn’t stay on important things for too long. I think something in me still didn’t want to feel what I was feeling. I heard a woman in the background — a nurse, I presume — telling someone else that something had happened “after I had my last baby.” And my mind latched onto that as the perfect distraction. She seemed to mean “my most recent baby,” not literally “the last baby I’ll have,” so I started pondering the need for a better adjective to indicate “most recent” in this case. I think it was a comfort to ponder something so mundane and so common for me, even if normal people would have found it quite odd.
About that time, I was transferred to the operating table and positioned on it correctly. I was strapped in. I was still stupidly trying to distract myself by asking silly things: “Are you afraid I’m going to try to get up and leave in the middle of surgery?”
Someone told me she wanted me to breathe in oxygen through a mask. I don’t know if that’s when they switched on the anesthesia to my bloodstream, but that’s the last I remember.
When I woke up, it was about 10 a.m. I felt completely awake and alert, so I was briefly confused and thought that I hadn’t even been knocked out yet. I thought I was still in the operating room, but then I realized that I was finished and was in the recovery room. A nurse told me what had happened during surgery, but she mostly seemed confused that I was completely awake and wanting to sit up. She said that wasn’t typical.
Soon, the nurses in the room were making good-natured fun of me for talking so much. I wanted to know everything, so I didn’t stop asking questions. Then the surgeon stopped in to repeat what the nurse had already told me. Instead of losing a substantial chunk of tissue from the left side of my chest and staying in the hospital for at least a night, I would be going home by noon.
After it was clear that I wasn’t going to stop talking, my bed was finally rolled back to where it had started the morning. When nobody was looking, I got out of bed and started wandering around. I was bored and ready to go. By about 10:30, Carole was allowed to come in to see me. She immediately handed me my iPhone. (She knows me well.) I was able to send one quick email before a clucking nurse made me put it away while she took my blood pressure. I felt far too normal to have just gotten out of surgery.
Carole went downstairs to where she could pick up the Lortabs that were being sent home with me. A nurse forced me to ride a wheelchair as far as the hospital pharmacy, but when we got there, I got out and thanked her — and walked away not feeling as though anything had been done to me.
I never felt the first bit of pain during the entire week, so I never even opened the container of Lortabs. I never felt any ill effects of the anesthesia, either. In fact, by evening, I drove a couple of miles to the Target near my house. I didn’t really have to get out, but I needed to. I needed to feel normal. (Or, at least, as normal as I ever feel, I guess.)
I didn’t have any trouble sleeping that night. I had feared it would be an ordeal to sleep with a wound in my chest, especially since I typically sleep on my stomach. It turned out to be no big deal. When I woke up Tuesday morning, it was very typical — with Thomas staring me in the face hoping for some breakfast. (This is the picture I snapped of him with his nose virtually at mine.)
It wasn’t until Tuesday that I experienced a problem. Physically, I felt fine. I felt perfectly typical other than having a bandage over part of my chest (and the fact that I couldn’t shower for 48 hours). But I had an unexpected emotional crash quickly on Tuesday.
I could blame it on any of several things, but there’s no way to say for sure. I read online that it’s not uncommon to feel some depression after surgery. My theory is that I had been repressing some things that had been scaring and hurting me for weeks — and that it just all came out as soon as the physical cause of the stress was gone. For whatever reason, it didn’t feel good emotionally. Some causes, I could identify. It’s hard to say for sure whether I was correctly identifying them all. Sadly, there wasn’t really anybody to talk with about it, so I’ve stayed to myself a lot. I’ve been in the mood to simply tell people the truth as I see it — rather than be diplomatic — so it’s been best for me to avoid certain people lest I tell them what I really think.
I had a follow-up doctor visit Friday and everything looked fine. The pathology report was supposed to be finished, but it wasn’t. I’ll feel better when that’s official, but the doctor feels confident that it’s not going to show anything new. I hope he’s right. I’m supposed to find out at my next visit. Since it’s on Feb. 14, it’ll be my Valentine’s day present this year, I guess.
So where does the end of this whole thing leave me? Even if I assume — as I do — that nothing further will come of it, I still find that it’s changed me. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, it forced me to confront mortality. As I said in another article about this, I don’t mean it forced me to think about my death, but rather it forced me to think about my life. I had already been in that frame of mind when this got serious, so a lot of things seemed to come together at once.
All I know is that some things can’t continue as they are. I don’t want to wake up as a 90-year-old man and wonder why I never started some things that mattered to me. Some things have to change — and that might involve choices I don’t want to make. I just know those things are very high on my agenda right now.
I’m very lucky to have had good friends to help me with some things. I’m grateful to Hal for taking care of Lucy for a couple of days and bringing her home to me Tuesday night. And I’m really grateful to Carole for taking off from work and taking me to the hospital and waiting to bring me home. I’m grateful for my sister, Rebecca, wanting to come down and help me. But when my friends and sister go home, it’s just me and a little menagerie. That’s not acceptable. If something like this happens in the future, I don’t want to be alone.
I’ve told you about five times more than anybody wanted to know, but I’m not sure where I’d cut any more out of the story. If I cut out all the parts that aren’t especially interesting, I’m not sure I’d be left with an article. So since I promised some sort of report, I’m going to go with the whole thing. Maybe you’ve found something interesting or insightful along the way, but I’m honestly not sure what it would be.
Thanks again for all the messages I’ve gotten from you guys. I love and appreciate all of you. Thanks for your support in this medical issue and thanks for sharing some of your time with me here otherwise.
And — hopefully — this is the last time we’ll have to talk about cancer or hospitals or surgery.