Thursday, 2 April 2015

My Journey Through Surgery

I knew from the first of January that this would be a monumental year, and it was. After all of the paperwork and preparation of last year, I was ready to move forward. The New Year's festivities had barely ended, and I had just gone back to work, and it was full steam ahead. Yet as the days and weeks passed, as I took my medical tests, bought provisions for my trip back home and to surgery and as I trained my temporary replacement at work, my mind was elsewhere. At times it seemed I had split apart from myself and watching myself from above or on a television screen. My concentration at work became scattered. I thought of the healing work with my family that would continue with my family when I landed in Montreal.

Then on Sunday evening in late January, I waited for my father's regular bi-weekly phone call at 7:30. The time passed and no call came: very unusual. When I called, another relative answered: my folks were in the hospital ... with pneumonia. My heart stopped. I tried to reach them by their cell phones. No answer. That night, for me, was sleepless. I took the following day off from work, my mind filled with images of the worst. So many had passed on over the years. I did almost nothing the entire day. Tuesday morning, a late work day for me, my father called from his hospital room. They were going to be okay. Relieved, but eyes tearing up, I managed to utter "Oh, good!" Within a couple of weeks they both indeed had gotten better and were back at home, but the incident and how it had played out had shaken me. I felt my own vulnerability and mortality and that of those closest to me vividly.

Another strange event began right after that and into February. What I thought was a cold, nasal congestion persisted for a few weeks. Given the unseasonably warm winter, even by Pacific coast standards, I thought that maybe the allergens and molds had never really gone away. I used antihistamines to keep my nose clear. But soon, they were not working either. On the first Sunday night of March, I became so congested that I could scarcely breathe, sleeping was impossible. My room seemed to cave in around me. It took everything I had to keep from running out my front door and screaming in terror. Somehow, I made it to sunrise. With an incredible burst of energy, I began packing my bags for Montreal and cleaning up the kitchen and dining rooms. Then I went to the local walk-in clinic. It was so busy that I decided to come back the following day.
The next day, the doctor suggested getting a humidifier and using a regimen of steam and hot lemony drinks to moisten my sinuses. Over the next few days, doing just that helped immensely. I had feared that any health problems would derail my surgery plans, but happily they had not.


I had been anticipating my last week at work before surgery for years as had my co-workers, and now it was here. My evening book club presented me with a gift basket packed with books, socks and boxes of tea. Library patrons wished me well as did a co-worker who was retiring that very week. On my last day, there were tears, not only my own. And then, for the last time for a few months, I gathered my things (my cubicle was among those being relocated to our newer library branch) said my "goodbye, see you in a few months" to each and all, and left.

I spent the weekend shopping for anything I further I needed for my trip, a bathrobe, some pygamas, slippers, and food for when I returned in mid-April. I made sure my cat had enough food and litter; my landlady and her partner would be looking after Tatum while I was gone. I finished packing and cleaning the house. I spoke to many friends and they wished me well. On the Monday of my red eye flight, I got ready, put my make-up on and left just after dinner time to head to the airport by Skytrain. I was accompanying a friend on a standby flight leaving at 11:30 pm. I met him at YVR and we boarded. We lifted off in fog and flew east.


I don't sleep well on flights, so I was awake when we descended towards Montreal as the sky began to lighten. I had been watching movies and documentaries the whole way and was now, drowsily, watching an old NFB animated film called Sandcastles. Right after the fifteen minute film finished, we descended through the clouds, banked to the right and I could see the east end of my home town beneath me. We landed just after seven in the morning. It was -8C outside. After leaving the plane, I parted ways with my friend and went to the baggage area. After getting my luggage, I called my father (who was at a nearby restaurant with my stepmother waiting for my arrival); they picked me up outside about five minutes later.

