Painkillers were strange beasts. The effect of Vicodin wasn’t like drinking. It was more like having someone hit me on the head with a frying pan, repeatedly, only without the actual skull-crushing part. If asked, I would have said yes, there are little blue birds flying in circles around my head.
I had stripped and gotten into a hospital gown, watching the ceiling move past me as they wheeled me into the operating theater, and gasped when I saw, among the surgeon’s tools, a very large stainless steel hammer. A hammer. I wasn’t having a new hip put in. What the hell was the hammer for? The anesthesiologist, being the sadist that they often are, giggled at my shock, and then I was out, the frying pan beginning its chemical assault on my brain.
The next thing I knew, a woman in pink and green scrubs was calling my name, trying to get me to put on a shirt. Hey, those are the original Syracuse University colors, I thought. How about that?
Her mouth was moving. “Everett, come on, you can do it,” she urged me.
My fiancée, Susanne walked in. At least, she told me that’s when she came into the recovery room. I don’t recall much about those hours on Halloween.
Somehow we made it to the car, my surgeon’s letter clutched in my hand that would let me get “male” on all of my identification. I struggled out of the wheelchair, and flopped, yelping, into the passenger seat, and then we were in a hotel. Susanne must have taken us there. Sweet, lovely Susanne. I love her, I thought.
Walking down the hallway to our hotel room, I suddenly needed to make good acquaintance with the toilet bowl. Oh, toilet bowl. Be my friend. I love you, toilet bowl.
The pain either hurt a lot less, or pain medication worked far better than I thought it would. There seemed to be little swelling, although one side was bruised more than the other. As sternly instructed, I hadn’t taken off the surgical vest to see what was underneath. I also kept reminding myself to take it easy, which I took as a sign that I was semi-knocked out on Vicodin, because that sort of thing shouldn’t have been hard to remember.
I could see I was going to get sick and tired of sleeping on my back, probably sometime in the next twenty minutes.
* * *
A few days later I was still in bed, but by this point we’d come back home and I was grateful for that. We had yet to open up the dressing, since that would come a couple of days later. The drains were really the hard part to navigate—they hung down from next to my armpits, and they required regular dumping down the toilet when I didn’t feel much like getting up. Certainly not an aid to my still-nauseated stomach was the concept of pouring out significant quantities of body fluids meant to know only the interior of one’s body.
In this haze, the phone rang. It was my mother.
“So honey, is there anything new in your life?” Her voice was high-pitched, as if she was forcing innocence.
“New? Well, Susanne got a job interview. I guess that’s new.” Fortunately for me Mom had asked a question I could answer honestly, if not completely.
“Oh, great. Is she there now?”
“No,” I said, trying to focus. Vicodin made that difficult. “She goes out there in a couple of days.”
Crap, where was she going again? “California,” I answered. Success!
“Well, that’s nice,” she said, suddenly sounding disinterested. “I’ve got to run, I’ve got my volunteer time at the hospital now.” Ugh, hospitals. I wondered why I should mind them, after all, I hadn’t been to a hospital for this. I’d been to a strip mall.
“Okay, Ma, thanks for calling.”
“I love you, J— kid. I love you, kid.”
“I love you too, Ma.” The phone conversation was too much for me, and I passed out.
The next day, strangely enough, she called again. While I did talk to her frequently, I didn’t typically hear from her two days in a row.
“So honey,” she asked in that same overly sweet tone, “what’s new?”
What was going on with her?
“Well, Susanne has a job interview later this week.” Plausible.
Her lilt disappeared. “Yeah, you told me that yesterday when I asked.”
“Oh.” Damn Vicodin, I had no memory.
“So is there anything else going on right now,” she continued. “You know, new in your life or new to you? Like, something that’s changed? Something you have that you didn’t have before, or something you no longer have?”
Holy crap, she knew. I mean I knew she knew, but she really knew.
“Mom, what are you asking?”
“I just mean, if there was something big going on for you, I would want to know about it. I would want to be there for you if you were going through anything that you know, you’d want a mother for.”
“Ah. I see.”
“I mean, you could tell me whatever you wanted and I would be happy to hear it.”
“Really? That’s great, Mom.”
Okay, one doesn’t get an opening this big without it being a calamity like oh, the Black Hole of Calcutta, very often, so since it was a positive Black Hole of Calcutta, if there could be such a thing, I took it.
“Well, I had surgery a few days ago.” Cue sound of bomb dropping.
“Oh. What kind of surgery,” she asked. Her question had the same inflection one would use with “Oh, what color,” to the declaration that one had just bought a luxurious cashmere sweater.
