Thursday, August 11, 2005

The snake pit

Let me just start by saying: I really love my plastic surgeon, Jeffrey Ascherman. He has been my plastic surgeon since three years ago, when I had my double mastectomy and reconstruction. He has been incredibly patient and decent and also quite the artist. In fact, I love all of the doctors I have had at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital - Dawn Hershman, my medical oncologist, Sandra Russo, my radiation oncologist, Freya Schnabel, my breast surgeon (surgical oncologist). Each of them was willing to listen to me, to communicate with me and to allow me to be a part of planning my treatment.

And, perhaps surprisingly, I have truly enjoyed every hospital stay at Columbia (this one excluded). I have been pampered and taken care of and basically treated like a queen. There were the four days I spent after my double mastectomy and reconstruction. There were the five days I spent when I had orbital cellulitis and neutropenia (the result of six months of chemo basically destroying my white cells such that I couldn't fight infection - even something as seemingly mundane as a sty in my eye). There were the experiences I had with outpatient surery - liposuction, oophorectomy. There were the many days I spent at the chemo infusion center as well. All were really good experiences, save for the occasional glitch (like when I tried to get admitted for my eye infection and had to endure having have my eyes examined by no fewer than three doctors and spend more than 18 hours waiting to get a room).

But apparently, a good experience in a hospital, even Columbia, is far from a guarantee. This time around, I got to see hospitalization at its God-awful worst.

Nothing quite went as I had hoped or planned, right from the beginning. I had been really looking forward to the anesthesia because my experience with general anesthesia up until now has been so wonderful - basically, the doctor leads you into the OR, which is a clean, cold white room with lots of monitors and lots of people all dressed in white and blue and all of whom are there just to take care of YOU. You get yourself up on the operating table, and someone covers you with this wonderful, puffy warming blanket - it feels like a warm cloud. Then someone inserts a needle into your vein, and someone else starts to push a sedative, and before you know it, you're feeling kind of giggly and goofy, and then you start to drift off, knowing you are in good hands.

Well, this time, it didn't quite go like that. For whatever reason, they could not get a good vein in my left arm (and I can only use my left arm for needle sticks - because I am at risk for lymphedema in my right arm due to the lymph node dissection I had three years ago). Now, I say "for whatever reason", knowing full well that the "reason" is that my veins are about as viable as those of a heroin addict, as a result of chemo, which flattens the veins and makes them a "difficult stick". But the thing is, a good phlebotemist will be able to get a "good stick" anyway. An experienced blood-drawer will warm the flesh and pat the flesh and massage it a bit, and eventually, a good vein will pop up.

But just my luck, they chose to let a resident practice on me. I have no idea why I didn't protest, knowing what I know about my veins. But I didn't, and so, I laid there wincing in pain as said resident stuck me three separate times, failing each time to get an IV going. The anesthesiologist finally took over and got it on the first try. After that, I remember them putting an oxygen mask on my face and telling me to take deep breaths. No giggles, no goofy grin. The next thing was simply darkness.

I tend to awaken from anesthesia quite alert, and this was no exception. Only it would have been better in this case if I had been more groggy because the pain was pretty bad. Fentanyl didn't do much to help. Nor did Percoset or Darvon. It took still another pain medication for me to finally get some rest. So far, not so good, eh?

But now, I feel compelled to interrupt my regularly programmed bitching to qualify all of the above with: Yes, I know I did this to myself (elective surgery and all) and YES, I am thankful just to have woken up after surgery, alive and well....

Anyway, what happened over the next few hours in the recovery room is a bit of a blur. But here is what I remember: I was all alone. My mom had promised to come to be with me in recovery and to drive me home, but in the midst of my drug-induced haze, I realized that she was not there, and I have a vague recollection of being told that my SISTER had called to say that my mom couldn't come and neither could she (despite that she lives a mere 10 blocks away from Columbia) and that my husband was going to come to pick me up around 8 p.m. I had no idea why my mom wasn't coming, and why my sister was calling for her, but now my understanding (still hazy though) is that this had to do with the fact that my dad had an appointment the next day at Columbia with HIS oncologist to find out the results of his post-chemo CT scans (dad has locally advanced lung cancer, but he actually is doing super well with his treatment), and my mom was too stressed out to come to the hospital twice.

