Thursday, September 30, 2021

Cancer Surgery, Round 2

Note: some of the photos below might be TMI. 

I arrive eight minutes late to the surgical check in area. The door is closed, and there are half a dozen people, all also waiting for surgery, milling around outside; you don't get to go into the room until your name is called, which I assume is some sort of new COVID protocol. I don't really remember how things went down in 2017, but I don't recall it happening this way.

I ask a stranger, also waiting, "Did they call Allan MacInnis, yet?" Nope. It feels very strange, being in a waiting room that is just a hallway with a few chairs, in front of a closed door. 

But there are seats, so I sit.

Eventually I am led into the main room, where I go over my information with a series of about five different nurses, first at the front desk, then later as I get in bed and people come to ask me questions. It's a funny level of redundancy built in - like, someone pretending to be Allan MacInnis, with the services card of Allan MacInnis and their photo on it, would probably know what Allan MacInnis' birthday is, too - since it is ON the services card; I'd have to be a pretty bad imposter to suddenly forget it, but I still have to tell it to every single nurse I talk to. (Maybe the redundancy is about screening for dementia, or making sure that you don't have the wrong person with the same name? Dunno.). I am led to a bathroom and given a bag of clothing to change into and an unlocked locker to leave my pants and shoes and such ("take any valuables with you," they say, so I negotiate stuffing three pieces of ID into my cell phone cover). The underwear seems too small, but fits. The socks are big weird green things, rectangular at the end instead of rounded, and the slippers are disposable jobs that have no obvious "correct" way to go on your foot that I can see. I snap a few selfies while I can.

Later, lying in bed, my attention is drawn to an old guy who I hear nurses warn each other is "quite hard of hearing" as they approach him. That explains why he speaks with a booming voice - a form of compensation I have used myself, when my hearing has been bad (or when I've had headphones on). I get to hear a fair bit of their check-in with him, which is about all I can pay attention to, because he's plenty loud and the internet reception in the hospital is terrible and I've brought nothing else to distract me. He's come for a scalp resection, I learn, has a growth on the back of his head, and I watch my oncologist - who I guess is a "whole head" man, not just an internal guy - interview him while a nurse measures around his neck ("Is that for the noose?" the old guy asks, and I instantly like him.) I think nothing of the fact that we are both large men with beards in our fifties or so until my oncologist, when he comes into the surgery a bit later, as the anesthesiologists are preparing to knock me out, and identifies me to his team as the scalp resection (the fact that everyone is wearing masks doesn't help). No, no, I'm the partial glossectomy! ...his team sets him straight soon enough. 

I surrender my phone, which is placed in an envelope in a safe. Two nurses have failed to find a way to get the IV into the back of my hand - my veins are hard to find, and though they break skin and poke around a bit and make me flinch, it doesn't take hold either time. I joke with one of them as she tapes up my hand that I'm going to write an expose on the role of Big Tape in the hospital system and she chuckles and says, pleasantly "We sure do go through a lot of it." 

I think guys feel obliged to entertain their nurses a bit, to make up for the debt they feel to them. There are worse ways to be in the hospital. I was considerably crankier in 2017, but Erika has set me right, there.

The main anesthesiologist - a large fella with a delightfully foreign African name, which I try to say correctly at least once before I go under - does better with the IV and gets a vein in the back of my right hand in no time. I can never tell if it's skill or luck, but whichever it is, it does seem to vary a lot between hospital staff. Then I've got a mask being fit over my nose and mouth and, without particularly noticing the descent, am unconscious, and my oncologist is cutting away either what is recurrent cancer or else severe dysplasia (I am assuming there will be a biopsy after the fact but as yet I still don't know which). He got a bit abrupt with me when, before I went under, I mentioned that last time I went through this, I was allowed to develop a nasty case of oral thrush, so I ask if there can be some preventative measures taken this time; he seems annoyed by the question, a little, but I get a scrip for an anti-fungal when leaving, so, I mean, I don't really care. He's a good man - a hard working, devoted man, I can see -  but you still have to advocate for yourself in our hospital system, because if you don't, you can't really trust that anyone else will, either. 

I mean, they might, but they might not.

