So when we last left our heroine, she had suffered through two more thoracentesis procedures — one of them being guided by a CT-scan — and was staring down the possibility of surgery. What will happen next?! Dun-dun-DUUUNNNNN…
WORD OF WARNING: Some of the pictures I will be including in this post — and the ones that will come after — might be considered kind of graphic. I’m not going to post anything too gory but if you have absolutely no stomach for medical stuff at all, maybe you should look away.
When the possibility of surgery was first mentioned, I did not think much of it. I just wanted to get well, to stop hurting and go home so I was agreeable to anything that would make that happen. Plus, I was exhausted, too tuckered out from the pain, the puking and the unsuccessful needlings to really care. Far from being scared, I was looking forward to it. At least with surgery, I knew that I would be knocked out for whatever happened. That alone got a big thumbs up from me!
Morning dawned and, as expected, the lung-drain fairies hadn’t visited me during the night; Dr. Patel confirmed that we would have to go ahead with surgery. I, of course, was free to decline any procedure the doctors recommended — including this one — but since I was interested in living, I agreed to have it done. The surgeon, Dr. Schaerf, came by to go over the details of the surgery with me. He looked quite a bit like the physician from the Battlestar Galactica reboot and had the same kind of no-nonsense, straight-forward approach to medicine. I liked him immediately.
I was told that he would make an incision on the right side of my chest so he could clean out all the infected junk from around my lung. He also mentioned that I would have a breathing tube down my throat for about a day afterward to help the lung re-inflate.
I don’t know why the full weight of this didn’t register with me — for some reason, I was thinking it was just surgery with a little ‘s’. Not Surgery-surgery. There’s a difference, you ask? Of course there is! Little surgeries are typically day procedures. Sure, you go to the hospital, get put under but they send you home that same day. Maybe they even keep you overnight but it is still not too big of a deal in the grand scheme of things. Of course I knew I wasn’t going to be released that same day or even the next but I thought my surgery was on that same level of seriousness — more of a procedure than an operation. I am thankful for this; it is as if my brain was shielding me from another freak-out.
I am not entirely clear what time of day this all went down; I think they came to get me in the afternoon. I stripped down to nothing but my hospital gown; Drew gathered up all my things because we were told that I wouldn’t be coming back to the same room. They wheeled me down to the waiting area outside the operating room — it was a large space with various bays separated by curtains. There were a few other patients — I remember one woman with two broken legs — and nurses chit-chatting about this and that.
The anaesthesiologist came by to go over my medical history and to let me know what would be happening on his end. He also asked me if I had an Advanced Directive (documentation of what one does and does not want done if things go wrong) in place and it was at this point that I realized that this wasn’t surgery with a little ‘s’; this was the real deal. While I am sure that it is standard operating procedure (HA! See what I did there?) to ask about such things when someone is about to be put under, it still made an impression on me, a very SERIOUS impression. I started to worry. I started to fret. I thought about how I hadn’t eaten the entire time I had been in the hospital — which was two weeks at that point. Was I too weak? Would I give out on the operating table? It seems silly and dramatic now but those were the thoughts running though my head.
Drew sat with me and didn’t say a word. I was thankful for this. If he had been trying to reassure me or telling me everything would ‘be okay’, I would have lost it. You don’t tell someone that things will be okay unless there is a distinct possibility of things not being okay. So silence was what I needed because I was barely holding it together.
After the anaesthesiologist, the surgeon came by and went over things one last time. He told me that they were ready to take me into the operating room and that it would be very bright in there, that there would be a lot of machines but I shouldn’t be afraid. He told Drew that the surgery would last about an hour and that he could be with me in recovery once I was out. Then? It was showtime.
Just as Dr. Schaerf told me, the room was very bright. I was wheeled in next to the operating table and moved over to it myself. The nurse made sure I was comfortable and then the anaesthesiologist told me that he was giving me anti-nausea medication (I had told him that I was feeling very queasy) and anesthesia via my IV. I don’t think he even finished making the statement before I was out. It was that quick!
The next thing that I remember is waking up in darkness. I had a tube down my throat and it was making me choke. Well, it didn’t actually make me choke since, well, it was doing my breathing for me, but it felt like I was gagging. I couldn’t speak, obviously, so I raised my hand to get the attention of a nurse, to get some medication to deal with the pain. Except .. I couldn’t. My wrists were bound to the rails of my bed, probably to keep me from ripping stuff out Hulk-style in case I woke up confused and disoriented. I wasn’t confused though. I was very awake, very aware of what was going on and very much in pain.
