I remember the day I was to have the surgery. They removed lines leaving ports in my arms for the procedure. As part of the prep, I was given long white compression stockings. I remember standing up asking “so, how do I look?” For some reason I literally began to dance while holding onto the hospital bed. My mom and sister looked over and began to laugh at my skinny, frail body in tight white stocking attempting to dance. At this point I was excited to be having the surgery and closing this chapter of my life. The nerves of the following chapter disappeared in that moment.
I was given the option of an epidural to manage the pain post operation. I was told this is the most commonly used strategy as the epidural numbs the abdomen. It was explained a needle would be placed into my spine in the Operating Room just before the surgery would begin. I signed the papers to allow for them to administer the epidural and didn’t think too much more about it.
I was wheeled to the elevators to finally go down later that night. Once I was placed onto the operating table, I was tasked to sit up so the epidural could be placed in. As I was helped to sit up, the anesthesiologist asked the doctor to look at my back. I was then asked how long I had had the red patches on my back? I had no idea what they were speaking of. As the needle was put into my back, I felt a sharp pain as expected. They taped it to my back and lied me back down gently. Then I was out.
The next thing I remember, I began to wake up in the recovery room. I was not laying flat, my head was slightly raised. To my left in could see a double door. Straight ahead in the distance was a nurses station and to my right was a white curtain. As the anaesthetics began to wear off, what I felt next was the most incredible pain one could feel. I tried to yell although I could not. I must have been demonstrating some sort of visible cue of the pain I was experiencing. When someone came to my bed side, I was told to calm down as she attempted more medication through the epidural.
It was at this point she noticed I was not getting any relief. She brought over a doctor and another nurse. Together they gently rolled me over to check the epidural in my back. There was a heavy sense of panic in the room as I could hear them saying the epidural was dislodged. At this point the anaesthetics from the surgery were ever quickly wearing off. They tried as best they could to adjust the epidural. It did not work.
This is where I began to feel everything. All that follows is what I can remember from that night. With the operation taking place so late in the evening, it was the middle of the night when I came to. There are few words I can use to describe the pain I was in. Below is a Cole’s Note version of what the operation entailed.
My abdomen cut into, 5.5 feet of diseased colon removed, my small intestine brought outside of my body, sutured to the right of the abdominal incision, the remaining section of colon closed off and then my belly sewn and stapled closed.
All of this, without any form of pain control.
I remember them beginning to move my bed. I was told I was going back upstairs to my room. The double doors opened, the pain I felt as the wheels rolled over the floor transition was incredible. This is the first time I remember being capable of yelling. Everyone stopped, a man told me they were being as careful as they could. The next memory I have, likely to the fact I passed out, was a group of people discussing how best to move me back onto the bed in my room. With the epidural in place and functioning, I would have been able to move myself with some help into the bed. Obviously, this was not feasible for someone in this condition.
I began to scream and yell in pain uncontrollably. I did have an older gentleman as a roommate. I remember him yelling at the nurses in the room to give me something, anything!! I heard them yelling back that they gave me all they could and needed to get me into the bed so they could get things figured out. I don’t know this man’s name, I really wish I did. Before he left the room, he made eye contact with me, saying it would be okay.
I can still see a bright red board being brought into the room. I was told it was going to hurt like hell but they were going to roll me onto my left side to get half of the back board under me. If you have ever had an injury, when you don’t move the pain seems to lessen. But when you move, the full brunt of the pain returns. This was very true for me at this point. I passed out when they rolled me over. The next thing I knew, the board was being taken out of the room and nurses were all around me doing things. I asked if I could have something for the pain. I asked over and over while they were doing God knows what. Then a nurse said she would be right back with something for the pain.
A few minutes later after the room had quieted down a bit, I was told something that haunts me to this day. Because of the time of day, along with what pain meds were approved for use on my chart, combined with the time passed since the surgery, they could only give me morphine every 45 minutes.
There was a clock hanging on the wall in front of me. It was 4:05am when the nurse gave me a shot of pain killers. She had a stop watch in her hand and assured me she would be back as soon as I was able to take the next dose. She asked me to focus on breathing and hopefully I would fall asleep. What I remember next still gives me that deep feeling of despair and fear deep inside my chest. I thought to myself;
“thank fucking God, they got the meds figured out. It’s morning and they can finally get me on a heavy pain killer”
As my eyes opened, the clock said 4:10am.
This is how the remainder of the night went. Until the morning when they hooked me up to a PDA (Patient Dispensed Aneshetic). The pain, while still intense, was now controlled. I could push a button and a heavy dose of relief would come through the IV!!
As I’ve aged and lived further experiences. I have come to appreciate what the nurses and on call doctors that night experienced along with me. Retelling this experience to physicians, I see the gravity in their eyes of how it must have felt for those involved. It wasn’t their fault or their error. It is a rare situation that transpired. One of the risks of an epidural is a misalignment and it does not take.
It was later explained, the pain I experienced was very similar to childbirth by cesarean section, without any pain control.
What came next was a surprise for all involved with my case. The red marks on my back noted just before the surgery, were now also on my right torso. They were quickly determined to be Shingles. A very sensitive skin disorder causing welt like wounds to the surface of the skin. Due to it being contagious, I was placed in quarantine. Yes, quarantine!
A sign was placed on the outside of the door telling people they could not enter. I know they tried to hide the fact they had to put this sign up, but it was pretty obvious. Anyone to come and see me had to be wearing a full gown, gloves and surgical mask.
I brokedown. Not only was I in the pain from the surgery, I had a bag on my abdomen, painful Shingles and an empty room.
My sister, brother in law and 3 year old nephew at the time, travelled up to see me. Only to not be allowed to see me for a lengthy amount of time. I felt like I was stuck in a nightmare and couldn’t wake up.
It’s easy at these moments to simply throw in the towel or wave a white flag. The quarantine ended after a few days. My sister and family were able to come back. Over time the body healed and the pain faded.
“It’s not how we define the moments, it’s how the moments define us”