We drove to over to the east end and had breakfast and then headed back to their apartment where I took a shower, changed into something loose and colllapsed from jet lag (and Daylight Savings time which had just begun two days earlier). Getting over jet lag took the next few days. Over those same few days, friends and relatives called to wish me well. My folks and I went out to pick up some last minute things that I would need after surgery. We also had a chance to go to a local Italian bakery/cafe to have some hot chocolate and zeppole (St. Joseph's Day pastry), apparently the best in town. The last time I had been at that cafe was nearly four years ago when my father and stepmother were getting married, at the beginning of summer. I thought of how much and how fast things had changed since then. It boggled the mind.


On Saturday, March 14, my folks drove me to a place called Le Marigot in the city of Laval. The clinic and recovery centre had an arrangement with this bed and breakfast to put up anyone who could not be accommodated the first night due to overflow. Normally, I would have gone to the recovery centre but there was no space lef that night. I brought some pygamas and some comfortable clothing with me as well as books and other essentials. I hugged my folks goodbye, all of us nervous about the coming days. After they left, I went to my room upstairs. A wonderful place run by very warm, friendly family, it was furnished with rustic furniture and very comfortable sheets and pillows. Meals were downstairs in the dining room with the family and other guests, most just there for a rest or vacation.

The following afternoon, before I left for the clinic, I took the first of two enemas, an unforgettable experience. Nearly three hours later, a taxi (expenses covered) brought me to the clinic in Montreal's north end. After a lengthy admission process, I got my wristband, my hospital gowns, some disinfectant soap and a hospital gown and robe. Then came my second enema. After that and my shower, I changed into my gown. I was sharing a room with another woman, quite a bit younger, who was also named Vanessa. When I went to bed, I tried my best to sleep, but kept waking up intermittently. When awoke, I got up, showered and got back in bed. The surgeons came in, introduced themselves and examined me. Then came the anesthesiologist who explained that I would be getting a spinal injection rather than general anesthetic. Then, the other Vanessa was taken upstairs to the operating room for the first surgery of the day. Close to ten that morning, I was summoned and accompanied a doctor into the elevator upstairs to a waiting room. There was another patient, a transman, also waiting there.

The suspense was overwhelming. I could hear my pulse in my head. The out of body experiences I had been having earlier in the year came back. Scenes from my life flashed in front of my eyes. At some point the other patient was brought to a different room. I suddenly had to use the washroom and did so quickly before coming back in and sitting down. After an indeterminable amount of time, a nurse came in and motioned for me to follow her. I got up and followed her into a supply room where there was a basket of surgical hair nets. She eyed my dishevelled afro and said, "This will be the challenge of the day." I couldn't help but laugh as we both struggled to fit, not one, but two caps over my hair. She then turned to the door at the far end of the room and opened it. It opened directly into the operating room with its respirators, heart monitors, lights and other devices.

I was motioned to recline on the raised operating table as the anesthetics team reiterated how they were going to proceed. They spent a lot of time trying to find a suitable vein for my IV. This kept me distracted from the needle in between my spinal vertebrae. Idle chit chat, about what I can't remember, and then, the lights went out.


A muffled woman's voice, like I was hearing it under water, above me to my right. It became clearer as I opened my eyes and saw that there was a nurse standing next to where I was lying down. She asked how I was doing, I felt as if I were asleep and asked if I was dreaming this or if it was real. She assured me it was real. She said that the surgery had gone very well. I was now in the recovery room next to the operating room. My folks were downstairs waiting for me to be brought back down. Relieved, I zoned out for what seemed like a moment before I realized I was being wheeled into the elevator to be taken down to my room. I joked (about what I can't remember) with the other nurse with me in the elevator.

The doors opened and I caught sight of my folks as I was taken through the halls back to my room. I said hi to the other Vanessa who was back from her surgery. At my bed, two staff hoisted me up on sheets and lifted me onto my bed in smooth flowing motion. The sheets were then pulled up and the bed raised so that I could see forward. I was numb from my navel down. My father and stepmother came in and sat near the foot of the bed. We spoke for a short while before I started to fade. I said that it had gone fine and asked my stepmother to post on Facebook that the surgery had gone well and that I was recovering nicely. My folks left saying that they would be back the next day. After saying goodbye, I fell asleep.