I was too drugged up to be upset about any of this, but when my husband called to say he was picking me up at 8 and that he planned to have me helping with the kids, etc., I had enough of my wits about me to know that I was better off staying overnight at the hospital.

So, the next step was to get me admitted, which meant that I had to wait in the recovery room until a bed opened up somewhere in the hospital. Unfortunately, that meant that I was the last person left in recovery, and I had to say goodbye to the nice, sweet nurse who had been there with me since the beginning of the day and hello to a stern-faced, rough-voiced fascist caretaker who threatened to take away my cell phone if it rang again.

Cut to me finally being wheeled into my hospital room at 9:30 p.m., too late to have phone service turned on. That felt a bit scary to me - to be out of touch with my kids, my husband, the outside world. I did have my cell, but the battery was just about to give out.

Things in the room started off on a bad foot, not surprisingly. My roommate's nurse was a large, imposing man, and when he came into the room to see her, he would stand in my space, despite the curtains dividing the room. I felt violated. Another source of distress was that my nurse was not responding to my calls, and I was long overdue for pain meds. At some point, I fell into a fitful sleep but was awakened by the alarming sensation of having a steady stream of water being sprayed all over me and my bed. It only took an instant to realize that my IV had come out of my vein (remember, the problem veins...well, apparently, the IV's needle was too large for my veins) and was spraying all over me. I pressed the "call" button for my nurse, but I got no response. Meanwhile, the IV tubing was like a wild garden hose, flopping about, spraying everything in its path. I pressed the call button again. What was in my IV anyway? Saline? Antibiotics? Pain meds? Who knew? I began pressing the call button with more urgency, and when I still got no response, I began to use my voice: "HELP!" "EMERGENCY HERE" "PLEASE HELP"............

It was a horrible, helpless, pathetic feeling. Soon, a stony-faced woman appeared at my door - not my nurse, not anyone's nurse, but an aide of some sort. "What's your problem?" she asked coldly. I stared at her in disbelief. This is the way she addressed a patient crying out for help? "Who are you? Where's my nurse?" I asked. "She's not here," Bitch-From-Hell answered. That was helpful. Er, not. Long story short, I finally got my wits about me and ordered Bitch-from-Hell to take her attitude and get the hell out of my room. That's when my nurse finally showed up. Thank God.

Now, despite her unavailability, Jennie was a nice enough nurse. She calmed me down and she got me a new IV, and when a crazy lady from across the hall barged into my room to tell me to "shut up and stop being such a baby," Jennie stroked my hand and told me everything was going to be okay. Unfortunately, the fact that we were ignoring her seemed to infuriate Crazy Lady even more, inspiring a continued tirade: "I have cancer" she screamed at me (I guess she thought she was the only one...), "so I don't need to hear you screaming when you're just being a baby" (I guess nothing compares to the problems of a cancer patient...oh wait, I've been a cancer patient, and I never acted like that...). "Get yourself a private duty nurse," she went on, "I have one. It costs $189 a night. Then we won't have to listen to you being a baby."

I didn't even bother to tell her that I have had cancer too and that when I was in the hospital for it, I didn't barge into other patients' rooms, ordering them around. But I did quietly tell her, "Not everyone can afford a private duty nurse." She promptly threatened to "report me". Ooooooookay.

