I mentioned last week that I was looking forward to brain surgery; not so much the surgery as the relief it was meant to bring to my trigeminal neuralgia. If you are at all interested you are bound to prefer experiencing this vicariously. The plan was to drill a hole 1 inch in diameter in the skull behind my ear and insert Teflon sponges between the nerve and the blood vessel in my brain that was pressing on it, to relieve the searing pain.
I set my alarm for 4 a.m. to be in Charlottesville 50 miles away ready for surgery at 7.30. My son Andre, who I moved countries to be near, drove me kindly. We arrived exactly on time and were taken into the preparation area, along with five other patients for different procedures. Surgeons and nurses are early risers.
They had just linked me to an IV and drip, lying on a gurney, when the fire alarm rang. “It’s just a drill, don’t worry, they do this all the time,” said the nurse. The loudspeaker announced: “This is not a drill. There is a fire in the kitchen. Do not move patients on IVs until further notice.” I thought, “There must be an unlocked door somewhere in this building,” and I couldn’t smell smoke, so I relaxed. Besides, Andre was still with me. Fortunately the fire was quelled, but it delayed operations by 40 minutes.
Wheeled into the operating room I was aware of a lot of people in scrubs. They gently suggested I breathe a little oxygen, and as it had no taste I breathed in deeply, about five times, and I was off. I had warned them that previous anesthetics had made me nauseous and they gave me something extra which worked to perfection. When I came to about four hours later I noticed a window through fluttering eyelids and thought with relief, “Oh good, I’m still here.” Then I asked myself “Entiendes lo que te digo?” and my heart jumped for joy because I could still speak Spanish. Yippee, I was going to be all right. The nurse who attended me in Recovery was sweet natured, smart and appreciated my sense of humor: endearing qualities. When I glimpsed her under heavy lids, she was blonde and pretty. Her name was Melanie. Thank you, Melanie.
In the recovery room I had so many funny thoughts, I could have written a half hour sit. com. about “Coming To.” It made me chuckle, frequently. I expect they are used to the euphoria that people experience after an operation, but in this case I was genuinely funny and in context. Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten most of the jokes, but I know there’s scope for a good script.
Wheeled up to Intensive Care via an elevator (there are three bumps in the floor), I was told, “Look at your lovely view.” I couldn’t turn my head to see out the window, so I said “The ceiling is beautiful.” My beloved son came in. It was 12.50. He had been out to lunch at the same time I was. The nurses were solicitous: “Would you like another pillow? Is this better? Are you warm enough?” I’d like to experience intensive care more often. These nurses have special qualities.
I hardly slept at all until the Saturday night. The operation had been on Friday morning. I’d spent most of that morning under anesthetic, so I wasn’t sleep deprived. They don’t give you sleeping pills the first night: in fact they rouse you regularly to be sure you are OK, shining a torch in your eyes, asking “What’s your name? Where are you? What’s the date?” I said “Just don’t ask me any math questions, I’m crap at math.”
At 1 a.m. they took me downstairs for a CT scan. At 3.00 a.m. a helicopter landed on the roof above the Intensive Care unit and ran its blades continuously until it took off at 4.30. I tried not to think about the subject of this dramatic form of transport. Strangely, that’s when I dropped off for five minutes about five times, lulled by the whirring blades. I was glad of the clock on the wall to keep track of time.
My intensive care nurse was called Crystal. She was bright, gentle, empathetic, smart, kind, thoughtful and responsive. Whatever she’s paid, she’s worth more. She told me that she loves her work and I assured her she’s in the right job. She made my stay so enjoyable. I felt I’d made a friend.
A physiotherapist came to walk me up and down the corridor, assess my wobbling gait and show me how to use a walking stick. Have cane, will totter. I was daunted to discover how necessary the cane was for my balance. She asked me the usual questions about Who, where, what, when, then asked me to count the months backwards starting in June, then backwards in twos from twenty. She explained, “We ask you complicated questions while you are walking to make sure you can walk, talk and chew gum at the same time.” I said “Like George Bush?” She asked “Who is the President?” and I said “Obama, thank God.” She was definitely a Republican, but very good at her job.
The whole surgical team came to visit me in my room, all eight of them, minus the Main Man, Dr. *** (not his real name) and he came to see me alone at least twice. I can’t emphasize how impressed I am with the respect the whole team shows for patients, answering their questions, explaining medication, discussing treatment, allowing them options, following through, sharing test results instead of keeping patients in ignorance. This imbued so much confidence.
All my ‘vitals’ were average and the CT scan was “Excellent”. “Even with the CT scan we can’t tell if it was a success until we ask the patient,” said the doctor. All the Neuralgia has GONE. The right side of my face is slightly numb which is possibly permanent, but a huge improvement on trigeminal pain. I am so grateful, so in awe of the surgeon’s skill, the hospital care, the whole experience. They have closed my cranium with a titanium plate which may be a nuisance at airports. The scar will not be visible, being behind the ear and under my hair. After a day in a general ward I was allowed to go home early.
If you are facing scary surgery, take heart. The skills of the medical profession have never been more acute. If you asked me whether I was glad I’d had that operation, I’d say it was a no brainer.
I keep having nice thoughts like “If I ever get dementia, I’ll be able to ramble in three languages” (I gather learned skills are the last to fade). I wouldn’t make sense to anyone else in that state, but I’d feel clever doing it. Ultimately you are the one you have to please; don’t lose sight of that.
Messages poured in from loving family and friends. My Quaker meeting had been holding me in the light, one Catholic friend had lit a candle, and another asked the priest to mention my name so the congregation could pray for me. A Unitarian friend visited me, Baptist, Buddhist and Jewish friends also put in a word. People had uplifted me in USA, England, Wales, Ireland, France, Australia and New Zealand. I couldn’t feel happier if I had won the lottery. In fact, in the days before the operation when I considered that I might not survive, the things I valued most apart from my wonderful family were the clouds, the trees, the greenery and the mountains. I wasn’t yet ready to leave them behind. I can’t imagine what comfort people derive from diamonds and luxury goods. The real luxuries are there for everyone to enjoy, and are priceless.