Breast Surgery, Ducks and Pillows
Her warm dark eyes smiled at me through the wispy remains of the anesthesia.
“Hi. My name is Sandy and this pillow was made by some volunteers here for you to take home with you to help with the pain during your recovery.”
Sandy handed me a black pillow with bright colorful figures on it, about eight by twelve inches and rather light and thin, not stuffed too full.
“You can hold it under your arm, kind of supporting your breast and it should help with the pain,” she explained.
A friend had reminded me of the pillow trick the day before, but I hadn’t looked for the little one I’d used five years ago after my first breast cancer surgery. I tend to block out the negative and only remember the positive. I hadn’t wanted to give thought to how miserable I might be post op, so I hadn’t read up or prepared much this time. Instead, I’d paid bills, wrapped and delivered birthday and graduation gifts and cards, stocked the panty, the refrigerator, the freezer. I’d returned clothing items I’d had sitting around for a while, made phone calls and scheduled appointments, stitched up holes in Roosevelt’s Mr. Bear and Squeeky Chick, and bought fabric for window treatments I had put off for years, keeping busy until the day of the surgery.
“Thanks,” I replied with heartfelt appreciation, looking intentionally into Sandy’s liquid chocolate eyes.
All morning I’d noticed the kindness of the staff at the hospital as they dealt with a gurney that was hard to keep going in a straight line through the corridors, a temperamental mammogram machine, my questioning the wording on the consent form before I signed, wanting to make sure “partial mastectomy” was the same thing as “lumpectomy.” Who knew what was going on in each of their own personal lives? But here they were at work, me just another patient in a string for the day, the week, their career, and they were offering me such individual compassion and attention. How refreshing and reassuring to experience great care despite the fallout of Obamacare swirling all around.
The most difficult hour that day was spent with Dianne and Jennifer in radiology. They ended up taking another ten mammogram images (I’d had 25 the previous week). Because my tumor was vey small and located so close to the chest wall, it was difficult to image.
“Ok, let’s try this,” Jennifer decided. “Stick your butt out like a duck and lean into the machine. I’ll just reposition your breast … I’m really sorry I’ve got to pull on it so, but I’ve got to get as much of your body into the machine as I can.”
At one point the machine malfunctioned, while I was uncomfortably pressed into it.
“What can I do?” Jennifer asked Dianne. “Sometimes if we stop and start over and spin the arm all the way around, it will start working again. Why don’t we try that?”
“Because I don’t want her to have to keep doing this any longer than necessary,” Dianne said as she began turning the tight knob by hand with her own brute force. She made a joke about getting her workout for the day, but kept a smile on her face. “I’m sorry this is so uncomfortable, but we’ve got to get a good image. You’re going to be bruised and sore tomorrow. I’m so sorry.”
“That’s okay, you’re just doing your job. I’ll have to tell you my duck joke later,” I said good-naturedly. “It’s actually a joke my grandmother used to tell.”
“Okay! We like a good joke, but we need you to be still while we try to get these images. I wish we could give you something to take the edge off, but we need you standing and able to follow directions. As soon as we’re done here, you’ll be getting some sedation.”
The two ladies retreated behind the safety screen and snapped another x-ray.
“Yes! We’ve got it!” Ok, don’t move a muscle! Just keep leaning in with all your weight and keep sticking your butt out like a duck. I’ll go get Dr. Campbell.”
Dr. Campbell, a male, came in and introduced himself and described what he would be doing. I would need to stay standing in the awkward position without moving while he injected lidocaine into my breast, then inserted a guide wire, marking the area to be surgically removed. I would need to stay in that position until more mammogram images confirmed the wire was in the right place.
He got down on the floor, literally squatting or lying (I couldn’t tell which from my vantage point), reaching up through the opening in the panel of the machine and started the stinging injections of lidocaine. When my breast was numb, he began inserting the guide wire into my abused left breast.
They lightened the tone for me and for one another, peppering the stale, dark room with casual, upbeat comments. When the doc was finished, they took one last image.
“Perfect!” he pronounced. “That is perfect!”
Dianne and Jennifer came back over to me and released the compression, but kept me still while they covered the wire in gauze and bandaged it to my skin for the surgery. I was glad I wasn’t able to see the wire sticking out of my body.
Before they escorted me back onto the gurney, I told them about the mama and papa ducks and the little baby duck getting lost and how they tried to find their way back home. “So, the father duck stuck his beak under his wing, ruffled around in his feathers, popped his head up and said, ‘My instincts say go north.’ I imitated the duck movements with my own nose bending down near my right armpit, then popping up to deliver the next line of the joke. “The mother duck stuck her beak under her wing, popped her head up, and said, “My instincts say go south.” So the baby duck stuck his head under his wing, then popped his little head up and squeaked, “My end stinks too, but it doesn’t tell me which way to go!”
They laughed as they got me back onto the gurney and began maneuvering me through the doorway. I hoped maybe they would remember it to tell the joke to other ladies poised so uncomfortably in the restricted position — maybe take the edge off another woman’s nervousness in the future.
After my surgery, back in Bed #5, Lois, the tall nurse dressed in dark blue, explained my post op instructions. It was hard to take it all in — the bright lights, tight quarters, people in and out, voices beyond the curtain, still groggy. Lois explained that I couldn’t shower until the next day, needed to wear a bra like the surgical one I found myself in upon coming out of anesthesia, and that Dr. Tolnitch would call with the path report and to set up my follow up appointment in a few days. I had no memory of anyone putting a bra on me (“free” surgical bra, woo hoo! Or maybe it will be an outrageously expensive line item on my hospital bill!). I wondered how in the world someone had managed to accomplish that if I was a limp dishrag. Or maybe I wasn’t. I was glad I couldn’t remember. I’m all for good anesthesia.
I vaguely remembered the large male anesthetist giving me multiple shots in the upper chest on my left side to complete the nerve block. I recalled some nice nurses before that — maybe Sandy, too? — stooping down in front of me as I sat on the side of the gurney, the large man behind me injecting stuff in my upper spine and shoulder area. Later, Michael said they had had some difficulty getting me numb. Thankfully I can’t remember this very clearly. Let’s hear it for sedation!
Back at home, days later, I still cradle the black pillow with its bold cactus, animal, Southwestern hunting motif, positioning the cold gel pack wrapped in a pillowcase between it and myself. I lie back and close my eyes. I see Sandy’s lovely deep brown eyes looking kindly into mine. I’m glad it is done.