Yesterday, after Annabel’s second transition day (which, as expected, included some hysterical tears, by her, not me for once), my Mom and I headed into Faulkner for two pre-op appointments. There we got a preview of September 12th – we saw where I will check in, where my family will wait, and the floor on which I will recover. A kind nurse took down my entire medical history and explained to me a bit about the anesthesia process. She told me that they have several strategies to combat the severe nausea that I experienced with my past surgeries, including some patch they’ll put on my neck. Good news, because I wasn’t looking forward to following up surgery with a few days of feeling like I have the flu. The nurse also calmed my fears about what I have somehow created as the worst moment of that day – being wheeled away from my family (although I can listen to music and am making my “Kick the Shit Out of Cancer” playlist this weekend thanks to all of you). More good news that the anesthesiologists can pump me with enough sedatives that I won’t even know we’ve gone wheels up on the gurney. Ah, modern medicine. And I used to resist taking two Tylenol…How far I’ve come!
I also took the liberty of clarifying in my first appointment that I finally decided on the double mastectomy with reconstruction. The nurse wrote something on a Post-It note, and typed something into her computer. I envisioned the little Post-It losing its (usually very reliable) grip and flying off a stack of papers only to be trampled by hospital foot traffic. I remembered those times at work that I forgot to save my document correctly. My internal voice reared its ugly head. What if I wake up from surgery and one boob is still there? Shut up, you idiot, I told myself, These people know what they’re doing. Later I joked with my family that maybe I should just write with a permanent marker on my stomach, “Please remove both boobs and all cancer (smiley face),” just to be sure. Could I be any worse at giving up control, even to professionals at the top of their field? (Note to self to continue to work on that daunting personal weakness.)
Next we met with the nurse practitioner who taught us about the surgical procedure and the recovery. She showed us the “drains” I had heard so much about. Here’s a photo of one of them. Not at all as scary as I had envisioned.
Dr. Chun (my plastic surgeon) will stitch the long tubes into my chest (two on each side) and I will have the pleasure of watching blood and fluid collect in the little bulb for a week or so after the surgery. The nurse also gave me a special shirt to wear that has little pockets for the bulbs to sit in. Sexy. About as sexy as the blue pee I will experience for a few days after the surgery, thanks to the dye they will inject into my body to try to see which lymph nodes may contain cancer cells. I’m very thankful for the blue pee warning – forget cancer, I’d be dead of a heart attack without that heads up.
After the teach appointment, we followed instructions and headed to Dr. Chun’s office to confirm my decision for reconstruction. A quick over-the-phone conversation in the reception area with Dr. Chun’s assistant clarified that yes, Dr. Chun should go ahead and insert those tissue expanders to build me some boobs. Then I stopped for blood work, which has become as normal as saying my own birthday. Oh, and by the way, if you happen to see me and the first thing I say to you is “3-10-1980,” please forgive me…it’s my new “hello” in the clinical world.
In the end, these two appointments may sound mundane, and in many ways they were, which is why they were so great for me. I ended up feeling like a double mastectomy with reconstruction is an ordinary procedure within those walls, a surgery done thousands of times before, and one that a world class team will complete again on September 12th with great success.
But something far more remarkable happened for me at the hospital yesterday. My path crossed the paths of three most incredible women. The first, I bumped into in the cafeteria as I tried to fill my nervous stomach before my first appointment. I met Kathy years ago when Brian coached her oldest son. This season, Kathy’s youngest son will suit up for Brian, and I’ll get the pleasure of seeing Kathy and her husband at all of the games. Kathy works at the Faulkner with patients just like me. A few weeks ago when Brian and I were floundering for hope, we visited her house and she steadied us. As we sat by her gorgeous pool (that her husband built…Brian, did you hear that?), Kathy reassured me of the gold standard quality of my team, both as skilled surgeons and as people. But seeing her yesterday in her scrubs, in her element, gave me a peace she’ll never know. She hugged me, I introduced her to my Mom, and she reassured us that my family will be taken care of while I’m in surgery. Nothing means more to me than that.
The second woman, I saw through the glass of the waiting room at a rare moment that I happened to glance up. Dr. Nakhlis (remember her? my breast surgeon...) was walking by in her scrubs and surgical cap and also happened to glance my way at just the right moment. I cry just remembering the look on her face. It was a look of recognition. She knew me. Me, one of her thousands of patients. Me, who she only met once before. Dr. Nakhlis didn’t hesitate for a moment; she just strolled into the waiting room to see me. She hugged me. She smiled. She looked me in the eye. She remarked on the great news that my genetic test came back negative (although I need to call today to see why I haven’t heard about that final 5%). She said she was excited to see me next week and that she’d take great care of me. I told her I had decided on the double and she nodded, “That’s great, I completely understand.” I felt as if I was talking to a celebrity that I revere (Oprah?) – I was so honored to have Dr. Nakhlis’s time and attention that I could barely get any other words out. I think I just said, Thank you, ten times or more, trying to fight back my tears of appreciation.
I honestly don’t think Dr. Nakhlis could ever understand what it meant to me for her to recognize me through the waiting room glass, and to come in to say hello. I can barely articulate it through my blubbering tears as I sit here trying to explain it. All I can say is that with that one quick stop on her path through the hallways, perhaps even between surgeries for women just like me, she convinced me that she will make me better, because she actually cares that I get better.
Lastly, as if a higher being set up an angel for me at every juncture, I met Carole in the front entrance as we were leaving. I tutored Carole’s son (now a teacher!) years ago and Carole reached out to me when she heard my news. Carole also works at Faulkner, and I know that every patient or person who crosses her path is better because of it. Carole climbed this formidable mountain years ago so she has felt my fears. And through the calmness and confidence of her voice, and her thoughtful words, she eases those fears. Carole asked my Mom how she was doing and how Brian was doing, which was all I needed to hear to know with absolute certainty that while the best people care for me next week, the best people will also be caring for my family. Carole also told me that we would celebrate every step of this journey. We sure will, and it’s going to be one hell of a party (much better than what I previously considered a party, which was Chinese food with Brian and our favorite TV shows).
There comes the sun rising again, another day closer to my cure. I have so much more to write about yesterday…I haven’t even touched on the angels that were waiting for me at home, but much more about them tomorrow.
For now, I’ll take a deep breath and appreciate the gifts I was given yesterday. Because yesterday, the exceptional women I have described here – my pilots, my flight crew – flung open the windows of my stalled plane and let in fresh, cool air. They peeled my frightened hands from the arm rests, steadied my shaky steps, and led me to the cockpit for a quick peek into the future. From that big window at the front of the plane, I saw the flight pattern, I saw blue sky. I felt a breeze from Orlando, and Maine, and all of the other destinations I will reach one day. And I let these women convince me that it’s going to be a fine ride.