Panic on a gurney

silk tree flower
Silk tree flower, photo by Jericha Rendon

Two days ago I had another day surgery, related to the breast cancer surgery of June 13.  This was meant by the surgeon to be a simple event, draining a painful, annoying hematoma that didn’t seem to be shrinking on its own.  A twenty to thirty minute procedure.

Nothing went sideways till the cheerful young surgeon arrived after 9 a,m., garbed for the operating area, to inform me that since this was all being done in the Emergency Room, guess what — she was forced to give her skills first to an emergency gallbladder before she could do me.  She estimated it would take two or three hours.

Daughter Jericha arose early, took Elf and Opus for their morning run, and sat by me faithfully throughout the event.  Before it was over I was blubbering like an idiot as one awful memory after another from a previous hospitalization featuring six or seven orthopedic surgeries.  I went into that hospital at age nine, emerging at twelve and a half with a powerful determination to avoid doctors as much as I could for the rest of my life.  I’d also lost several years of elementary school education — but the results of that have been less painfully dealt with.

We had to do this day surgery by a circuitous route because of the demands of my Medicare Advantage insurance.  So, rather that having a relatively well scheduled day surgery, there was I, taking my place in the queue at the ER, complaining — as the doctor told me to do — of breast pain.  Finding one of the two wheelchair van parking spaces to be available in the hospital’s parking lot was a promising start.

I had so not wanted to have this operation, even urging the doctor to do it as a minor office procedure.  She couldn’t, though she didn’t say so at the time.  Later I understood — but in the two week period that elapsed between her telling me we would likely going to need this and me arriving to claim that parking space I had gone back into a childish state of mind, that existential fear of “being cut up”, of having the adults in the room make painful decisions for me without explanation, then me going through long and rather horrid period of recovering while encased in plaster.

Presenting a cheery demeanor to others, when alone I would sit around in my quiet apartment with the sympathetic dogs, shaking and twisting my hair, wondering how it was that my body — usually quick to heal — had failed me this time.  There was a hematoma in the surgical site that felt very much like one of those old fashioned stone or ceramic doorknobs we had in the old family home.

A large part of my resistance to this small surgery was that my daughter and her husband were scheduled to embark on a trip to visit East Coast family just a few hours after the operation.

The surgeon had a full schedule all week till Thursday, but did not want to postpone it any longer because there is a little clamoring from others for me to begin radiation treatment, while suggesting simultaneously that this hematoma thing had to go and I heal up first.  She was on board with “get this woman into radiation” but we had these outside time limits to work with.

And then the surgeon was unable to perform my simple little thing because of the gallbladder person.  Who turned out to offer her one complication after another.  For hours.  By two thirty she sent a message from the OR, “Another hour if we’re lucky.”

Doctors.  Once in, they can’t get out.  Can’t walk away from an open patient on the table to grab a bite to eat or sit down for a few minutes after ten hours of standing.  Man, you need terrific stamina and concentration to be a surgeon.

I have an intense dislike of IVs, particularly in my hand.  The day might have gone better if an ER nurse, not knowing about the surgical delay ahead, hadn’t insisting on inserting the thing into the back of my hand.  Five hours later, when at last the call came to move my gurney from the Emergency Room to the surgical prep region, it had gone bad, and there was a small balloon on my hand.

Another nurse removed that one, gave the area some lidocaine, and put a new IV into my wrist.  Owwwwwwch!

Alas, I have never liked lying on my back, yet that’s what I did from 9 a.m. till 3:30 p.m. or so, when things began moving that horrid resting place on wheels from the holding area towards the OR.  Freeing my hungry daughter to head for the cafeteria at last.  Me, I had eaten nothing for twenty four hours.  She would bring me some hummus and pita chips for later.

At first we read, played animal trivia, considered some events in the news, talked and generally enjoyed the opportunity to be there together without the usual pressure for my busy daughter to rush off.

Eventually, though, my bad back began its typical laments, which grow louder and louder with time.  Red hot demons with sharp hammers took over the lower back until I was ready to screech.  I was not allowed to take my mid-day dose of acetaminophen and gabapentin, but nurses did urge me to take some kind of opiod.

I told them gently that since I had nearly become a demerol addict back in the horrid hospital I continue to follow a no-opioids-until-I’m-dying-for-sure regime.

They tactfully left Jericha to do her best to keep me from become seriously troublesome.

Nearby in the ER was a very large woman in a very large power wheelchair, who had a big swelling on one side of her face.  Listening to one of the doctors addressing her forcefully about the need to spend the night in the hospital for observation, yet keep turning to a nurse and saying, “Look at her face, she’s not understanding anything, she’s not really here” then throwing up his hands and walking away.   He shouted, “You could have trouble breathing and die!” Treating the woman like a block of wood — it enkindled a long-forgotten rage at medical professionals.  I just knew she was understanding every word.

An inner chant started in my mind, “Lady, roll out, lady, go home, lady, don’t let them treat you like that for two more seconds!!”

And she was understanding perfectly, because she berated the next set of medical people to approach her.  “I want to go home to my dog!  I did not come here to spend a night in the hospital!”

It looked as though she won her point, because she packed her things, shoved the curtains aside and seemed only to be waiting for her discharge papers when I last saw her.  I am hoping very much that she and her dog are okay.

