So… That’s Surgery, Doc

closeThis post was published 7 years 11 months 15 days ago. A number of changes have been made to the site since then, so please contact me if anything is broken or seems wrong.

Wow, has it really been almost seven months since I last published? Blog fail! 😉 I figured I should get this post, at least, out the door before 2011. It was mostly written in September, so there might be some things that are no longer true. The vast majority of the text, though, is not publish-date-sensitive. Hopefully more to come, filling in my summer at the very least.

I now know what it’s like to go through surgery. Thanks to my former appendix for the lesson.

My family planned a vacation to coincide with my brother’s college graduation in August. After the graduation festivities, we set out for the Outer Banks of North Carolina by way of Washington, DC. The Outer Banks are a great place to go to just get away from everything and enjoy the ocean. I spent uncountable hours reading Atlas Shrugged (by Ayn Rand—a very engrossing and relevant book) at the beach, and countless more hours taking photos of the ocean and my five-year-old nephew being his unashamedly cute self.

The Outer Banks were so enjoyable, in fact, that we extended our stay. However, that might not have been the best idea: I felt a little off the day before we were to leave, and I felt really bad the day we planned to leave. I felt so bad that I actually wanted to see a doctor—an extremely rare state of mind for me.

Onset

The day I felt a little off was probably related to the eventual diagnosis, but at the time I (and everyone else) thought it was just heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Earlier that day I spent significant time (at least two hours) constantly in the sun. I eventually decided that I had to get out of the sun, no matter what, and spent the rest of the day feeling really exhausted. It felt really good to get to sleep that night, and I figured I’d feel a lot better in the morning.

Morning brought some relief, but I still felt tired. I had a mild headache, but that happens often enough that I thought nothing of it. I figured I’d push right through the day, but my stomach started aching just before lunch time. Since I’d had a good-sized breakfast (the remains of last night’s dinner), I decided to try to take a nap instead. Sleep didn’t exactly come readily. By the time Mom came to check on me, I was well past a stomach ache.

I had what felt like very bad constipation, only the usual tricks didn’t work. It also kept getting worse. From the pain scale I later saw in my hospital room,1 I judge in hindsight that I was at a 3, moving to a 4 when I decided to go to the hospital. (I try to avoid doctors whenever possible; in general any problems I have resolve themselves given a little time.) I finally just gave up trying to solve the problem on my own. Whatever it was, I needed an expert.

My mother stopped to tell Dad where we were going on the way to the car. All I could think was, “Less talk, more driving.” I told her as much when she made it to the car, but I think it was more funny than anything else considering my weak, tortured voice at the time.

At the hospital, I dragged myself in and leaned heavily on the reception desk. My stomach demanded so much attention, I could barely answer the basic diagnostic questions posed by the woman working there, but that probably gave her plenty of information right there. I let Mom fill out the blank form I received; there was no way I was going to sit there and write all that data. All I wanted was to move as little as possible.

Diagnosis

When the hospital staff called me into the triage room, I was at about 6 or 7, pain-wise, and that’s what I told the nurse when she asked. A few questions later, I had a room and a hospital gown—the first time I can remember being given a gown in my life.2 I changed and gingerly set myself down to wait for someone to come and see me.

A female doctor (of whose name I can remember only that it started with an M) came to examine me and ask more questions. She hypothesized that I might have strep, given my slightly sore throat, and listed three tests I would receive: strep, blood chemistry, and CT scan. She left and returned after a brief eternity to take the strep test. I don’t remember her coming back after that; a nurse came to draw blood.

My mother, who was hanging out for a while to provide moral support, left to take her usual walk on the beach (and because the nurse said I should rest). Sometime after that, there was a shift change. I got a new nurse by the name of Philip, who was very good. He was direct and to the point about everything, no matter what I asked him. Of all the people I met at the hospital, he was one of my favorites.

I also got a different doctor, not that I can remember his name either. All I remember is that I sort of liked him better than the first. It was something about his personality.

Later, a man from the radiology department came by to drop off a bottle of Sprite® with barium solution added and a questionnaire; he instructed me to finish the bottle within an hour and a half and to answer all the questions on the form.

The form was the easy part—I could do that all at once—but there was no way I was going to chug a full bottle of soda all at once. (I can’t even chug soda when I’m feeling good; the bubbles make it difficult.) So I sipped. And forced myself to sip again, five minutes later. And again. I had just one sip to go when the radiology man came back for me, and I didn’t have to finish it. Too bad; by then it was starting to taste pretty good. 😉

Actually getting the scan was an interesting process. The machine sounded like a jet engine once it really got going, and the technicians kept making announcements over a speaker in there. I was told to breathe, hold my breath, let it out, breathe, let it out, take a deep breath, hold it, wait for the machine to scan me again, let it out… I didn’t understand why the breath control was such a big deal, but I did my best. Apparently all those years of practice in singing and theatre classes weren’t enough; I couldn’t always hold it long enough. (It didn’t help that my soon-to-be-diagnosed condition accelerated my respiration.)

