4:00 AM. Wednesday, April 13, 2022. The pain in my head was waffling between 7 and 9 on my pain scale. It topped the charts as one of the worst migraines I’d ever experienced. I was in complete agony.
6:00 AM. I sipped a cup of black coffee in hopes it would help my head. After sitting on the couch for a half hour, I went into the bathroom and took my second shower with the special soap. This time, I secured my hair in a clip, so it didn’t get wet. I also left the bathroom light off because the brightness hurt my head. After drying off, I brushed my teeth and dressed in yoga pants, T-shirt, and hooded sweatshirt. I packed a small bag with a bottle of magnesium, my favorite book, Night Film, by Marisha Pessl, my tablet containing a downloaded file of my favorite movie, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, my phone, charging device, earplugs, eye mask, eyeglasses case, toothbrush/toothpaste, and mastectomy pillow.
7:00 AM. I woke up Miah and begged him to get ready because I wanted to go to the hospital early to check-in and get some pain medicine for my head. By 7:20 we were on the road. I wore my Manta eye mask to block out all light. I asked Miah to turn off the radio because sound made my head worse. Tears rolled down my cheeks behind the Manta mask. When we got closer to the hospital, I instructed him not to park in the ramp. I was too sick to walk. I asked him to drive to the patient drop-off/pick-up entrance and park at the curb. Then go inside, get a wheelchair, come back for me, and wheel me to the surgery center. He did exactly as I asked.
I’m not sure what the other patients and visitors thought when they observed me, but this is what they saw: a moaning, hunched over person wearing an eye mask, hooded sweatshirt with the hood up, face mask on (required per the pandemic), holding a small backpack. I looked like someone either very sick, or very much wanting to be anonymous.
Miah navigated his way through the hospital maze with some difficulty. I tried to tell him to go to the outpatient surgery center on level 2, the same level we entered on, but the message was lost in translation. He spoke to one of the receptionists who asked, “Are you checking in?”
“Yeah, she has surgery today, but she has a migraine. She needs help.”
“Ok, go up to the third level, inpatient surgery. Let’s get her checked in right away.”
We pushed off and headed to the elevators. I cried out in pain, “Please hurry.” Someone asked Miah if he needed help finding his way.
“Yeah, I’m not really sure where to go,” I heard him say.
“Here, I’ll just take you,” the helper said. We got into an elevator which raised us one level. A few seconds later, Miah pushed me around more turns and brought me to a stop. I listened as there was some confusion and Miah was instructed to return me to level 2. I sighed but remained very still. Every tiny movement sent an explosion of pain through my head.
Finally, Miah wheeled me into the outpatient surgery center on level 2, where I was quickly admitted and taken to a room. This wasn’t my overnight room, but rather where I would stay until I was taken to surgery. I lifted my eye mask momentarily to greet a cute, young nurse as she entered and pulled up my chart on the computer. “We’re going to page the anesthesiologist and get you some help for your migraine,” she said. I nodded and pulled down my eye mask.
I swear, within mere minutes, Anesthesiologist-Doctor H was standing at the end of my bed. “Oh, thank god you’re here,” I told him. He asked me what would work best for my pain. I told him I needed an intramuscular or intravenous injection of my go-to strong pain medicine, along with some anti-nausea medicine. He couldn’t order an IM or IV dose for some reason but was able to order an oral dose. “That’s fine,” I said, “It will take longer to take effect, but that’s better than nothing.”
A few minutes later, the nurse returned with the pills. Miah sat quietly in the corner of the room. We didn’t talk. I kept my eye mask on.
The next hour of torture drifted slowly by. I changed into my hospital gown and waited. At one point, Surgical-Oncologist-Doctor L arrived. “Show me the pictures,” she said. “I want to see the closure you want, and also the body app photo.”
Miah handed over my phone and I pulled up the photos. Surgical-Oncologist-Doctor L zoomed in and commented that my edited photo looked pretty realistic. I gave her a piece of paper where I had written down the name of the app for her reference. She wanted to tell her other patients about this resource that had helped me. As for the closure, she nodded and said, “Yep, ok, I understand what you want. I’ll see you again in a few hours.”
Then she left me to continue waiting for my pain medicine to kick in. It was taking a long time. I still wasn’t feeling much relief, when a young man showed up with a wheelchair and announced he was there to transport me to my sentinel lymph node mapping procedure. I moved slowly and sat in the chair. I pulled my eye mask back down over my eyes and played the role of “person who wants to be very anonymous looking” as I was rolled through the maze of elevators and hallways. When we got to the radiology department, he rolled me into a small waiting room and notified the staff I was there. I remained in the wheelchair with my mask down. I waited a long time, over 40 minutes. Finally, my pain started to drop.