“Well, I had a double mastectomy with a chest reconstruction, and it went very well.”
“I’m so glad it went well!” I heard a pause, not common in conversations with my relatives. “Honey, are you happy?”
“I’m really happy, Ma. I’m actually surprised at how happy I am.”
“Well, that’s great, dear. I really just want you to be happy and healthy. You know, I realize that I haven’t been there for you, and I’m sorry. I’m not going to give you a hard time about this anymore. I think you’re a great person and I’m thrilled to be your mother. Honey, are you crying?”
“Just allergies,” I stammered.
She laughed at me, told me to get some rest, and she’d call me tomorrow.
I settled into the bed, watching Ellen DeGeneres dance, and drifted off once more.
* * *
Lying in bed or on the couch, around the clock, time stopped having meaning. I went off the Gregorian calendar and started one of my own. On Day 12 of the Drains from Breasts of Yore they started accumulating a cloudy brown fluid. I called the doctor’s office twice in two days, but both times they said to be patient, slow down, stop being so active. Two nights later I checked the right drain. I had obviously transitioned to Kermit the Frog, looking at the green fluid in the floppy drain cup. The tube itself was clear yellowish. After thinking about how few things in the human body made it to that part of the color spectrum, I called the doctor’s answering service, saying simply who I was, my phone number, and what was happening. Nobody called me back.
When I’d called on Friday, otherwise known as the Day Before My Bodily Fluid Celebrated St. Patty’s Day, I told them that my partner was heading out of town this weekend and if I’d need a person with me to get the drains out, could we please do it now? She said not until the drains were producing less on both sides.
“Now, you’re in Philadelphia, right?”
“No, I’m in DC,” I corrected.
“Well, still, they need to be making less fluid.”
The following Monday, now called the Day of the New Week of Oblivion, Nurse Barbara called me to say, “Your drains have been in a long time. Come in today so we can take them out.” I asked, gently, again, if I need someone to come with me. “That would be advisable, yes.”
I hoped I’d be much happier once the drains were out, if only because cleaning myself wouldn’t continue to consist of a series of soapy and wet washcloths while standing over a sink.
* * *
The fluid saga had not ended. I was getting dressed for work, which, 3 weeks post-op, included stuffing my surgical vest with maxi pads, to increase the compression on the hurt parts and help speed healing. Maxi pads, to their credit, have a nebulous outer layer kind of like a black hole that sucks in material at terminal velocity, crushing it into an infinitely small, infinitely dense piece of matter. When connected to wormholes, by the way, they deposit all of this material into a new location. Thus it was possible, I theorized, that our universe had been formed by the big bang of millions of crushed maxi pad deposits.
So I was getting dressed, and I snagged a suture on the left side of my chest in the maxi pad. It hurt beyond description, which I articulated by screaming. Being a maxi pad, I couldn’t get the suture out of it, so I tiptoed to the bathroom, holding up the vest/maxi pad combo, for of course I stuck the adhesive of the pad to the vest. I tried not to jiggle the suture and was fortunate that brand new man boobs weren’t prone to such things as actual jiggling. I cut the suture, still feeling pained, covered the cut end with some paper tape, and proceeded to finish getting dressed. I got in my car, thrilled, somehow, to be commuting again.
Four hours into my workday, I was beyond uncomfortable. It felt like I’d pulled a muscle, or cracked my sternum, or something else awful: a searing, stabbing pain that took the place of whatever else had previously occupied my thoughts. I muddled through the rest of my day—my supervisor had been keeping my workload low, out of sympathy or a seething need to get me off every project—and left a little early. The second I got home I ripped off all my shirts in a “get the leeches off of me,” way, not an exotic dancer way. Nothing looked wrong. The tape was still there. The incisions were clearly healing. But it felt like something was pulling the sutures out. I took a few ibuprofen and tried to feel better, but the pain just got worse. I called the surgeon, who said that pulling a suture may have damaged some of the scar tissue, and that it was a painful thing to have happen, but should be better in 24 to 48 hours. She thought ibuprofen was a good idea, too, since it’s also an anti-inflammatory. I didn’t sleep well, but I made it to 5:30 a.m. And I woke with a new friend: the return of Bertha, my old right breast! It was the morning of Breast Resurrection Day.
Bertha appeared to be very irate at my choice to excoriate her. She was red, hot to the touch, and something like a B-cup. As the day went on Bertha decided to install an addition under my right armpit. I called the surgeon’s office again, and one of the nurses said, “oh, you can’t have an infection this late. Just rest up and don’t be so active.” Always with the “not so active.” What were they, paid by the junk food lobby? And what was that about a 2-week recovery period again?