When I got back to my room, I waited a good while for the results. I used the last dregs of battery power in my cell phone3 to recall my mother so she could hear the verdict as it arrived. She came back just in time; the doctor brought the news within a few minutes of her return.

So, I had appendicitis. Not exactly what I expected to happen on vacation. Apparently I was bucking Outer Banks statistics; Philip later told me that it was common for vacationers to catch appendicitis on the first day of a trip, not on (what was supposed to be) the last as I did. But then, I’ve never been one for conformity. 😉

The doctor said he thought I’d be taken care of that night, and left to relay my case to the surgeon for a second opinion. Less than an hour later (if I recall correctly), I was meeting with the surgeon and getting the run-down. The anesthesiologist came by to check on allergies and explain how that part of the procedure would work. It took just long enough to call in the crew for the rest of my family to join us at the hospital (though my best friend, with us for the trip, was absent).4 As they were coming from one direction, the two orderlies who took me to OR were coming from the other.

“It”

Dr. Lowe, the surgeon, was a kind, competent-seeming man. From the moment he first entered my room, I had an overwhelming feeling that he knew exactly what to do and how to do it. His confidence-inspiring presence helped alleviate the few qualms I had (by then) about going through surgery.

I had an entourage all the way down the hall to OR. It was actually kind of fun, since I was finally about to have the problem corrected. My family parted ways with us at the big double doors to the OR department after eliciting a promise from the surgeon for pictures (which I have yet to see; my mom said she thought she left them in the waiting room).

On the way to OR2 (the specific room within the OR used for my procedure) I began to notice that the doctors had a really good sense of camaraderie among them, a welcome addition to the auras of competence and warmth projected by nearly everyone I met. Dr. Lowe, the anesthesiologist, and the assistants all knew each other well and kept up a non-stop humor stream as I was wheeled in. I did my best to join the fun in the few minutes before the point where I can no longer remember anything. I can barely remember being told I was about to get very sleepy. My last thoughts were of relaxation and of trust in the skills of the people around me.

Operation Successful

I woke up in a timeless world, feeling like I’d just dozed off for a moment. I was in a bed, but the last place I remember moving was an operating table; I honestly don’t know how I ended up on a bed in a shadowy nook of the operating room, but I did. A woman was sitting at a desk, relaying somehow the details of my case to someone else; I will never know to whom she was speaking, but the nurses in the ward where I was later taken are good candidates. I was floating on a cloud of white linen, not really feeling anything except drowsiness—Dr. Lowe’s promised numbing medicines were working. Eventually someone came over to greet me, and then I was wheeled to an elevator, floating along to my room for the night.

Mom and Dad showed up with my sleeping nephew, quipping that it looked like I’d have a roommate. I tried to keep up conversation, but I really wanted to just go back to sleep. With my side of the conversation consisting mostly of single words (several of which sounded like “sleepy”), I convinced everyone that I felt fine and just needed to rest. But first, they made me “play” with a breathing apparatus “to help avoid pneumonia”…or something like that. Then everyone left and I drifted off…once a nurse managed to make the IV pump stop beeping about an obstruction every two minutes. (I heard identical beeps from other rooms from time to time, so I knew it wasn’t just me.)

About an hour later, I woke up. I had three pressing concerns: a beverage (my mouth felt like plaster), a trip to the bathroom (how much saline did they put through my IV?), and the breathing tube in my nose (which was getting to be quite annoying). I fought with myself for a few minutes, trying to combat my usual reluctance to bother anyone else with my desires, finally remembering that helping me stay comfortable was half of the nurse’s job. I pushed the call button, hearing a faint electronic ring echo down the corridor outside my door. All was quickly taken care of (my vitals got checked, besides, “as long as you’re awake”) and I went back to sleep much more comfortable, after the nurse painstakingly placated my IV pump—again. I noted more discomfort around my incisions than before (the medications were wearing off), but no way was I going to let that keep me awake.

The Next Morning

In the morning, the dawn came up like thunder through my window and hit me across the chest with golden strips of sunlight. I snoozed for an hour or so until someone poked a head in to check on me around 07:30. She told me I had breakfast coming—my first food in nearly 24 hours, not counting that wonderful CT-contrast5-and-Sprite® solution the day before. While I waited, I heard the distant beep of an IV pump; a nurse poked her head in just long enough to say “That’s not you, is it?”; I grinned and told her “Nope, sorry.” Finally free enough of physical irritants to be bored, I broke down and turned on the television, finding a decent show (Boy Meets World, which I used to watch several times a week, years ago) just in time for my food.