When she was ready to perform my procedure, Technician L came and got me. She wheeled me into a room with a device that reminded me of a CT scanner. Maybe that’s what it was, I have no idea. She used an ice cube to numb my breast before injecting the radioactive dye. I was totally surprised by how little it hurt. It was like any old injection – a bit of a sting, and nothing more. I felt dumb for being so worried about this. Next, she told me to move my right arm around. I lay there doing cheerleader moves, “Goooo Lorie!” I exclaimed. Technician L laughed. The arm movements were meant to disperse the dye in my body. After several minutes, she put me into position and took images. She waited with me for another 10 minutes afterwards until the radiologist had reviewed the images and confirmed they could see what they needed to.
Another transport wheelchair showed up – this time pushed by a young woman. I pulled my eye mask back down for my anonymous travel back to the outpatient surgery unit where Miah was waiting for me.
Nurse C came back in the room and said they were ready to start my IV. She attempted but could not get a vein. I wasn’t surprised by this – it is a common occurrence anytime I need an IV. I have petite veins. Nurse C went and got another nurse who came in and managed to get an IV inserted into my left forearm. Nurse C asked how my pain was and I said it was about a 6-7. It had come down a little but was still hurting me. She put in a note requesting some IV pain medicine. About 10 minutes later she returned with the medicine, ready to push it into my IV.
“Are you sure? Like it’s not going to be too strong or kill me?” I asked. I was worried about the dose. I had taken the oral dose only 3 hours earlier. Was it ok to get more of the medicine via IV now? She assured me it would be fine and explained the IV dose runs through your system much faster than the pill form. This dose would help to bring the pain much lower. Suddenly my entire body felt different - warm and relaxed. “Oh, yeah, I can notice that,” I said. I felt a little scared by the sensation, but then got used to it.
Anesthesiologist-Doctor H returned and said they would be taking me back soon to get started. He asked if I had any questions. I chatted with him about a few concerns until I felt confident in his abilities to keep me alive.
A man and woman showed up and announced, “Ok Lorie, we’re ready to take you back now. This is when you say goodbye to your husband for a little bit.” I asked if it was ok for me to take my mask off to give Miah a kiss. “Of course you can,” they said. Miah and I exchanged a quick hug and kiss. I told him, and he told me back - I would be ok, and everything would be alright.
I didn’t feel overly anxious; I was in it. There wasn’t time to think.
I was taken to a room where I was instructed to lean upright in a seated massage chair. They gave me a cocktail of medications meant to relax and give me amnesia so I wouldn’t remember this part. It didn’t work because I remember everything. They untied my gown in the back and went through the process of injecting me in four different locations with numbing medicine in the space off to the side of my spine. It felt painful, but was only a few seconds of pain for each injection. The room was dimly lit because they used an ultrasound machine to guide them and locate the injection sites. This nerve block was optional, and I chose to have it done because they said, “most women have it done.” When they had finished, I was instructed to lie back and relax while the medicine kicked in.
I was disturbed as I lay there and listened to the same man and woman walk into a room nearby and perform the exact same procedure on another woman who was also there for her breast surgery. I turned my head into my pillow and plugged my other ear to block out their voices. My body seems to be extremely tolerant to medicines and they don’t knock me out as I’d like them to. I waited and tried not to hear the sounds around me.
Finally, some people came and got me and rolled me into the operating room with the bright lights. I was asked to climb from my bed onto the operating table. And this is the last thing I remember.
I was having a dream. I am a vivid dreamer, and always have been. Suddenly, my mind and body came awake. “Lorie, we’re all finished,” I heard a woman say.
“I’m alive? Really? I made it?!” I asked.
“Yes,” I heard laughter. “How does your pain feel?”
“It hurts,” I said. It was strange, coming out of those heavy medications and trying to evaluate my physical state. The next couple hours were blurry and I barely remember being wheeled to my overnight room, which was located in a windowless hallway of patient rooms I referred to as “The Cave." The rooms were small, but not claustrophobic, with sliding glass doors. It was about 6:45 PM. Nurse R was finishing her shift. She took my vitals as Nurse D arrived for the overnight shift.
“Can we take a look at your incisions and see how everything is looking?” they asked me.
“Sure, I guess,” I said. I looked at Miah. “Honey, are you ok looking?”
