Thursday, May 8, 2014

Surgical precision

My port surgery on Monday ended up being completely without drama.

The lead up was wretched. I slept about an hour the night before and developed a not-at-all-annoying tappity tap tap tap relationship between my fingers and thighs after I donned the gown and robe and slid under my first of many warm blankets.

I noted the woman next to me had sneaked a book and I hated her instantly, but the curtain between us saved her from my side-eye. The older gent across the way had checked in downstairs at the same time I had and his name was Dennis O'Leary. Every time a nurse pointed out that his name was like the comedian's, he laughed and said, "well, he's a Leary and I'm an O'", with just the right touch of weariness. I was a little in love with him.

The old codger next to me was getting pins put in his fingers after falling several times and his daughter was sitting with him, annoyed her meter was running out as she waited for her dad's surgeon to arrive.

The middle-aged woman across the room complained about being freezing cold so she was loaded up at regular intervals with oven-fresh blankets until a nurse stopped by and said, "Just to let you know, your husband does not want to leave the waiting room until he can come in here and see you're okay before you go in... He shouldn't be in here, but I'll let him in for five minutes, the poor lamb."

I reclined in my bed for about 90 minutes, observing everything and getting more nervous with each tick. A nurse officially admitted me about 20 minutes before my surgery time (no to dentures, no prosthetic legs, no blood pressure or needles to my left side, yes I want a sign that says that and yes to confirming port surgery on the right side). Then a surgical nurse came by to double check my info and tell me she had had ovarian cancer 23 years ago and was still kicking around, so let's do this, sister. 

And then I saw God, aka the anesthesiologist. He had on a balaclava-type head cover and was tall and a bit Baby Huey looking. 

"Hello, Mrs. McCart. I'll be your anesthesiologist and - "

"What will you be giving me as the narcotic? Fentanyl?"

"Well - "

"And for the relaxant? Valium? And the pain reliever, Lidocaine?"

"Just - "

"And what if I feel pain during the procedure? Will I be lucid enough to speak?"

"Are you a health professional?"


"Ah, so you're one of those dangerous people who know just enough to ask the right questions but not enough to have any idea what's going to happen. Let me look at your chart first so I know exactly who I'm dealing with here before I tell you you're right."

He confirmed the Fentanyl, the Valium and the Lidocaine, and then, perhaps to punish me, told me in great detail what the experience of being awake for a procedure like this could feel like. He used words like "tugging" and "pulling" and "awareness of some pain". 

"You just have to say the word and we'll give you more Lidocaine. We don't want you so far under that you're flopping all over the place and can't communicate with us."

That's when the uncontrollable leg shakes started up. It's also when the nurse came by to take my glasses away as my whole surgical team showed up, sans my actual surgeon.

"Without my glasses any one of you could be Dr. M," I said. Then there were jokes and leg pats and a few "there there"s as my whole body began to vibrate in anticipation.

"We usually take you into the final waiting area before wheeling you into the surgical room, but I think you're anxious enough without being moved somewhere else right now. We'll all stay with you until Dr. M gets here and we'll stare at the green walls and curtains together and talk about how calming it is."

Dr. M showed up just as my heart rate was climbing past 100 and my usually low BP was, for the first time ever, a normal 120 over 80.

This is going to sound completely sexist and ageist, and just plain stupid, but Dr. M has such a lovely young face that when she came close enough for me to see, smell and taste her better, everything melted away for a moment.

"You'll be quite fine," she said after marking her initials on my neck. "You won't remember anything and the pain will be very minimal after." 

After she left and I shrugged off my robe and tucked my hair into a cap to be wheeled into my cold, cold surgical room I was a wreck again.

When I arrived, everyone was so lovely and dinner party-like, introducing themselves to the blind woman with her arse exposed to the universe. Even the students came up and shook my hand while I slid onto the impossibly skinny operating table.

"This is the first surgery I'll be observing!" one of boy interns said excitedly and I was excited FOR him. Just in more of a shut-the-fuck-up-for-a-minute-so-I-can-figure-out-how-I'm-not-going-to-pass-out-from-the-stress kind of excited.

The arm extensions came out from the table and the IV went in my hand with only a little more pain than usual. The toasty blankets finally made it into the room and now only my legs were shaking and my teeth were chattering. All the while I tried to make everyone feel better for putting me in such an awkward situation by making jokes and laughing heartily at theirs. 

"I'm going to give you something to relax now, Carissa." Magic words.

"I feel that, doc. In my head..." And then nothing.

The next thing I remember, I'm being wheeled out of the room and I'm saying, "Did I talk?"

"Yes, you told us once to give you more pain medication, but don't worry, you didn't reveal your PIN or anything."

And just like that, I felt normal again. No pain. No discomfort. No dizziness. No nausea. No memory.

I was monitored for an hour in the first recovery room, but my vitals were normal and my pain was zero, so I moved to recovery room #2. The nurse there was mostly on her own, but she took the time to wipe off some of the red antiseptic from my neck with a warm facecloth and didn't let any of the other patients get away with trying to skip out early. She was a force with a Snow White voice.

After an hour there with still no dizziness or pain, Pete was called and my chariot awaited in the roundabout. I was wheeled down, as per protocol, but I felt miraculous.

Pete made me some divine Chinese noodle concoction for lunch and then I started to feel the Lidocaine dissipate. I took a couple of Tylenol and slept for two hours, grateful my chemo was moved to the day after.

Getting chemo drugs through the port was a dream. The nurses fawned over the surgical precision of Dr. M, my parents were there to make sure no one fucked up on their watch and everything went extremely well, despite having to recline for a solid 5 hours.

But here's the annoying thing about me. Instead of wrapping two days of significant body stress into a warm duvet, recognizing that I felt like I'd been pummeled in the chest and neck and being able to palpate every centimetre of the catheter attached to my port, under my skin as it snaked up and over my collar bone and into my jugular, I wanted to get out of the house before that marathon chemo session. So I did. And my pain in the ass/saviour companion made sure I didn't wimp out.


I had to walk with my neck bent down, my arm straight and with a sloth-like pace, but I went 2 km, mofos.

The day after, I felt that tube in my neck even more, but Stella had two dance performances at UVic that morning, up a giant hill and a 20-minute walk from my house. I was an idiot to do it, and I think I may have used up one of my lives on that hill, but I did it. Almost 4 km for the trip, just to see my baby do the splits, the limbo and a wicked flashlight number to Sweet Dreams. There was no way I was missing that.


  1. If you walked up Sinclair, I will buy you a car.

  2. Wow, I hope they find this blog when people browse the internet to find out about what port surgery is all about. It will make them laugh (and shake a little) but it will make them much more informed about what is going to happen to them during the procedure. You came out of it like the warrior that you are! From now on, the chemo is going to be much easier to deliver.

  3. i'm a bit behind, but getting caught up now on your posts. i was captured by your play-by-play and felt as if i was right there with you. i can relate to the uncontrollable leg shakes; i had the full body shakes........weird things aren't they? but the warm oven blankets.......heaven! i'm so glad to hear you came through this with no pain, dizziness, etc. once again, you rocked it! xoxo