If this seems funny now (and I am not sure it even does), it certainly wasn't funny at the time, and in spite of how nice Jennie was, I still didn't have my pain meds, and I still didn't have some other things I needed, like water, a bedpan, a breath exerciser (to get the lungs working after being intubated and extubated), and I had no idea when I was going to get them. I dozed off for a bit while I was waiting, only to be awakened by the screams and moans of yet another patient down the hall. This time, it was not Crazy Lady, but Another Crazy Lady. Another Crazy Lady was screaming in Spanish, something about "aqua frio" (cold water) and other stuff that (thankfully) escapes my recall.

Realizing that despite that it was already 11:30 at night and I still didn't have my pain meds, realizing that my entire family had basically abandoned me, realizing that the hospital did not feel like the safe place that I had up until that moment thought it was, realizing that everyone around me was just as sick and scared as me, if not moreso, I called my husband with the last bit of battery left on my cellphone and cried hysterically to him. And he was surprisingly calming. He said that a week from now, I wouldn't remember this, that even if I did, none of this would matter, and I just had to get through this night and get the hell out of the hospital.

A little while later, my pain meds finally arrived, along with assorted other sundries that I needed and for which I had waited many hours. And with that, I fell asleep.

The next day, my parents came to the hospital for my dad's appointment with his medical team. And luckily, he got good news. His cancer was in retreat, if not exactly remission. He wasn't going to even have to see his doctor for another three months. YAY!!! Mom and dad helped me to get dressed and get ready to leave. Then we ordered a wheelchair for me and waited for it to come so that I could leave the hospital safely.

The wheelchair never came. After 45 minutes, I hobbled out of the hospital hunched over a Columbia Presbyterian pillow to support my abdomen.

I'm keeping the pillow.



Anonymous said...

Wow Lauren, sounds like an ordeal. Funny how different staff at a hospital can make each experience different. I remember this with I had my son, I had a C-section and was there for 6 days including labor. Each shift was very different.

Anyway, I'm glad you're on the mend and I hope to see you at NYY soon.


yoga chickie said...

Beth...I didn't know you had a c-section. That sucks. I had one too. Guess who my doctor was? Doctor Zorro!!! Do you remember that story?

Anonymous said...

Oh wow! I remember that story!

I'm doing better and I hope to practice tomorrow, if my husband can take my son. I was doing some of the asanas at home today and I think I can do most of them between my knee and my wrist. Otherwise, I'll just watch.

How are you feeling?

CCC said...

Lauren, today I had an awful day full of worries. I worried that my earlier comment on your blog sounded brash and rude, I worried about my sick cat but (guiltily) even more about the huge bill, I worried about the mammogram I need and the rent money I'm short because of the vet bill and that I'm turning 35 soon and have nothing to show for myself ... and then I read your recent post. And I realized, "I'm alive, the sky hasn't crashed on top of my house, and things could be SO much worse." Thank you for sharing your miserable experience that (again with much guilt) DID make me laugh. I'm sorry you were alone. I'm glad you kept the pillow. And I'm happy for your father. Rest easy, Carla. :o)

yoga chickie said...

Beth - I hope you get to practice! If not tomorrow, then soon...:)

Carla - Please do not spend even one second worrying about how any of your posts sound on my blog...they are all delightful! As for your worries, they are all valid (as are all feelings), so please don't guilt yourself about them. That's a double whammy of self-sadism, wouldn't you say? How is your practice going? Is it any comfort to you? I hope so..



Julie said...

Carla, 35 ain't so bad ;-0

YC, love, I have to say I did laugh out loud reading this...but, only you know, because Oh God can I picture myself so recently there. I can't top your story but I can tell you this... The IV was making me half to pee every half hour...or more.. it was HORRIBLE... The nurses kept plugging the IV pole back into the wall so even if I could get up (which wasn't going to happen that first night), there was no way I could unplug it to pee. I swear to God I would ring that bell and it would take forever for someone to come to me. One night I swear no one ever came and I waited until morning, my doctor walked in, opened his mouth and said "Unplug that machine I have to pee now."

