[published in Health and Healing in the Triangle, October 2012 issue on Surgery]
I’ve been cut. Couple of times, actually.
Mostly I remember Kathleen’s presence. She goes in with me. She holds my hand when I talk with the pre-op nurse and the anesthesiologist and she waits for me to come out. She listens to the surgeon and later tells me what he said. I get better. I believe one of the operations saved my life. Seven operations. I’m a frequent flyer.
I’m very lucky. In most of the instances the surgeon has been a professional colleague. One time it was a medical school classmate and friend. Mostly I know the anesthesiologists too. If I have the chance, I handpick them.
I’m not necessarily proud of this. If anything I’m a little embarrassed to admit it. I don’t want to want to be treated as special. I’m guessing that the possibly excessive care I took getting connected to the team in charge is in part testimony to my need for control. Or more likely my anxiety.
I like to think I’m not afraid, but I am. I don’t like the idea of scalpels opening me and retractors holding my tissues apart. I don’t like the idea of someone else reaching inside me. I suspect there is a part of me (which part I wonder) that monitors this invasion and declares an emergency – both in anticipation and in recovery. Only my civilized self says it is OK. My primitive or perhaps my higher self tells me “this is very dangerous”. There are voices inside wanting to know that this will be done in the spirit of healing rather than something else. It is my experience that these voices pay close attention to what is said in preparation for the time of the cutting.
Fear is not a good thing. It does bad things to my head and my body. I don’t sleep. I don’t eat the right things. I don’t say the right things and I retreat. I go inside my head. This makes things worse. I create possibilities with my mind that aren’t healthy. I pretend I am not worried. I don’t tell Kathleen. This distances us. She understands and holds my hand anyway. An acquaintance just last night told me that fear is praying for bad things to happen.
Just what you want for a major operation, right?
Now I realize how good it has been that I knew the people that surrounded me when I was cut. I remember in some detail how well and how important it was that the surgeons explained the procedures and what it would be like. It helped calm and prepare me when I met other people that would be in the room with me when the procedure was carried out. I remember now how important it was that the surgeon acted in a kindly and warm manner towards me. These actions and the feelings they transmitted quieted the inner voices that were warning me of danger. The inner voice heard healing instead of trauma. I remember one surgeon was able to convey so much to me about his concern for me–simply by asking if I was ready. This communicated to me that he was not so much doing something TO me, rather something we were doing together. It was also important to me when another surgeon clearly bonded with Kathleen, and by his attentiveness communicated to me how well he understood her importance to me and to the outcome.
In my mind Kathleen was the warrior protecting me, sending me off and waiting for my return. I wasn’t actually crossing the river Styx but perhaps my spirit was. I needed a powerful reason to come back and she was it. It was unsaid but by her presence she declared herself and her expectations.
So this is what I say. If you’re a patient and you have a chance, pick your surgeon by his bedside manner. Onetime when I was having a technically complex procedure I picked a surgeon that had a bad reputation in his relationship skills but was considered brilliant technically. I told my friends that if I needed someone to help me through this illness emotionally, I’d find a social worker. In retrospect I think that was a bad idea. I lost a lot of blood and it took me a long time to recover. Maybe these were not related but I think they were. If you’re a surgeon and you want good results remember that your patients are scared even if they don’t act it. Speak to their fear.
And if you can arrange it, have a warrior by your side throughout.
Oh yeah. One more thing. The pain meds they give afterwards cause horrible constipation and you need to start taking something for that before the operation. ‘Nough said.
To your Health.