Breast Surgery, Ducks and Pillows

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.”

pillow from Duke RaleighSandy 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.

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Blogging in the New Year

Ok, so it’s a new year and I’m trying to blog – you know, continue that thing I vowed I would keep up with back in 2011 and now it’s already January 3, 2012 and I go to make good on my new vow to write at least weekly, for crying out loud, and I can’t even figure out how to start a new post! Sheesh! So, after 15 minutes of “punching buttons” (as my husband admonishes me for doing on just about everything technological in our house, none of which I understand nor ever read the directions for – isn’t that what husbands and grown kids are for – to show you how to do things?), here I am creating this on a new document from Pages on my MacBook Air, figuring I can cut and paste later when my daughter or son-in-law can tell me how to get to a new post on wordpress.

Actually, I really need to learn my MacBook Air. See, I got it last March when we were on a business trip and I left the power cord to my old computer in the car in the parking lot at RDU, giving us a reason to go buy a whole new computer so we could check our email from our St. Louis hotel room. (Tip: whenever you want something new – a sweatshirt if you’re going where it’s cold; a pair of shorts if you’re going where it’s hot; new sunglasses if you’re going to be outside where it’s sunny; a computer if you don’t need any of the above – you get the drift – just leave home without it and you’ll NEED to buy a new one!) When I bought the computer at the mall in St. Louis, I also paid $99 for UNLIMITED one-on-one sessions for a FULL YEAR with an Apple specialist to TEACH ME IN PERSON how to use the thing! I vowed to learn all about it before my year expired. I did sign up for two sessions while in St. Louis and my husband was in meetings, and, during the first couple of months back home, I drove 40 minutes each way to the store at Crabtree in Raleigh about 3 more times and I learned a lot each time I went. I created my one and only flyer, learned enough about iPhoto to at least download and sort new photos into “events”, and finally learned how to download songs by myself to the iPod I’d had for a few years while I was at it. But I haven’t been back to an Apple store in about 6 months and there’s still SO MUCH I want to learn. “It’s so easy with a Mac,” they say. And it is, for most people. In fact, my 8-year old grandson taught me some things I didn’t know about it when we were at the beach last fall when he was still 7. Jonathan said, “Let’s go into ‘Finder'” and I admitted I didn’t ever go there – I didn’t know what it was FOR! So Jonathan and I played around with taking pictures of ourselves and making the images weird – fat, skinny, art deco – it was SO COOL! Who knew?! Ok, so my year hasn’t run out. I still have time. Two months, a week and 2 days, to be exact. Let’s just add that to my growing list of New Year’s Resolutions for 2012.

Speaking of technology, it just seems to change faster than I can keep up with. As a matter of fact, I’m getting a new iPhone soon since I’m now eligible for a “free upgrade” from Verizon (not sure how “free” it is if you still have to pay $200 for the phone, but hey). It’s “my turn” since the rest of the family has the touch screen phones and even though I still haven’t learned how the heck to make use of 90% of the capability of my BlackBerry, I’ve had it for 2 years, so apparently it’s time to upgrade. Glad I didn’t waste time learning that technological marvel! I did, however, get really good at texting, which I’m a little afraid of on a touch screen. New challenge for 2012, even if I don’t learn all the other ins and outs of that gizmo.

So, I think I started this out about writing a blog post? Well, I think I just did. And I practiced something new I recently learned. They have CHANGED THE RULES – did you know you no longer are to leave two spaces between the period at the end of one sentence, and the beginning of the next??! As I’ve been typing this, I think I have had to backspace between every sentence except 2 or 3. Which is also something I recently learned. Used to be you spelled out single word numbers. Now, apparently, you just type the numerals. Gosh, it’s so weird to be “only” in your early 50’s and to feel so OLD and behind in life!

P.S. For the record, my son-in-law did come to my aid and advised me to make sure I was “signed in to wordpress” and it should be right there. Duh (backspace), Ginny. (backspace) Thanks, Cameron! I did the cutting and pasting all by myself!