He was suited up and ready for duty, “Yep, fine with me.”
Miah is such a hero. He never flinches in a moment of stress. He is my anchor.
Nurses R and D pulled down my gown and opened the compression binder to reveal my stitched up, breast-free chest, with drain tubes hanging from the sides. Miah tilted his head, “Huh, it looks… not bad at all.”
“You want to jump my bones, don’t you?” I joked with him. Everyone laughed.
Nurses R and D gently touched the Steri strips to make sure everything was sealed and holding well and then re-sealed the Velcro on the breast binder. The eventful day was ending, and it was now time to rest. Nurse R signed off and ended her shift, and Nurse D took over. Miah went home to tend to the dogs and get some rest. I was alert and feeling well. I took a selfie and texted a few of my Flock members. I put my tablet on and played Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle on repeat as I lay there. It was a restless night. I had to call for Nurse D every time I needed to use the bathroom. She untangled me from the leg compression sleeves on my calves (used to help keep blood flowing and prevent clots) and escorted me to the bathroom across the hall from my room. I still had an IV in my arm, but I was not hooked up to a drip; it made moving around easy. I struggled with getting in and out of bed because I couldn’t use my arms to adjust my position – I had to scoot with my hips and lower body. It was awkward as all heck.
I was unable to fall asleep, so I ordered a dose of my muscle relaxer to put me into a drowsy state. I had spells of nausea. Nurse D injected me several times with a blood thinner in my stomach – standard protocol when you have surgery and are laying around for so long – another measure to prevent blood clots. I only slept for about two to three solid hours.
7:30 AM. Thursday, April 14, 2022. Nurse D finished her shift and Nurse R returned. A large group of white-coated people filled my room and stood around me in a semi-circle. Someone told me everything was looking good, and I could plan to go home in the early afternoon around 1:00 PM. The white coats left, and it was just me and Nurse R. I called Miah, told him the good news, and asked him to come to the hospital and be with me until we could go home.
In the next 20 minutes, something changed. Surgical-Oncologist-Doctor L came in and looked me over. She looked so nice, having just started her workday, wearing fresh makeup with her hair styled in a neat up-do. I said to her, “You look really pretty today.” I could see her eyes crinkle in a smile as she said, "Oh, thanks." But the words she spoke after that took the conversation in a whole different direction.
“So, you’ve developed a mild hematoma on your right side. Your body is bleeding more than we want it to and we need it to stop. We try to seal all the capillaries when we do surgery but it’s impossible to get them all, and in some patients, the unsealed capillaries don’t stop bleeding. This happens about 5% of the time.”
Lucky, special me, I thought sarcastically. I asked if I would still be able to go home at 1:00 and she said, “No way. You won’t be leaving here any time before 6:00 PM, that is, if you’re even able to leave today. We’ve gotta wrap you tightly with Ace bandages and if that doesn’t work, we’ll need to take you back into surgery.”
She described the hematoma situation with such confidence and ease that I never felt worried, I just felt sad. Minutes earlier I had called Miah and told him I could go home at 1:00. Now plans had changed, and I might not even be going home at all today. I called Miah back and shared this turn of events. “I still want you to come here now and be with me,” I told him, and he agreed to head over right away.
8:00 AM. In marched two women who introduced themselves as physician assistants to Surgical-Oncologist-Doctor L. They were here to wrap me with Ace bandages. I wasn’t initially scared of what was about to ensue, but I should have been. They worked together to wrap two 6” bandages as tightly as possible around my chest - one clockwise, and the other counterclockwise. I couldn’t intake any air. “I can’t breathe!” I panicked, sucking in tiny wisps of air, gripping the sides of the mattress.
“Yes, you can, you just have to take small breathes and stay calm,” they told me. I tried to follow directions, but it was petrifying. After about 30 minutes, I settled down a little.
Then came the fire - a searing, burning, stinging in my ribcage and lungs. It felt like embers were ablaze inside my body. The pain was excruciating. I started screaming and sobbing in pain. Nurse R practically hollered at me to calm down. I feared Nurse R because her mannerisms were scatty and aggressive, and I didn’t want to make her mad at me – I worried she would give me the wrong medicine or dose. I tried to calm down, but it was impossible. Miah arrived and tried to comfort me. He read a chapter out loud from my favorite novel to distract me. I tried to watch more Jumanji. Nurse R pushed a dose of IV pain medicine to take the edge off. It did nothing. I ended up clock-watching, counting down until noon. That was when the Physician Assistant said she would return and take the bandages off.
