Recently I underwent a minor surgery as an outpatient. No big deal, right? But my family, my co-workers and my doctor knew that for me, it was a very big deal.
Twenty years ago, almost to the day, I had walked down the same hospital hallway — a hospital virgin — for what was supposed to be routine sinus surgery. Home by noon, my doctor had promised. But a slip of his knife landed me in an ambulance on my way to Stony Brook Hospital, where I stayed for a month.
I was plucked out of my everyday life and thrust into a foreign world of IVs, bedpans, doctors, 4 a.m. wake up calls, and another operation that culminated in brain surgery.
For four weeks, I lay in that narrow hospital bed, covered by a scratchy white blanket against the chill of the air conditioning. I suffered from debilitating headaches and unable to concentrate, I stared out the window of my 19th floor room at the sky, wondering how my life had gotten so derailed. In the end, instead of the promised two-day recovery time from the original surgery, it took two years.
That’s why when I entered the hospital this time, muscle memory kicked in and every cell shuddered. Right there was a stretcher like the one a nurse had wheeled me out of surgery on, calling my name over and over, shaking me awake from the anaethesia so I could get a CT scan to determine what kind of damage had been done. There were the doors of the operating room where I lost my sense of smell forever. I glanced over at my husband and he knew. “It’s just a hallway,” he whispered, and suddenly, it was.
As I was checking in at the nurses’ station for Ambulatory Surgery, I noticed a thick binder with “Funeral Home Directory” on its cover. Hmm, best not to let my mind linger there too long.
The nurse led me to my room and gave me a paper gown to put on, many sizes too large. It had strange openings for hoses and the name “Bare paws” and a paw print— some hospital supply company’s strange idea of humor. It was purple, though, my favorite color.
Another nurse asked me what I’d eaten and drank since midnight, while yet another took my temperature and stuck me with an IV. Each one was calm and efficient; I kept thinking that even though this day was stressful and a little bit terrifying for me, for these nurses and doctors, it was just another day. What they were doing for me, they’d do for probably 20 other people that day. It was both comforting and alarming.
My doctor poked her head in, her hair still wet from an early morning shower, looking wide awake and cheerful. She introduced herself to my husband, promised to call him when I was out of surgery and assured me again that everything would go well. In her hands, I knew it would. I trusted this doctor.
One of the things I was most nervous about was the anaethesia. I hate it. It’s like waking from the dead, my throat scraped raw from the breathing tube, followed by an intense nausea. As I opened my eyes in the recovery room, something ding-ed behind me, as if I was waiting at a deli counter and my order was ready. A male nurse came to check on me, smiled and went back to the desk in the center of the room.
Another nurse joined him and they started talking about the schedule and how Helen kept taking all of the overtime hours. From across the room, more voices entered the conversation. Apparently, no one liked Helen because it just wasn’t fair, was it? In my in and out state, Helen’s name kept coming up. It was like eavesdropping on a bad conversation in a break room.
Hey, I wanted to call out, I’m not a houseplant. I can hear you. As I was being wheeled out, the discussion turned to a raffle for a gift basket. “Just as long as Helen doesn’t win it,” I mumbled to the nurse. She looked at me, surprised, and laughed. “See, you’re on our team.”
I returned to my room and my husband, who had bought doughnuts for the nurses and apples for me. Unrelenting nausea dogged me in that overheated hospital room. I sipped water but not the ginger ale they brought me. The nurse told me I looked peaked — a mother’s word — and when I looked in the mirror, I saw the Bride of Frankenstein. On bad drugs. My doctor stopped by, told me everything had gone well and I would be released soon.
Less than five hours after I’d arrived, I was leaving that hallway far behind me. No transfer by ambulance this time. I got into my own car and my husband carefully pulled away from the curb. We rode home on the winding back roads, windows wide open, back to the ferry. I clutched a blue plastic “emm bag” — an emesis bag — much more clinical than calling it a barf bag. Thankfully, it remained unused, though not by much.
He pulled into our driveway and helped me out of the car. I climbed the stairs to our house, leaning on his arm as if I’d aged 40 years in the space of a few hours.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “We gain strength, courage and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face … we must do that which we think we cannot.” For one morning, I faced down the experience that had haunted me for 20 years and this time, I walked away from it.