So I came out of surgery probably like everybody else, gasping and flailing like I was drowning (a fact that mortifies me now–I would prefer to think I had awakened slowly and gracefully, my long, silken lashes sweeping up to reveal my violet blue–no, golden brown–no emerald green–oh, forget it. Instead I awoke flailing, with an IV sticking in my arm, a PICC line in my neck (“You have crappy veins–they’re all scarred up,” the nurse informed me), a tube down my throat, and a catheter up the old hoo ha.
My flailing was swiftly curtailed when a blast of fire ripped across my belly. I stopped moving and lay very, very still. And then I was out again. Repeat about a bazillion times as I waited in the recovery room for an ICU room to open up. Flash forward what the nurse said was seven hours, but you couldn’t have proved it by me.
“You ready to go?” the nurse asked, far more cheerfully than I felt was warranted. “They’ve got your room ready for you.” She hooked my IV and catheter on the bed (liquid in one end, liquid out the other–I hoped she didn’t get them mixed up), and so began my slow and stately procession down the hall, into an elevator, and down another hall. I assume I must have gotten into the ICU bed at some point, since that’s where I was the next time I woke up, but I don’t recall that part of things.
“You awake?” the ICU nurse asked.
“I think I’m going to throw up,” I said.
“We’ll get you a patch,” she said. “See this button? It’s right here. When you start hurting, just push the button. Give it a try.”
I pushed the button. Grogginess and nausea swept over me in equal amounts. “I really think I’m going to throw up now,” I said.
“We’ll get you something,” said the nurse. “Now just remember to push the button when you start to feel pain.”
But I was asleep again. I awoke to pain. I fumbled around and pushed the button. The nausea grew worse. I hadn’t thought that was possible. I went back to the “lying very, very still” technique I had developed in the recovery room. After a while I shifted slowly and carefully–and felt that damned button, under my shoulder blade. “Click” it went, and nausea flooded me again.
And that was my night. Every time I moved, the button was waiting, lurking in the shadows like a heel-biting dog, darting under my shoulder, behind my arm, under my hip. “Click. Click. Click.” And the flood of nausea. By morning I had gathered enough of my wits to take that blasted button and drop it over the side of the bed. When the nurse came in she said, “Oh, you’ve lost your button,” and carefully put it back in the bed, right beside me. “There, can you reach it?” she asked kindly. And she moved the button a little closer to my hand.
“Can we not do the button?” I asked, swallowing bile.
She looked worried. “We’ll have to go to pills to control the pain,” she said doubtfully.
“Fine,” I said, relieved.
She got me a pill. I took it. The nausea was there, but much less intense.
The next time I started hurting I said, “Can I take anything else? Something that won’t nauseate me?”
“We can try Tylenol,” my nurse said, but I could tell she didn’t suggest it.
But we tried it, anyway. And it worked.
Here’s the thing about pain: It’s important to control it not only for patient comfort, but so the patient can heal. Hurting people don’t do as well as people who aren’t hurting. That’s the thinking behind those buttons: They allow patients to regulate their medication, to keep them as comfortable as possible. And for most people, they work just fine. In my particular case, though, less was more when it came to pain medication. I took the heavy stuff about one dose in three; the other doses I took Tylenol. And I stayed comfortable. I had what I needed. My caregivers worked with me to figure out how to keep me comfortable without feeling like I was going to toss my cookies.
The downside for them was that I was alert enough to make their lives a living hell asking for drinks, and then help to the bathroom, in return for which they made me walk laps in the hallway, which in turn got me out of the hospital and their hair faster, but I was eager to go, too. Win/win.
Going to the hospital and undergoing surgery is an enormous act of trust. We who do that literally close our eyes and fall backwards, trusting that the surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, and doctors will hold us and keep us safe until we can keep ourselves safe again. They perform the most intimate of tasks, and if they are anything like my nurses they do it matter-of-factly, with no drama. I even learned not to apologize for needing their help.
Recovering from surgery reminds us that there are times when all of us need to rely on others. I was so very fortunate that when I had to close my eyes and trust, I was surrounded by people who kept me safe until I opened my eyes again. And by people who were willing to take away the button that made their lives easier, and substitute pills, which made me more comfortable.
In the end, my experience at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and the University of Washington Medical Center felt more like I was a partner in my healthcare, rather than a patient, being “treated.” It became a conversation among all of us–my caregivers, my head–and my body. We all listened to my body. And it was good.