11:59 AM. The two physician assistants returned at one minute to twelve. “Oh, thank god you’re here,” I exclaimed with relief. They didn’t miss a beat and immediately removed the bandages. Within minutes, the pain dropped from 10 to 6. Over the next 5 hours, Nurse R checked on me hourly, which included emptying my surgical drains to check the output. The fluid color returned to reddish pink on the right side, indicating the Ace bandage compression had worked and the bleeding had stopped. An occupational therapist came by and demonstrated how to perform each stretching exercise on the overwhelming instructional sheet I had reviewed the previous week. She also showed me how to get in and out of bed without using my arms. A floral delivery arrived from Sister-In-Law J and Mom-In-Law R. It was an Easter Lily plant with a pink helium balloon in the shape of a star. The card said, “You’re a rockstar.” I smiled at the kind gesture but didn’t feel very rockstar-ish.
At around 5:00 PM, Surgical-Oncologist-Doctor L came back to announce I was able to go home and instructed Nurse R to prepare me for discharge. The discharge process took another two hours. Nurse R brought in a large brown bag filled with stuff: gauze pads, extra compression camisole, and a few other things they standardly send mastectomy patients home with. Miah practiced stripping the drain tubes and emptying the drains. Nurse R reviewed the at-home care instructions with us and answered our questions. My discharge transport person showed up. Miah left to get the car and meet us at the patient drop-off/pick-up entrance. I secured my purple mastectomy pillow around my chest and held my Easter Lily/balloon in my lap as I sat in the transport wheelchair.
“What is that?” Transport Lady and Nurse R asked, pointing to my mastectomy pillow.
“It’s a mastectomy pillow, to protect me from the car seatbelt. My friend got it for me,” I proudly told them.
“Wow, that’s something special, isn’t it? We should get those for all our mastectomy patients,” Nurse R declared.
Transport Lady rolled me through the maze one last time. It was after normal clinical hours, and the hallways were empty. I loved the peacefulness of it. My departure felt like a calm summer rain compared to the hurricane of agony at my arrival.
7:30 PM. Miah parked in the driveway and came around to help me exit the car. He walked me to the front door, and we entered our house. I shouted to the dogs, “No jumping! Stay off! Mama is hurt.” Magic was immediately freaked out by this. Sparkle was excited to see me and confused by my words and actions. I turned my back to them so they wouldn’t jump on me. Then I setup camp on the living room sectional couch. Miah pushed the ottoman over and I topped it with the TV remote, my phone, and my book. I decided to sleep on the couch for the next couple weeks as I healed. My bed was too soft, and it would be difficult to attempt to prop myself up. I wanted to stay in more of a seated position because it seemed to help reduce the pressure I felt on my chest.
Sparkle figured out something was going on and realized she needed to provide extra protection. She laid on the sectional, to my immediate right. She would remain vigilantly glued to me for the next few weeks. The nice thing about Border Collies is their intelligence. Within mere minutes, Sparkle figured out she had to stay away from my chest. Magic resumed his usual spot by the back door. He was unsure about what was happening in our house and felt protected in his safe spot.
9:00 PM. I was home. I was safe. I was alive. Miah beamed at me, “I am so proud of you for doing this.” His eyes got watery as he described how thankful he was I had chosen to go ahead and fight the cancer. He talked about everything he had witnessed; everything he'd watched me go through and how I had done it remarkably well. We spent a good thirty minutes talking about our roles in the “sickness and health” part of marriage. We agreed he fits the caregiver role much better than me. If the situation reversed, and Miah was the one needing surgery, I might not be able to be the hero. It’s not my personality – I panic in stressful situations. We decided that is ok. I play other roles Miah could never fill. I realized then; just how much stronger our connection had grown. Our nightly talks about life and the possibility of death, our fears, our hopes, our communication misunderstandings, frustrations, and breakthroughs – had changed us. We weren’t the same couple we were a year ago. My diagnosis and treatment had allowed me to really see, to really understand, just how much Miah loves me.
At that, I recognized a positive outcome of my illness. Cancer showed me how much I am admired, how much I am worth, and how much I am loved. I couldn’t see that before, not with this much clarity and vibrancy.
We did not know what lay ahead. Radiation and/or chemotherapy was still a dim possibility, depending on the final surgical pathology results. I anticipated the results in about a week. We decided not to read them when they arrived via email. I expected they would be long and confusing, and it would be best for Surgical-Oncologist-Doctor L to explain. Some things are meant to wait.
End of 13 - Wheel Me In For Surgery