When I awoke again, it was evening. I could move legs and feet, but they were still somewhat numb. The other Vanessa and I chatted for a bit and then a clinic staff member came in with a menu for dinner. My appetite was almost non-existent. I ended up having some chicken broth followed by strawberry jell-o. Over night, my IV drip was checked as were my drain and catheter. My dressing was changed; I was shocked by the sopping wet red gauze being removed and felt a phantom pain down there. The sensation made me queezy. I was injected with a pain killer which burned as it entered my bloodstream and made me dizzy. But, it helped me sleep.

The following day after a light breakfast of oatmeal and tea, one of the staff came in to help me get on to my feet and take a few steps. This was necessary to get the blood flowing again. I took one step, then another, then felt everything spin, the staff member and another led me back to bed and placed a cool cloth on my forehead: I would try again later.

My folks came by again, this time with an aunt, and spent about a half hour. During their stay, the other Vanessa began having severe pain and summoned the nurse. My folks decided it would be best to leave and come back the following day when we were moved over to the recovery centre next door. After the other Vanessa's situation was under control, a nurse came in to help me to my feet. This time I made it to the door of our room and back to bed. I was proud. Later in the evening, I made it out into the hall, around the reception desk and back to my room and bed. Mission accomplished.


That night, however, I had severe gas pains, and it was suggested I walk around. I did not make it very far that time nor could I sleep. It took until mid-morning, when I was moved over to the recovery house in a wheelchair, to finally feel relief although much to my personal embarrassment .

By coincidence, the other Vanessa and myself also shared our recovery house room. Over the next several days, all of us who were convalescing there got to know each other quite well. There was another woman there from Vancouver whose Calgary-based parents had flown into Montreal to be with her. There was a young woman from the prairies and another from Miami. There were also a few men recuperating from top and/or bottom surgery. Rich, nutritious meals were served three times a day by a sous-chef who was joy incarnate. Our medication was given to us four times a day. Our visitors, including my folks and some extended family, sat in the lounge and talked and laughed amongst themselves. Meanwhile, outside, winter refused to give up; it snowed, went down to -20 C, it snowed again. But, inside it was always, in more ways than one, warm.

The Friday after surgery, two days after being wheeled over the recovery centre, our dressings came off and I got a look at myself for the first time. Save for some severe swelling (nothing to worry about) everything appeared normal. Also, I began walking at close to my regular pace, although with a penguin-like shuffle. Sitting, even with the aid of the inflatable rings to sit on, was very uncomfortable, so often I ate standing up.
Pain killers got my through the night, but after a few days, they were no longer necessary for me.

On Saturday, the nurse removed my stent (vaginal mould) and I felt a great relief. Later that afternoon, all of us women were given instructions in how to dilate. I found it excruciating, but gradually got used to it. It needed to be done for twenty-five minutes, four times a day. Douching, using a saline solution, had to be done twice, once in the morning and once at night. Also, we had to take a sitz bath (a lightly soapy shallow bath) twice a day, once each in the afternoon and evening. A daunting schedule to be sure, but an absolute must; over time we would only be required to do these tasks fewer and fewer times.

On Sunday, the nurse removed my catheter, again to great relief. The crucial moment was after that, I needed to urinate otherwise they would need to put the catheter back in. Much to my joy, I urinated. The following night, the last before we all left for home, the other Vanessa asked the nurse what the word Asclepiade, the name of the recovery centre, meant. She said it was the name (in French) of a flower that butterflies love to nourish from. The image of butterflies (us) in all of their vulnerability happily finding nourishment and care from this flower (the centre) touched me, and I began to tear up. I will carry that image in my mind forever.


The following day, Tuesday, March 24, my folks came to pick me up. I would spend the next few weeks back at the apartment recovering. I felt a melancholy at leaving the clinic and centre, but cherished my experiences there and looked forward to the rest of my life and gradually getting back on my feet, figuratively speaking.

I have been back at my folks for almost ten days, and have been healing well. My days are consumed with my recovery tasks, but so far so good. I have also read alot and written (as you can see) alot. I will head back to Vancouver mid-April and continue my recovery there. My journey continues.

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