December 1, 2010

The alarm goes off at 4:30 AM, the upbeat tempo immediately waking us from our cozy slumber and reminding us what day it is: surgery day. We’ll check into the hospital in roughly an hour and I’ll face a bilateral, skin sparing simple mastectomy with sentinel lymph node dissection and immediate reconstruction.
Like any long-anticipated day, once it actually arrives, disbelief enshrouds the experience, leaving me feeling like I'm living the daydreams (or nightmares) that led up to it.

The two hours preceding the surgery time are a slow progression of hospital registration and preparation, within which I am the definition of anxious. I am terrified but also strangely excited. Fear pulses through my weak veins, but a larger aura of hope also hangs overhead. I need this and I can do this.

In a surreal haze, I joke and laugh with Bobby as we wait for the minutes to tick by. Remember the time our friend Allan wore white socks with his suit? Remember how Little H used to dance when he was barely a year, shaking his little hips and bobbing his head? Check out my sweet scrub-slippers. Do you think patients fart when they’re under anesthetic? …There is not another person in the world I would rather pass these two hours of waiting with.

Minutes before the scheduled time of surgery, we are no longer alone; the small curtained area around me is abuzz in activity. The surgeon’s assistants and interns stop by. Nurses come and go. The plastic surgeon and the breast surgeon come to see me. Am I ready? Do I have any last minute questions? The minutes are ticking toward 7 AM. The anxiety is building.
I am wearing my light-pink eyelet headscarf, my favorite. And I have taken great care to paint my fingernails. Somehow, knowing the soft, pink-chocolate color graces my nail beds makes me feel slightly less dehumanized. Something about me will look nice, as though that will remind the surgeons and nurses that I am a real person on the table, dramatically impacted by their every move.

If I am going to be a bald, skinny, exposed body in there, (possibly farting?) and with tubes going in or out of orifices, at least my hands will look lovely.
A nurse comes in to start my IV and has so much difficulty she ends up on the floor next to my bed, sitting on the linoleum and holding my hand down in her lap to let the blood drain down my arm. My tired chemo-subjected veins are a challenging stick. The nurse is using a more painful spot, on the top of my hand. With words I take far too much to heart, she comforts, “Don’t worry Honey, this will be the worst pain you’ll be in all day.”   

Then the anesthesiologist arrives. She is gentle and reassuring. As she stands over my head, I stare up into her bright blue eyes and long, mascara-covered lashes. I will remember those eyes.

And then I’m moving. It’s time to wheel my bed back to the operating room. Surely, the pounding of my racing heart is ringing through the white corridors.
I am devastated by having to say goodbye to Bobby. Merely anticipating this moment has brought me to tears repeatedly over the last month: the separation; the deep solitude of a terrible journey that always comes down to being mine alone to bear.

I want to look back at him but I can’t get my head around the edge of the bed before we’re through the swinging doors. 
I’m pushed through the longest hallway I have ever seen, past operating room after operating room. People in scrubs and face masks move in and out of my strangely low vantage point as I’m wheeled along. I am dripping tears and pulsating fear.

Finally the hallway ends and we enter the last room on the left. It’s large, bright, and very white. I’m trying to take it in quickly through a vision that is becoming increasingly blurred as the pre-anesthetic takes hold. What are all those supplies piled on the buffet-sized table? That can’t all be for me. There’s my plastic surgeon, in the corner, typing into his cell phone. The white, white walls disappear into the white ceiling.
With several people assisting me, I move from the portable bed onto the operating table in the center of the room. The anesthesiologist sets the mask over my mouth. Within seconds: darkness.


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