We’ve been up since 4:15 AM, Husband and I, and by 6 AM I’m laying comfortably in a bed on the second floor of the hospital, with an IV taped to the top of my hand (and yes, it hurt going in). My surgery is scheduled to begin in 90 minutes.
I feel very relaxed, considering. For the past four nights before bed, I have been listening to a meditation CD provided by Blue Shield (believe it or not) specifically designed to calm my pre-surgery jitters. It’s working. I employ the visualization techniques I’ve learned as I lay still — in between the mind-numbing, repetitious medical questioning that’s been going on since I arrived this morning.
Every person I encounter asks the same questions. What medications are you currently taking? Have you had any surgeries in the past? What are you allergic to? This gets annoying. Really annoying. It messes with my "relaxed" mindset. So I ask: Why the barrage of queries over and over and over again?
“Patients forget to tell us vital information,” the nurse explains. “And sometimes the info you give us gets entered incorrectly into the computer." Oh. So asking each time ensures everything is accurate? "Yes." OK, I get it. This labyrinth of cross checking and questioning is ultimately for my own good. But I don't have to like it. (This surgery is for my own good too; that doesn't mean I have to like that either.)
My anesthesiologist introduces himself. I let him know that Demerol and I are definitely not simpatico (it makes me terribly nauseous and dizzy). He says they don’t use Demerol anymore, but makes note of it anyway.
Finally, I’m wheeled down to a prep area on the surgical floor, where my husband and I wait in a large square queue of sorts with a dozen other patients having surgery this morning. All that is separating us is a thin curtain (like in an emergency room). You can’t see through the curtain, but you sure can hear through it! My hubby and I amuse ourselves by listening to the litany of complaints and problems and conversations on either side of our curtain.
My surgeon, Dr. A., stops by; he’s dressed in his blue scrubs. I make sure he knows how important it is that he take all of my breast tissue, on both sides. (The point in my choosing a bilateral mastectomy is to reduce my recurrence risk as much as possible; I don't want any tissue left behind that could house stray cancer cells.) He tells me not to worry. I like him and I trust him. He reminds me he is doing the sentinel node biopsy — he'll inject a blue dye near my tumor. The first (or sentinel) lymph node that absorbs the dye is removed and examined for cancer cells. If cancer is found, more nodes will be removed. If no cancer is found in the sentinel node, he likely won't remove any others. (In the not-so-distant past, women undergoing mastectomy were stripped of dozens of their lymph nodes, putting a heavier burden on the ones remaining and increasing the risk of complications like lymphedema.)
Major mental note to self: If I wake up from anesthesia and feel pain under my arm, my cancer has probably spread. (Little do I know that I won't be able to even feel my underarm; it will be completely numb — as will my entire chest and part of my back. Maybe for forever.)
As I am filing this shattering thought away, The Prince of Surgery (AKA my plastic surgeon, Dr. C.) arrives. It’s 7 AM and he’s wearing a dark blue suit, a crisp white shirt and a perfectly knotted tie. My initial reaction is to tell him how fabulous he looks. But I’ve got something else I need to get off of my, umm, chest.
I want to go a little bigger.
I know my breast cancer sistahs will howl with laughter when they read this; they are the only ones who can truly understand the phenomenon we have dubbed “boob greed.” But I need Dr. C. to know, in case going just "a little bit bigger” will alter what he is about to do right now. He assures me it will not. “There is plenty of time for that later,” he says. “Today, let’s get the cancer out and the tissue expanders in.”
And on that note, he pulls out his black Sharpe and proceeds to mark up my entire upper torso, tracing the outline of my boobs and marking their position in great detail. When he's done, I look like a grade school art project gone haywire. (Makes me wish I had my camera.)
Dr. C. leaves my bedside and my anesthesiologist reappears. It's time. I kiss my hubby goodbye with tears in my eyes and leave him standing alone in the hallway as they whisk me away on my soon-to-be magic carpet ride.
But I’m not feeling it — the happy juice, I mean. I am completely, 100% lucid. I make idol chitchat with the nurse guiding my gurney as he makes a sharp left and then an immediate right, wheeling me straight into the operating room.
It’s bright, and very cold. A nurse asks me to slide myself off the gurney and onto the (quite narrow, I might add) operating table. This isn’t easy to do, especially since my arm is attached to an IV; then I realize they haven’t yet given me the “juice” — or they wouldn’t be asking me to “scooch.”
They place my arms on narrow extenders that swing out from the sides of the operating table. I close my eyes and visualize myself standing at the top of the hill where I love to hike. I breath deeply. I can hear voices around me. Then all falls silent.