I’m not claustrophobic but this was HORRIBLE. I was unable to see much (like I said, it was dark), unable to talk, unable to gesture, all this while feeling like I was drowning. The nurse did notice me pulling on my bindings, correctly guessed that I was in pain, and gave me some IV painkiller. There was only one problem: she was giving me Morphine. Morphine, unfortunately, does nothing for me. I pressed my fingers together to mimic holding a pencil, gesturing as much as I could in the hope that the nurse would pick up on my game of Charades and give me pen and paper. Instead, she just stilled my hand and tried to soothe me. I felt like the soldier from Johnny Got His Gun — no arms, no legs, no face, no voice, only able to communication by banging his head against his pillow in Morse code to a Metallica song. Except .. I don’t know Morse code so I was up the proverbial creek without a proverbial paddle.
I don’t know how long this went on — it felt like forever but it was probably just a few hours. I continued to gesture for a pen and paper, I continued to gag, I continued to be in a great deal of pain. Finally, communication was established. The nurse had asked me if I was in pain and I nodded but when she told me that she was going to give me more Morphine, I shook my head. Thankfully, she didn’t take this to mean that I didn’t want any painkillers; instead, she started to go down a list of other medications until she got to Dilaudid at which point I nodded vigorously. I was a lot more comfortable once we understood each other.
March 15th & 16th
When I woke up the next morning, my hands were no longer tied to the bed rails but I still had the breathing tube down my throat. The nurse told me that they were going to leave it in for the time being but would turn off the machine to see how I well I breathed on my own. If I could keep it up for an hour with no trouble, they would take the tube out. Believe me when I tell you: I very much wanted this to happen.
Drew showed up while I still had the breathing tube in place. I could not even bring myself to look at him. For some reason, I was embarrassed for him to see me that way and it bothered me that I was unable to reassure him that I was alright. And I certainly didn’t want him to have to watch them take it out. Ew. However, there was no way to express this so I just stared straight ahead and tried to concentrate on breathing — breathing and not gagging.
Longest. Hour. Ever.
Luckily, I did fine without the machine– HURRAH! I think it was around noon when they took the tube out. This involved me coughing and the nurse yanking. I wouldn’t describe the experience as particularly pleasant but it wasn’t the worst thing that has ever happened to me and it was over quickly. The important take-away from all this was that it was no longer down my throat and that was a Very Good Thing™ (that’s not really a trademark).
This is not to say I was tube free, though. In addition to the catheter in my back that I earned during the CT-scan guided thoracentesis, I had two chest tubes coming out my side so the fluid around my lung could continue to drain. I also had a catheter up my pee hole (shut up, it’s a medical term) so I wouldn’t have to worry about getting out of bed to urinate .. but I’m not going to mention that because I am a lady.
With the breathing tube out, I could talk again but only in a raspy whisper that made me sound like I had been a three pack-a-day smoker for the past 2,000 years. Despite this, one of the first things I did was call my parents to let them know that I survived surgery. I don’t think I have ever heard my mother sound so relieved and happy to hear from me — that is, relieved and happy once she realized that it was me and not one of her elderly friends having a LifeAlert crisis.
I was in the ICU for two days, during which time I was informed that more went on during my surgery than just the anticipated gunk-removal. When the surgeon got in there, he discovered that part of my lung had actually DIED and ended up removing 1/3rd from the right side. The technical term is lobectomy; I call it HOLY SHIT, WHAT HAPPENED TO MY LUNG?! I also discovered that the IV in my jugular was replaced with a central line. This is sort of like a turbo-ultra-MEGA IV that is held in place with stitches in addition to tape and it allows medical people to draw blood straight from the line. No more needle pricks for me! My exhausted veins rejoiced!
I was actually up on my feet that morning, hobbling over to a chair with the help of a nurse so that my bed linens could be changed. Just sitting there for thirty minutes was exhausting and when my physical therapist showed up, she gave me a pass for the day since I had already experienced such an intense work out. Unfortunately, I was still unable to eat but the surgery — despite the pain associated with getting a five inch incision carved into my side — made me feel much better over all.
Things were finally starting to look up.