Eating presented a problem. I still had an IV in my right arm, so it wasn’t a great idea to eat normally—the IV pump would have kept beeping away. I tried to eat left-handed and use my right hand for things like holding the little margarine cups so I wouldn’t set off the beeper, but even that tripped the finicky pump. That same nurse came in; sheepishly I said, “Yeah, this time, it’s me.” She fixed it and started to leave, but it began beeping again before she could reach the door. Rather than try to have me work around it, she just shut it off and disconnected me. “It’s just keeping the line open, anyway. We’ll let you eat in peace.”6 The line just had to stay usable until my pre-discharge antibiotic at 10:00 (pulled to 09:30). So I had nearly full use of my right arm, but I still had to be pretty left-handed; I didn’t want to stress the IV by bending my elbow all the way.

Breakfast took me long enough to eat that I had to find a new channel to watch in the middle of it; a nurse checked on me and, surprised, asked, “You’re still eating?” What could I say? It was slow going with that blasted IV in my arm, even if I didn’t have to worry about angering the pump unit. She brought over a syringe of saline solution “to keep [my IV] from clotting over”, used it, and was gone. I still had half of my breakfast left, but trying to be left-handed was a good challenge.

Eventually I finished the tray (not bad for gourmet hospital food), with still an hour to go until that antibiotic. I found passable shows to watch, mildly amusing but not at all substantive. (I thought of the cable cliché, “500 channels and nothing to watch.” It seemed appropriate, even though there were only about 50 channels.) While I was waiting, the anesthesiologist dropped by to check on me. I was glad of that; he’d done such good work the night before, I just had to thank him.

I was pleased when my IV showed up, even if it meant being tethered again; in my book, maintaining a state of forward motion is always a cause for happiness. I even found a good show to watch while the IV ran: National Geographic happened to be playing a very timely Naked Science piece about hurricanes.7

My nurse came to tell me about the discharge procedure and what I shouldn’t do/eat while I was recovering. My phone was too dead to place a call and the room phone didn’t allow long-distance calls, so I gave her Mom’s cell phone number to call for my ride. Mom proceeded to pull her usual act of not answering the phone. (That Mom rarely answers her phone is a big running joke in my family. :P) In the mean time, I got to get dressed—in my real clothes. The nurse returned to say she’d left a message; I suggested trying Dad, who almost always answers his phone. When she called him, he said they should leave me on the curb. Thanks, Dad, I feel so loved. 😛8

Getting dressed, I started to notice that my body was not quite itself. I felt like an overinflated balloon being shaped into an animal as I bent to pull on my jeans, and every little jostle bothered the gauze-covered spots on my abdomen. Putting on my shoes was an interesting experience. Had anything fallen on the floor, I don’t think I would have been able to pick it up at that point; luckily my habit of not dropping things had stayed with me through the ordeal. A few times since the surgery, one nurse or another had discussed this concept of “gas” being left inside my belly, gas that had been used to facilitate the laparoscopic procedure. I wondered, but never got around to asking, why so much of it had been left when it was such an inconvenience. They all said it would take about two days to be absorbed and removed, but that did me no good that first morning.

Everybody showed up for my release. Mom, Dad, Conner, and Marty all came in to see the final outcome. I guess you could say I was unsurprised when a nurse brought over a wheelchair for me; I haven’t been to many hospitals, but I’ve visited enough to know that you always leave on wheels. On the way down I got a veritable torrent of cautions and warnings from the two escorting nurses; one of them threatened to cut me if I even thought about going swimming in the next two weeks (heh :D) and waved us goodbye. The other saw me to the car and left us with a couple of restaurant recommendations. Too bad I never got to try them; I’ll have to remember to try The Food Guys on my next trip to the Outer Banks.

Recovery

The first stop for the day was “breakfast”, even though it was almost 11:00 and I’d eaten not long before. I ordered some fruit and eggs, figuring they should be safe. Not bad, but it was almost too much food. (That restaurant, the Ship’s Wheel, is another item on the list of things to return to on my next Outer Banks visit. It most definitely did not get a fair chance on account of my state at that time.)

I wanted to go back to the motel and rest after eating, but was taken to the aquarium instead. After that, we went to Fort Raleigh. I didn’t really want to do a lot of exploring, but I got into a good conversation with the woman at the gift shop counter and found out about a possible theatre job for next summer. The Lost Colony (a drama about a British colony at Fort Raleigh that disappeared around 1590) has been performed at the Waterside Theatre since 1937 and is apparently a big summer job draw for college students. (Within a week, I emailed the company to inquire about getting involved; as soon as I can get all the materials together, I’ll apply and see how it goes.) Dad and I traipsed over to see the theatre while Mom and Conner went to see the earthen fort.