Surgery starts just after 8. I wake up about an hour later - I think by this time it's something like 9:15am - with a little less tongue, a lot of pain in my throat, and weirdly clear nasal passages. I learn that they had problems intubating me, so I could breathe during surgery - which is why my throat is sore, and that they had to go up my nose, instead, blasting a clear passage up my narrow nostrils. I haven't breathed so clearly through my nose ever, as I did on waking up.   

Weirdly, my tongue - the actual main object of my oncologists' attentions - feels fine, better and more normal than it has since before the 2017 surgery, really, since it's never been without a bit of discomfort (and has been very sore over the last few weeks). It feels like a normal tongue, though it still looks a bit weird - I have no idea what the black stuff is on the side, here. Whatever the doc did to me, I think I'm going to recover fully, and hopefully be cancer free for awhile again.

But for any vaccine-hesitant people out there, I will say this, if you haven't already got the memo: intubation is a big deal. If you end up intubated for a long time due to COVID, you are going to suffer. I'm suffering now, fifteen hours later, and they didn't even have the tube down my throat for more than a few minutes, it seems. I can't swallow without a lot of pain, even on painkillers, which means that my mouth tends to fill with saliva and my throat dries up. And a mouthful of thick saliva is kind of disgusting - it's hard to make yourself WANT to swallow it, especially when you know it's going to hurt like hell. I've walked over to the kitchen sink a dozen times since I started writing this to spit a small pond of it down the drain. I do have a cold drink at hand - cool seems to go down better than hot, and at least seems worth swallowing; but there is something about the act of drinking that makes you salivate more, so you can't really win. The pain does go away if you stop swallowing altogether for awhile, but then it's worse when you DO get back to drinking something, while oddly, when you ARE drinking, it seems to somehow soothe the throat, make it relax; you just have to get over that first hurdle, and then you'll want to drink more and more. 

But not saliva.

I've also been peeing a ton - because I was on IV fluids during surgery, and that stuff has got to come out. They give you a portable urinal; one nurse was un-shy about pulling aside my tiny man-panties and helping me affix the jug - seen below, with the odd bend in the top - over my genitals, but mostly they left me to figure that part out myself (I actually had to ask someone, being a bit woozy, which end was supposed to face up). 

...and lest you think nasal intubation is no big deal, while I do admit that it hasn't caused me discomfort - in fact seems to have improved my breathing - I blew some truly disgusting things out of my nose after the operation. Clots of blood, I think, though the dark splotch here felt disturbingly solid and tissue-like, so I don't know. Not the only one like this I blew, either. It's the weirdest sensation I've had of something passing through my body since I peed out my fragment kidney stones, a few years ago.  

But some discomfort is a small price to pay for being cancer free, and overall, I was trulyimpressed by the speed and efficiency of the whole process. There weren't even any visible "COVID roadbumps," at least on my end of things (I'm sure the hospital staff have a few). I'm back home now - Erika, who has been the ever-supportive, loving wife, has driven me about, taking me to the hospital, coming back here for my CPAP machine (which we didn't ever end up using), taking me to get prescriptions filled, and best yet, stopping for a big tub of vanilla ice cream for milkshake purposes. The dairy makes my saliva even stringier than it already is, but the act of swallowing mouthfuls of milkshake - not from a straw, note, because that hurts a bit - was pure relief. My main concern now is not that my tongue will heal up - it did before, and I'm confident it will again, though right now my voice is a mushy mess not fit for human ears. No, my main concern is my throat. It's worse than any illness-borne sore throat I've ever experienced, feels more unnatural, like someone was jamming equipment down there, which is exactly what they did.

Barring any major new developments, though, I'm going to just leave the cancer blogging behind. I had cancer; I had surgery; the cancer (or something like it) returned; I had surgery again. 

It's not all that unlike your second root canal, really. The first one is a big deal, but the second is like, "Oh, shit, this again? Oh well."

Not that I want a round 3. 

Thanks to everyone who has checked in or wished me well, eh? 

1 comment:

Allan MacInnis said...

Oh shit do I have aches and pains. I wonder if it's some sort of pain meds thing - when they wear out, you hurt? Parts of my body not remotely affected by the surgery are aching, like my arms and shoulders and calves. If I drop something and have to bend over, it takes me a Tim Conway length of time to pick it up. And don't get me started on coughing and sneezing: I live in fear. I think I am about to have the most physically painful day of my life, maybe. Or, uh, of my life so far.