The Big Day

I’m going to backtrack here and write about my surgery. In this way, I can remember the day and the experience, as well as describe for anyone who might someday go  through this what they might expect. I know that talking to people who’d actually been through a mastectomy was the most helpful thing I did in preparing myself for the big day.

My day started early Friday morning, when I arrived at the hospital at 6:30 to check in. At eight o’clock, I was taken from my room in ambulatory surgery and wheeled down to nuclear medicine, where the woman who’d helped perform my bone scan recognized me and greeted me warmly. I was there to have the radioactive dye injected into the breast with the actual cancer in it. This would be used to locate the sentinel lymph node, which would be removed to see if the cancer had yet spread. If the lymph node showed the presence of cancer, the remaining nodes in my right arm would be removed. While not the end of the world, this would mean I’d run the risk of experiencing lymphedema, a complication/irritation that can result when the lymph nodes (which serve to drain fluid from our bodies) are removed. More importantly, it would  immediately indicate the necessity for chemotherapy.

My biggest hope (and the last remaining UNKNOWN in all of this) was that the right sentinel node would be cancer-free and my lymph nodes would be spared. The chances were good, since my cancer had been detected so early, but you never know until you know. During the surgery, a pathology report would determine the outcome and I wouldn’t learn the result until I woke up from surgery.

Back in nuclear medicine, I awaited the doctor who would be injecting me with the magic blue dye. While they were prepping me, my surgeon appeared and greeted me as always with a warm and firm handshake. He also autographed each of my breasts, some sort of OR procedural ritual.

The four dye injections were the most painful part of the day for me and the tech gave me her hand to squeeze (hard!) and gently held my head while the dye was injected. Then, after waiting a bit for the dye to find its way to the lucky lymph node, three images were taken in the scanner.

Back upstairs, it was after nine (the scheduled start time of my surgery) and I was hardly nervous yet very hungry, having not eaten or drank since midnight the night before. My plastic surgeon and her intern (a pleasant woman who’s studying to be a breast reconstruction surgeon and had been present at all my other meetings) arrived to check in with me and my team and ask a few remaining questions. My surgeon’s intern was also there to ask the pre-op litany of questions and between the joking and light-hearted banter going on between my answers, my support team, and the plastic surgeon, I think she was a little surprised by the levity in the room, considering the circumstances. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Finally, the orderly arrived to take me down to the OR. My plastic surgeon arranged for my team to stay back in the room during the surgery, as opposed to having to sit for hours in the waiting room, with the blaring TVs. The first of many kindnesses we experienced that day at St. Francis Hospital.

 At 10:20 a.m., I was wheeled into the OR, one of the few places I hadn’t yet seen in the hospital. As my gurney stopped outside the doors, the anesthesiologist was there to meet me. This was the first moment when I thought,

This. Is. It.

They wheeled me in and the first thing I realized was there was jazz music playing. This was a humorous revelation to me, as you’ll recall from my a previous post. I remember seeing three huge round, overhead lamps and was aware that there were at least four people in the room before I was out. No time to count backward from 100. Afterward, I realized the anesthesiologist must have administered the knockout drug in the hallway.

Next thing I know, I’m waking up in the recovery room and, without my glasses, I could barely make out the clock on the wall, which seemed to read five o’clock. My thought process worked in this order as I lay there coming to:

I’m on the other side.

JD.

I’m cancer-free.

iPad.

God, I’m so hungry.

I tried not to assume that the longer-than-expected surgery time meant all the lymph nodes had been removed. (Later, I learned the surgery had been five hours, the exact amount of time estimated.) More than anything, I felt an amazing sense of relief. After about an hour, I was wheeled up to my room on the fifth floor.

The next thing I clearly remember is coming out of the elevator to see everyone in the hall, where they immediately gave me the good news that the one-and-only sentinel node had been removed. It was the best news I’d heard in a long time and to say I was relieved is the understatement of the year. There were tears.

Somehow–luck of the draw, perfect timing, good karma, a word from the doctor–I received a private room. The pressure on my chest as they transferred me from the gurney to the bed, gave me the first physical inclination of what state I was in. Tightly wound up in a bandage, I felt like a mummy or perhaps Judy Garland in the Wizard of Oz, breasts strapped down tight. There were four JP drains pinned to me, collecting the fluid draining from the wounds.

 And did I mention I was hungry? Surgery did absolutely nothing to curb my appetite, before or after. I was famished at this point and of course, true to form, they brought me water and jello to feast upon. Lime jello never tasted so delicious.

The gang hung around for an hour or so afterward, chatting and filling me in on their perspective of the day as well as what the surgeons had told them while I was in recovery. (Karen shot these photos of Jenny and Jan passing the time in their private waiting room. The photo up top is one I shot of Anne on Saturday.)

I was on a morphine drip for the pain. There was also a localized pain medication that was inserted directly in my chest, under the breasts. A fanny pack around my waist automatically delivered pain medication to the surgical area. Between the two medicines, I felt nothing more than a burning sensation and pressure on my chest. I had control of the morphine drip, which I seemed to use less rather than more (sorry friends).

I had no residual feelings of grogginess, light-headedness or nausea from the anesthesia. Speaking of which, after my support team left, I asked if it was possible to get something solid to eat. The Patient Care Tech left to see what she could find, since dinner had finished up a while ago. She returned with a tray, offering to heat it up for me. She removed the cover to reveal what can only be described as quintessential hospital mystery meat. Two rectangular slabs resting on a mound of peas, they were the color of putty and I couldn’t begin to guess what it was supposed to be. I opted instead for a stack of Saltines, graham crackers, and more jello.

I’m happy to say that’s the worst experience I had during my entire two-night stay at the hospital.

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