Then the old memories began to bubble up as I lay motionless on the gurney.  I never lie on my back, as it is quite uncomfortable, and here I was, forced to do that for over six hours.  The gurney’s back went up and down, but there was not a lot of comfort in that.  I could not move much with that IV thing stuck in my hand, since I’m paralyzed below the shoulders I need two hands to move around.

And so it was that grumbly me fell victim to such forgotten surgical dramas as a ten year old girl sitting up on another gurney with a thinner mattress, howling tearfully at the surgical team that “I want my mommy!  I want to know what you are going to do to me and I want to know why!!!!”

And getting no answer.  One of the doctors had a little ditty he would sing to me:  “Women are frivolous, women are frivolous.”  Now I wish I had whacked him, then I just stared, wondering what that notion had to do with anything.

I would work myself up into such a state of fury that they had to cancel the surgery.  Once or twice.

Then there came the day when they wheeled me into the”operating theatre”, now knowing that I had decided that neither love nor money would tempt me to succumb to their anesthesia — and I did not.  Cancel surgery again.

However, the reward for that was being firmly masked and forced to breathe ether the next four or five times.  Ether is a dreadful thing — for years the smell, the enveloping wooziness of the stuff, would come back to me in the midst of whatever activity I was busy with, stopping me cold.  Nearly six decades later it still does, though not very often.

Nevertheless I still fought.  Successfully enough that during one spinal fusion procedure I came to well ahead of schedule, listening to the doctors talking about all kinds of things other than myself, before they noticed that I was perfectly conscious.  “Lie still just a minute while we get you sewed up” was  not a particularly pleasant thing to hear.  From there I was loaded with considerable care onto a gurney and taken to the casting room.  The technician there faced the challenge of getting me encased from head to toe in plaster without moving me much, and destroying the just-performed spinal fusion.  And he had to do it with me demanding to know what was going on every step of the way.  No doubt wishing devoutly that the anesthesia had kept me under till he was done with his work.

Much as I hated the surgeries heart and soul, the aftermath was worse.  Orthopedic surgeries are painful.  Those hammer wielding red-hot demons would pound up and down my spine, in my legs that the doctors broke in order to rotate my tibias, through my hips, my legs, my abdomen.

Yet the most dreadful memory tearing at me on Thursday involved the long, long waits lying on gurneys in hospital corridors, awaiting my turn to be wheeled in, taking my position beneath the waiting hands and instruments of robed, masked, full sized demons who would never explain a thing to me, would rip off my johnny, summarily roll me over and stick needles in my spine.  Or draw and write all over me, loudly debating their surgical possibilities.

And so on.   What I wanted, oh so badly, was to be out in a field with horse friends, picking flowers, eating apples off the trees, smelling fresh  air again.  I was as pale from the many months in that hospital as though I’d been living like Gollum, in the back of a cave or the bottom of a well.

My daughter and a nurse named Emmanuel bore the burden of my tearful memories, the uncontrollable shaking they brought on, the misery of having to lie on that frickin’ gurney for hours, and painful needle thingy stuck in my hand.

But when my surgeon popped in looking less sparkly than usual for her — but still full of interest in the surgery she was about to perform (on me), my dimmed spirits shot up and life began to seem possible once again.  Life in the present, the past be left where it belongs.

I loved that she and the anesthesiologist listened when I said I wanted — needed — the least strong anesthetic possible.  Since my daughter was on an ever tightening deadline, and she would be required to drive groggy me home down the highway, we were going to have to take the driver’s seat out and make other adjustments to the van at her house, from which I would have to drive myself home.  The distance is only a couple of blocks, but still — one needs wits.  I loved that the anesthesiologist was a cheerful, warm fellow who explained everything to me.  And did, indeed, give me something that did not leave me groggy, nauseated or otherwise in need of time that wasn’t available.

By the time they one-two-threed me off the horrible gurney and onto the green sheeted, narrow OR table in a freezing room I felt thoroughly engaged and cheerful.

I went out like a light for about twenty minutes, and woke up still on the table, the friendly team still all around doing whatever they do in there, chit chatting with each other and me, explaining that everything went fast and well — Whoo hoo!

Getting one-to-threed back onto the gurney didn’t bother me a bit.

Sensitive to my twenty four hour state of foodlessness the recovery room nurse offered me saltines.  I grabbed the two in a little packet like a starving person, took a chomp out of one.  Oh, how good it tasted!  Then ….  How come I am still chewing this thing?  …. Uh, I’m still chewing this thing?   How come I don’t seem to be swallowing it?  Why is it sticking to my teeth like cement?  Ummmmm, I can’t swallow because — yikes dry mouth!

I had to swig water to get two tiny saltines down in a ten minute time frame.  It felt like swallowing chewing gum.

We did get home in time for my daughter to show the teenage twin fellows who are walking Elf and Opus twice a day in her absence.  I do the mid-day event, which is shorter due to Fresno’s intense heat.

She and Paco did get off to start their trip, and here I am, doing my best to heal (again), to say farewell to some old demonic memories.

Things all turned out well, exactly as they should, despite my kicking and fussing on that accursed gurney. I don’t think I’ll ever again agree to do a quick little day surgery that starts in an Emergency Room.

Another good thing to come of the long day was that I got the chance to weigh myself again on the big scale in the surgical prep/recovery area.  I went on a diet the day of the breast cancer surgery.  Since then I’ve lost almost nine pounds — and that on a woman who gets very little exercise.

If I could just get Elf and Opus to pat me on the back I’d feel like a champ.


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