For the first few days I had to limit myself to a slow amble; anything more and I got uncomfortable very quickly. Even so, that first afternoon was probably overkill for me; when we did get back all I wanted to do was lie down and not move. Of course that was the night when Marty invited his best new buddies over for dinner. Figures.

But things quieted down soon enough. Aside from Conner getting carried away and forgetting to avoid my abdomen (…ow…) the evening was all right. Then I got to relax.

The next day, Tuesday, I read. And read. Thank goodness nobody wanted to do much. It was nice to return to the hotel’s beach pavilion (which had been my usual hangout for most of the previous week) and get back to reading Atlas Shrugged; I was to write an essay about the book for a contest, due on September 17, and the deadline would not wait for my surgery.

That night we went in search of go-carts. More specifically, Marty and his friends wanted to go go-carting and Conner got into it. So we had to find kiddie or family carts, which of course were unavailable at the track where Marty et al went. I would have loved to drive Conner around again (we’d found go-carts the week before) but I didn’t feel up to it. Mom got to act like a speed demon while I tried—and failed, miserably—to take pictures of the carts speeding (at 15 miles per hour) around the night-lit track. (It was after 20:00 and dark, despite the floodlights. Not even CHDK could help me get pictures of fast motion with so little light.)

Conner and Dad were to fly home early Wednesday morning, because Conner had a Kindergarten orientation to attend on Thursday. The nearest airport was 90 miles away in Norfolk, VA; Mom drove them at 03:30. But first, we had a great closing dinner at Owen’s, across the street from our motel. Marty, Mom, and I would drive back by way of Fuquay-Varina (a suburb of Raleigh, NC), where we visited an old friend of Mom’s.

I got used to sleeping flat on my back for those first few nights. Sleeping on my side was out of the question, let alone rolling onto my stomach. But I got my sleeping position freedom back steadily, and surprised myself by waking up on my right side Wednesday morning.

Back to (Almost) Normal

It took a while to get my abdominal strength back, but I was ready to do crunches by the time I started theatre class 20 days after my surgery.9 I even did everything in dance class, which was quite pleasing. I half expected to have to bow out of some of it to rest my muscles, but that didn’t happen. Hooray for the human body’s capacity for repairing itself, eh?

On second thought, maybe it was a good thing we delayed our planned departure. If we’d left on schedule, I would have contracted appendicitis on a highway surrounded by corn fields, the nearest hospital possibly a hundred miles away. (Worse yet, our original—and aborted—summer vacation plans were to take us to outback China… Scary thought.)

Every so often I would still get the occasional protest from some part of me that wasn’t quite back up to spec, but I’m back to my usual self now. I’ve been dancing, climbing ladders, hanging lights, and generally getting down to business these past few months, with no complaints from any part of me. (Well, that doesn’t include my stomach. Sometimes I get so busy at the theatre that I forget to, you know, make time to eat. :P)

So now I’ve been through surgery, and recovery. It got annoying at times when I couldn’t do certain things, but for the most part it wasn’t as bad as I feared. I hope I don’t have to do it again, at least for a really long time; but if it is necessary I’ll be a lot less anxious in the future.


Notes:

  1. This copy from Pacific University, OregonUniversal Pain Assessment Tool []
  2. I’ve never been in to a hospital for something major, so maybe that’s why I just stayed in my own clothes on those rare occasions. []
  3. Like an idiot, I forgot my cell phone charger at home when we left on this month-long trip. My phone was only alive at this point because my brother’s phone uses the same charger as mine. It had been almost two weeks since I was last able to plug the phone in. []
  4. Marty, who knows me probably better than any of my friends, was not with my father and nephew at their aborted dinner that evening. []
  5. I believe the additive was barium-based. []
  6. Or something to that effect. My memory of some of these exchanges is a bit foggy. []
  7. Timely, because the big concern of the weekend was Tropical Storm Earl and whether he’d force an evacuation by turning into a big bad hurricane. He did. And all tourists were asked to leave the following Thursday, so we did, but not before watching the motel get boarded up. It looked like they had a lot of experience with hurricane preparedness. 😉 []
  8. My dad has probably the driest sense of humor I’ve ever encountered. Fortunately I’m used to it. 😉 []
  9. I considered quipping to Liz (the principal, who’s known me for almost twelve years) that “I’m back again! Well, most of me is.” []

dgw

I am an avid technology and software user, in addition to being reasonably well-versed in CSS, JavaScript, HTML, PHP, Python, and (though it still scares me) Perl. Aside from my technological tendencies, I am also a theatre technician, sound designer, violinist, singer, and actor.

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