Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Expose: What it's like to have hernia surgery ...



When you have a baby, the hospital staff treats you like a celebrity. When you have a hernia, the hospital staff treats you like just another asshole with a body. It's more monotone, assembly line. You might be expected to change into a gown while a janitor sprays disinfectant on to the plastic mattress of the neighboring bed. She might look over at you, nonplussed, and say "Don't forget the complimentary chapstick."

I don't blame them. That's what we all are, assholes with bodies. But four months ago Chuck and I were cooing at the sunrise over Lake Superior, a room service menu and, of course, new life. Today Chuck throws back the curtains to reveal a street-level view of The Roundup, a dive bar with a decent karaoke book and, I'm told, edible burgers.

A man outside the window coughs.
We both cringe.
It's like his phlegm is actually jangling free right here in this room.

I'm starving. It's 3:30 p.m.-ish and I last ate at 1:30 a.m. I made two pieces of toast while I unloaded the dishwasher. I turned around for as long as it takes to shelve some mugs and found Orin snout-deep, lapping at a pocket of butter. "Idiot." I sneered and tossed the toast. I was only allowed food until 6:30 a.m. and since I didn't plan to wake up for a last-ditch gobble, that was it. Still, in the scheme of things, would one extra piece of toast sustain me much longer? Doubtful.

"Uncle Loui's is right next door," Chuck reminds me, mentioning the neighboring diner. "You could probably Kool Ade Man yourself through the wall."
I envision my Fruit Punch self face deep in a short stack.

A nurse repeatedly stabs at my left hand, tries to find a ripe vein. They're going to hook me up to an IV, he tells me.
"Can I get that in cheeseburger flavor?" I ask.
Eventually he gives up. Christa veins 1, stabby nurse 0. Someone else is going to have to do it.
"You did your best," I tell him as he leaves the room.

The surgeon stops in for a visit, which goes swimmingly, until he tells me that he is going to take my belly button and flip it up, repair the hernia and sew it back up.

This visual will not leave my head.

CONGRATULATIONS! IT'S A HERNIA
I'd recently been diagnosed with an umbilical hernia, caused by the stretching I'd endured during pregnancy. I think I remember when it happened. At one point my belly button started to really hurt. I thought: I can chalk this up to "Oh. You're pregnant. Things are going to feel weird." Or I can get all meow-meow first-time-mom, and press the panic button -- as were are correctly characterized as doing. Turns out I was making a hernia, so maybe some of those newbie complaints weren't so hilariously rookie.

In recent days, I've delighted in telling people about my hernia. I'm not sure how many people actually know-know what it is, and it's actually pretty fascinating. I'd hold my hand horizontal, spread my fingers, push the knuckle from my right hand through the gap.

"Then the surgeon will push the intestine back into place, and patch the hole with mesh ... like a bike tire," I'd explain animatedly.
"You've told this story before," this guy said during a recent retelling.
Everyone nodded.
"You've really got it down," a woman added, nodding.

In recent days I've also been terrified. Like, picturing people saying "... just a routine surgery," a slow head shake, a dab at the eyes. "... an otherwise healthy woman." When I was told I had a hernia, that I should probably have surgery since it was bothering me, I sat in my car and cried and imagined my life without me. I knew rationally that if I really thought that hernia surgery would hasten death, I wouldn't go through with it. You can live with a hernia. One of my friends just pushes her's back into place and proceeds with life as normal. Sometimes, she said, it hurts if she eats too much. But the hole can get bigger, the intestine can get strangled, the word "gangrene" appears in the literature. And it won't heal on its own.

Still, I did a lot of "this might be the last time that I do this" and on Monday night I ate about 1,200 calories worth of Reece's Pieces. The whole, "How many people skipped dessert on the Titanic" thing, you know.

HOW IT HAPPENS
Eventually I'm wheeled to an elevator, through some back passages, seemingly the underbelly of the hospital. It's like seeing the inner workings of an automaton, or the prep area of a kitchen. I'm parked in Slot 6 of what seems like a medical garage where blue-hatted patients wait to go under the knife. I overhear some of the staff making plans for happy hour. A man in scrubs sprays down beds and keeps smiling at me as if to say, "Look how clean I'm making this bed." At least two other employees walk past and comment on how hard he's working.

It's go time for the older woman parked across from me. She's wheeled out of her spot, and then she is perpendicular to me. She gives me a wan grimace-like smile. I wonder what she's in for.

"One of us might not make it out of here alive," I think, imagining her reading my obituary and staring off into space, trying to place my face.

After that I'm alone and it's lonely, man. People walk past in comfortable, albeit unattractive footwear. Few make eye contact. Some are walking through a door that very clearly says they must be wearing a hat to enter, but they are not. A few carry salads, sandwiches, brown bags.

A nurse stops by my bed. Jiggles this or that. An anesthesiologist explains his process. I sign papers.

I am visited by the physician's assistant who initially dug deep into my belly button to diagnose me last week. I like him. He took me seriously when I told him I had to be prepared for a dance competition in February, even when I explained that I was a novelty act.

"There's a friendly face," I say, and wonder if I sometimes express too much familiarity with strangers. But he did touch my hernia, so maybe he's not such a stranger anymore.

He takes me through the process and says the word "mesh" a lot. Then he pats my leg and tells me it will be about 45 more minutes. He walks away.

"Wait," I say.
He turns around.
"What do I do until then?" I ask.
He shrugs.
"Meditate?"
And he's through the double doors, wearing his hat.

A nurse walks past and asks if I need anything.
"Can I get a piece of paper?" I ask.

Two things calm me: One, imagining that some people live through gall bladder surgery, which seems way more invasive; two, writing this all down.


AND THEN
"This will take the edge off," a nurse tells me, hooking me up to some sort of liquid. "Like a glass of wine."
Here we go.
I'm wheeled into surgery and I can't stop talking. A woman asks me about my job and I tell her an extra-long story about what I do and the most recent thing I did and it can't possibly be interesting -- especially not in the great detail I'm giving her.

Finally I'm cut off. A mask is held near my face and a woman says "Sweet Dreams."

I wake up talking.
Where's Chuck? 
Where's the doctor? 
Am I alive? 
Where is the blog post I started writing in the waiting garage? 
Do I still have my free chapstick? 

AFTERMATH
I'm told the pain would be like I just did a massive abdominal workout. It's true: It feels like I've done 12,000 sit ups. I walk slowly. I worry about the infant nailing me in the guts with her flailing elbows while she eats, the only time I can hold her in any way. Chuck carefully sets her upon my nursing pillow, while I wince with discomfort. After 10 minutes, he flips her to the other breast.

I sleep very little, but take a good chunk out of the book "The Goldfinch" and become intimately acquainted with the night noises of our home; my roommates. One is a rhythmic breather, the other uses her talons to scratch at the mattress in her bed when she isn't making a constant "Uhnnnnnn" noise.

I rotate between Advil and pain pills and occasionally look at my wound in the mirror to make sure it isn't oozing fluid, which would indicate a problem.

I should be fine in 4-6 weeks.


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