In two more days, otherwise known as the Day of the Breastal Revolt, Bertha had turned hard to the touch. She felt like the pectoral muscle of the statue of David. I called the doctor’s office again. I got the nurse to agree to call in another antibiotic prescription for me. She reminded me that it’s “very, very rare to have an infection this far out.” More likely was an allergic reaction to the sutures. But who could know without looking at me?
I posted my symptoms online and asked if anyone knew what I was experiencing. I did research on mastectomy outcomes and incidences. I told my friends I didn’t feel well, and I started to feel crazy for having such a hard time. Not to mention guilty for not going to work.
Susanne flew back in Friday from her interview in California after getting bumped off of her original, earlier flight. I felt like death in a frying pan. That night I woke up several times with the chills. I was sick of something being wrong.
Regular names of the week came back to me as I renewed my full work schedule. Monday and Tuesday I’d been signed up at work to go to an annual recap of the literature in my field, so I figured if I could sit at home, I could do it in an office building, too. I went home early the first day and kept cursing myself for not feeling well. I couldn’t make it past six hours of sitting. Why was I such a baby?
Wednesday morning I had my quarterly visit with my endocrinologist, who was also an internist. Susanne and I were happy that some medical professional was going to actually see my face. Ace looked at me with my shirt off.
“Holy shit, Everett!” This was a man with no sense of humor or intense expression. He ordered me to call the surgeon, and I told him I couldn’t seem to get past the nursing staff. I’d only managed to get to the doctor once on the phone.
“Look,” he said, actually expecting I would then look directly at him, “she took you to the dance, she can take you home. No other doctor is going to go near this.”
“Hey, you watch how you talk about Bertha there.” He grinned.
“Just go up there and insist that she see you.”
Oh my God. It must really be bad, I thought.
I left his office and called the surgeon’s office once more, getting one of the nursing staff.
“I’ve got a 100-degree fever now,” I said.
“Well, a 100-degree fever isn’t that high a fever,” she replied.
What, I was going to need to cough up a kidney before they said yes to me? Was there a magic word I was missing here?
“My internist told me I had to come see you.”
She suddenly got interested. “Oh, is that an option? Where do you live? Are you local?” Had I not told them I lived locally in each and every conversation?
She told me to come in the next two hours. She didn’t realize I was still in my car, talking illegally on my cell phone. I saw that snow was starting to fall. I had to get out of the city, fast, before people started walking around with A-frame boards pronouncing that the end of days were nigh. The first winter snow in DC always brought out the hysterics.
I spent the next 90 minutes driving in the left lane behind nervous drivers going 30 miles an hour. My chest throbbed, my pulse, which was already too high, was pounding, I still felt terrible, and I walked into the surgeon’s office. They took me to an exam room and I undressed and showed the nurse my chest.
“Those are stretch marks,” she said, looking at the red lines streaming across my torso from the incision line.
“I don’t have stretch marks,” I muttered. Wow, I feel like crap.
“Sure you have lots of stretch marks,” she said, arguing with me, apparently concerned for my general health, if not the acute problem that had gone unchecked for more than a week.
“I don’t have stretch marks in the middle of my chest!”
Yelling did the trick, and Nurse Barbara left the room, dismissing me with her departure. Another more daring nurse came in and saw me.
“You have cellulitis.”
“Itis,” I knew, was a suffix that means, to us laypeople, infection. Cellulitis is an infection under the innermost layer of skin, and it is bad news, because it quickly becomes septic, meaning that it can travel to one’s bloodstream, and then one is in for a bad ride. It was like Dr. G, Medical Examiner bad. The surgeon came in, scrubs on from just finishing up someone else’s top surgery. Her smile disappeared as she took one look at me, and she immediately started ordering all kinds of supplies to the room, things with names I didn’t understand. They took off my opened-up shirts, and the doctor gave me a local and then opened up a few of my stitches. This is when I peed out of my rib cage—at least it felt like peeing, as I had a sense of relief, and warm liquid streaming over my skin. Well, I don’t exactly pee down my legs, but it was the closest life experience my brain could register, and it’s what occurred to me as I was being aspirated. I felt a big dose of happy as the disgusting ooze left my body. And it was a strange experience to watch my chest deflate. I could almost hear Bertha screaming like the Wicked Witch of the West, “Nooooooo, I’m mellllllllllllting!”
The surgeon looked at me kindly as I side-urinated. She put her hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry, Ev, you’re the one percent outcome.”
“I’ll go buy a lottery ticket,” I said.