Friday, November 22, 2013

My super-awesome double mastectomy (part 1): a retrospective

In the wee hours of the morning on Nov. 11, I walked into Hudson Valley Hospital Center with the fears of a big surgery in the pit of my stomach and the overwhelming support of friends and family at my back. People were thinking of me, saying prayers—my mother-in-law had written a letter to Pope Francis and gotten her native hilltop village in Italy to pray for me. I mean, really, how could anything go wrong?
Grisolia, the outpost for Team Heather in Calabria, Italy
My heart sunk a little as I approached the surgery registration desk and I saw the sign, which stated no visitors under the age of 14 were allowed on the hospital floors, except for maternity. I wouldn’t get to see my kids till I was sprung from here, I realized. Suddenly, I envisioned myself running out the door and down the road, waving my arms and screaming “Fuck y'all, you ain’t catchin’ me!” like some fugitive on “Cops,” but I stayed put. I think I deserve some credit for that.
                Much of what happened next was a blur of paperwork and formalities. I remember slowly taking off my “FuckCancer” T-shirt and pants and climbing into the nondescript hospital gown. Down in the radiology department, I was treated to the comedic talents of radiologist Dr. Solomon, who, when repeatedly sticking needles into my breasts, warned Sal not to try this at home. Dr. Solomon was the radiologist who flagged my original mammogram, the one that spotted those telltale microcalcifications in the left breast. This time around, he was placing radioactive tracers into my body, which would help the breast surgeons find the lymph nodes needed for biopsy. The nuclear medicine tech assisting him talked about her family back in India; she didn’t see them that often, which made me think of my little munchkins at home and how much I missed them at that moment.
I then found myself sitting in the pre-surgical area, discussing my boobs with the doctors. I talked with Dr. Charles, the main breast surgeon, who had lost her mother to breast cancer. If I was psychic, I would have apologized to the good doctor in advance for the bloody facial my juicy veins were going to give her during surgery (yes, they went there). I also saw Dr. Koch, the lead plastic surgeon. He promised a good aesthetic result.
“I need you to promise that you’ll give me a capital set of knockers,” I said.
“I promise I can do that.”
“No, you need to say it, because you have the British accent and all.”
“I will give you a capital set of knockers.”
I sat back, satisfied with my accomplishment.
Whaaat? You're cutting off my boobies? Whaaaat?
At some point, the anesthesiologist came in and someone in the room said, “Here comes the bartender. He’s got the good stuff.” I don’t remember anything after that; apparently the “bartender” had given me the medical equivalent of Goldschlager. According to Sal, we said our goodbyes, although I had a glazed-over look on my face, not unlike a dead fish or Kristen Stewart on a good day. And off to the OR I went.
Next thing I know, I’m in the recovery room. The surgery had lasted about eight hours. “I want my husband,” I whimpered. “I want Sal… And I have to puke.” The most intense nausea swept over me, and let me tell you, dry-heaving with newly placed abdominal stitches is NOT fun. The nurse gave me some anti-nausea medication and told me to go back to sleep. Who was I to argue?
Around 9:30 p.m., just under 12 hours from when I entered the OR, I was wheeled up to the ICU. The nurses pushing my gurney bragged about their super-awesome gurney-driving skills, then proceeded to crash into some walls. No harm done, though.
The original plan was to spend 24 to 36 hours in the ICU. I spent my entire time there. During those first couple of days I faced the highest risk of developing a blood clot or losing the newly transplanted tissue. So, every hour on the hour, then every two hours as I passed the danger zone, the nurses took a Doppler to my breasts. For those of you who have kids, this sounds exactly like when you’re pregnant and you hear the baby’s heart beat for the first time. Each time the nurse took that Doppler probe to my breasts, I waited nervously for the rhythmic beating sound, signaling blood was flowing through the arteries. Thankfully, we always heard that beautiful sound. There was one area of concern in my right breast, that some venous congestion may be developing, but slapping on the special post-mastectomy bra seemed to help with that. Not sure, but this congestion may have been why I was kept in the ICU longer than anticipated. Or maybe the nurses there just thought I was precious. Yeah, that’s more likely.
My Bair Hugger looked a lot like this, only my head wasn't packaged
like a gift basket
I also had to sleep under a “Bair Hugger” for the first few nights. That’s essentially shipping packaging inflated with warm air to help boost circulation in the delicate area. Good lord, that thing was hot. I felt like one of those years-old hot dogs, roasting in a convenience store display case, no end in sight. So, between that, the Doppler and the automatic blood pressure checks, which the machine performed diabolically, there was no sleep for the weary.
My blood pressure was a source of angst for the ICU nurses. If I had had my wits about me that first night I was there, I could have told them that being immobile in a hospital bed sends my normally low blood pressure into a tailspin, and that there was nothing to worry about. I think I bottomed out at 60-something over 40-something, which triggered some panic and, wanting to avoid a blood transfusion, meant a whole lot of IV fluid was coming my way. Luckily, I couldn’t see my face throughout this, but one look at my bloated Mickey Mouse hands told me that I probably didn’t want to anyway.
                 But damn, did I love me some ICU nurses. I admired the time they had to spend with each patient and loved interacting with them, whether it was talking holistic medicine or debating whether if your husband left you for another man, was that worse than leaving you for another woman? That was my sole “Brokeback Mountain” discussion while an inpatient. I really hadn’t expected any, so that was a nice surprise.
During one of the shift changes, one of my regular ICU nurses greeted me cheerfully, asking me how I was doing. For the life of me I can’t remember how we got on the topic, but she started talking about “home,” which for her was the Philippines. She thanked me as I expressed concern about their well-being, given the devastating typhoon the island nation had just suffered. But they are very poor, she said, and struggle daily. So each payday, she takes a chunk out of her paycheck and sends it to her family. “I could go visit them, but they need that money more, so instead I send them the money I would have used to visit.” So many people I had met here were separated from their families. I was just a day or two from going home to my own.
                I guess we should all be so lucky.

Stay tuned for part 2. That’s when I get to see the “new girls” for the first time.

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