Monday, June 8, 2009 • 6:00 am
They’ve named the wing “Ambulatory Surgery,” which must be a hospital joke because ten of us are standing in a line, all a-hobbled or leaning against a wall, waiting for our pre-op experience. Carole’s with me; Mom’s home with Max, chomping at the bit to get to the hospital in a couple hours. Mom’s come from Kansas City for two weeks—in a great, grand act of selflessness. I know she hates that I’ve busted my knee, but this has got to be a mother’s dream come true, taking care of her two babies like this.
I get a room and change into a groovy dressing gown with ventilator holes designed to receive reverse-vacuum warm air into it so I don’t chill and shiver. I tell the nurse how great that is. She says, “Yeah, you get those instead of us getting a raise.” Good thing she’s not my surgeon.
My anesthesiologist is large tzitzitted-and-yarmulke’ed man named Yarmush. I tell him that if he pages Dr. Stein now we can have our morning minyan before my surgery starts. He tries to raise an eyebrow to show me how funny he thinks that is. Also: he’s written a romance/sci-fi novel that he showed to his friend who writes military history; friend didn’t think much of it. Carole gently suggests that a military historian may not be the best critic of a romantic sci-fi book. Gently because you don’t want to upset your anesthesiologist prior to surgery.
Carole asks him why some hospital staff are wearing gauze footies over their shoes and some aren’t. Yarmush glances at some feet stepping past us, says, “They sweep up regularly here.” So it goes. Carole and I are interested in our surroundings.
Dr. Stein says good morning. He takes a red Sharpie to my left knee and writes a big “NO” on it. He tells me he’ll be flying to Chicago for a funeral, gives me his cell phone number and the number of a colleague should anything happen. I offer my condolences and ask if he’s flying before or after my surgery. After. Okay. Good on me. Not gonna get a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the 9th.
• 7:30 or so am
A big, strapping Jamaican wheels me all the way across the hospital, Carole keeping pace with my go-cart. You’d think they’d put the ambulatory surgery theatre right next to pre-op. It’s like operating on a knee through the elbow. I put it on my list of things to think about, and then I forget because—oh—I’m about to have surgery.
I give Carole my wedding ring. This ring has been off my finger exactly four times since we’ve been married: slipped off while reaching for bar of soap in shower; flew off while reaching for paper towels at Costco; handed over to Carole in 2006, just before Dr. Dogopolov removed my gallbladder and a gallstone (huge; I go bowling with it); and here, now, as Yarmush is preparing to put me to sleep.
A kiss. With Carole, not Yarmush. Carole hates hospitals, yet her lips are soft and full and warm and inviting, and I almost ask everybody to wait in the other room. But I know Dr. Stein’s gotta catch a flight to Chicago, so Carole leaves. I move off my go-cart and limp to my table in the operating theater. Lots of bright light and crisp oxygen. Five, six people quietly, efficiently going about their work.
I’m cool and shivering and somebody says they’ll take care of that in a moment. They hook the reverse vacuum cleaner hoses to my gown portals, but I don’t feel any warmth. A protest because nobody got a raise? And then the shivers don’t matter. The thought that seven complete strangers are about to put me under and replace something in my knee that’s been there 46 years with a similar part harvested from a dead guy—a thought that’s given me great pause for weeks—doesn’t matter. The war, the economy, job troubles, which one of them will catheterize my johnson, did I turn off the coffee pot at home, did I even make coffee: doesn’t matter. Yarmush sends me into the ether and
• noon or so
I fade in. I see a light blue curtain in front of me, a chain of ringlets holding it to a horizontal bar. Muffled, professional sounds. Sounds like an office. Why am I in an office? Did surgery net me a job? Recovery room. Across a wide center filled with desks and people and bins and computers and—what’s that?—a half-eaten sandwich from Subway: more blue curtains.
Woman approaches me. She’s matronly, calm. “Hi,” she says with no smile, but her reassuring, humanizing tone makes me smile. Or maybe it’s the anesthesia. I say hello to her. My throat hurts. I ask her what time it is. Noon or so, she says without looking at a watch or a clock. I tell her my throat hurts. I need to shake the anesthesia a bit more and then she’ll give me some ice chips. I smile. My life’s ambition right now is an ice chip. I fade out.
I fade in. There’s Carole and my mother and Max, hovering over me like the end of “The Wizard of Oz.” I tell Carole I want to make babies with her. She smiles. It’s not the end of “The Wizard of Oz.” My proposal is serious—right here, right now, close the curtain and maybe get Mom and Max out of the room; that would be prudent—but then I feel the Thing on my right leg, and the nurse kicks them out, get that baby out of the recovery room, and they leave and I fade out.
• 1:00 or so pm
I fade in. The Thing on my leg. Can’t see it because of the blanket but I feel it, covering ankle to thigh. Not a hard paper mâché cast, though solid enough. The anesthesia has worn off enough for me to know that I’m not bending this leg anytime soon. I have to pee. Like a racehorse. Tell the nurse. She brings me a container. I’m on the bed half an hour, holding my container like Oliver Twist—”Please, sir, I want some more”—before the heavenly, rewarding flow flows forth. Anesthesia. Among other things, it stalls communication between will and function.
I fade out, fade in. There’s Carole, and then there’s a traveling salesman, fitting me with a low-tech and tres cool picnic cooler that holds ice and water and flows it through tubes connected to the Thing on my leg. I’m a conduit for a cold water recycling river, a water fountain that never breaks the surface, a shy theme park ride.
Guy says, “How’d you mess up your knee?” I’ve shaken off enough morphine and Yarmush’s anesthesia to tell him that, couple months back, en route to Coney Island, I saw an elephant break loose from Barnum & Bailey’s Circus, and a bunch of us had it cornered—he looks incredulously at Carole who nods at him the faux truth of the story—but it turned suddenly and crashed into my knee and busted my ACL. Guy’s got a huge grin on his face. He says, “Really?” I say, “Naw. I was playing volleyball at the Y.” He’s a good sport, realizes he’s been had, laughs hard and loud. Also, he’s got no competition in this recovery room. I’d be laughing, too.
We’re home by three or so.
• 6:00 pm
I’m propped up on the couch, high on Percocet and the undertow of Yarmush’s anesthesia. Neal comes to visit, enters the front door, sees me smiling big, and lets out a belly laugh. I smile at him drinking vodka with my mother. They’ll never catch up. I smile at everyone eating pizza. I can’t eat pizza. I can’t eat until the drugs wear off. Doctor’s orders. Doesn’t matter. I smile. I’m smiling through the haze of drugs and the beginning of the end of my ordeal.
• 10:30 pm
Oh. The beginning of the end is premature. My ordeal gets worse before it gets better. Every time I stand up, gravity sends my blood flow directly to my right knee, and no amount of Percocet will lessen the intensity of this pressure and pain. And I need to stand up every two hours this long night to walk with crutches to the bathroom—ten strides or so—to pee. My bladder is a full lagoon. It’s ridiculous how much and how often I pee over the next 24 hours. Every two hours I curse Newton and gravity.
Plus: Carole’s lunch was a turkey sandwich she’d made that morning, and the mayonnaise went bad, and at one point during the night she’s doubled up in pain on the floor. I can’t do anything for her. Of all the things that have happened since that other guy didn’t cross his side of the line on April 23rd, this is the worst, this not being able to do anything for Carole.
I fade out. I fade in. I fade in and out…