Apparently it was really only a short while of blurred consciousness but, hey, that's how I remember it :)

I could also add that apparently the man next to me weighed an enormous amount so I got to listen to about a half hour every shit change of how the staff was going to manuveur his body to use the facilities. By the time I left, I could have told them the exact steps to getting this done: you need 4 people, two on each side, now lift a leg....

julie said...

You know, I just have to add, I feel terrible having posted that last paragraph... I didn't intend it mean just to find the humor in what is otherwise a humbling experience...

CCC said...

Now, Julie ... you were once turning 35 and thinking, "Dang, that's almost 40!" And did you mean to write SHIFT change? Because I'm kind of wondering what a SHIT change is. :o)

YC, I'm too worried about my worries to be worrying about the validity of my worries.

(Who put all these cats in my house?)

Oh, and I didn't just laugh. I roared with laughter. Felt good.

Anonymous said...

YChickie -from Mom/BeBe,

It was not that I was "too stressed" to come pick you up at night on Tuesday from the hospital. It was that nobody at NYP could give me any information, except that your surgery was taking longer and longer and you would have to stay over that night, yada, yada, nonspeak, nonspeak. The surgery, which you said would take 2 hours, took at least 4. That was indeed STRESSFUL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Rant: You shouldn't have had the tummy tuck at all, as far as I am concerned. Your body looked great to me. Why endure the risk, the pain, the suffering, etc. for such a limited gain? Why stress out your family when we have more than enough on our plate?

Anyway, I'm not a weak, falling apart old bag. I just wasn't going to sit at the hospital waiting for 12 hours to find out you had to stay over. If there had been any problem, I would have been there immediately. You know that. As far as your plastic surgeon is concerned, I hope he levels with you in the future and that you stop this nonsense. He can make a buck from other people from now on. Mostly anyone would pay a fortune to look like you just as you were before the tummy tuck.



Anonymous said...

hey lauren, when you sit at your computor, start listening to ganesja radio, it is so beautiful and peacefull,
just a thougt!, hope things are improving for you,
love, ivdp

rew said...

what an experience! but you survived, you were able to write about it, and are safely home with loved ones.
if you need a laugh during recuperation, i HIGHLY recommend "naked" by david sedaris. it's fall-off-your-seat funny.

Anonymous said...

Way to go mom!

Kristy said...

i agree with your mom. Why did you opt for a tummy tuck? i practice at home most of the time, but read yr blog from time to time for words of courage and was just wondering. Doesnt yoga tone the tummy area well?

just wondering.

Thanks so much for this blog,
Kristy Palamino

yoga chickie said...

Hi Kristy...thanks for writing. I do have a very toned tummy. Unfortunately, after having two babies (and gaining and losing 50 pregnancy pounds, twice), and then going through menopause (at which time, the elastin and collagen in the skin begins to deteriorate, much like the way a bathing suit loses its stretchiness after a while), my abdominal skin was in not-so-great shape. The skin was crepey and sagged. While I looked good in clothing, I was unhappy with the way I looked in a bathing suit (and naked...;))

Yoga can do a LOT for toning the waistline, so keep it up...don't let my circumstances discourage you...



Claudette said...

Lauren, you are a remarkable woman to have gone through what you have while maintaining the inspirational aura your writing gives off. I am so sorry for the pain you have had. And I send all of my energy to your dad in his fight. Medicine, despite what we want people to think, is indeed more of an art than a science. And the individual artists who care for you make all the difference. Here's to having all of your future care by virtuosos.
Namaste, Claudette

Julie said...

shit...ahahahahah carla ...yes I meant shift... that's hysterical...clearly you know what was happening when they did get the neighbor manuveured correctly...

yoga chickie said...

oh my! such freudian slipmanship!! laughing hysterically....thanks for the giggles....xo, yc

yoga chickie said...

Hey Dr. your blog, especially the name....may I ask where it came from?

BTW, I have noticed the 3 carat thing up here on the UES as's a different world practicing yoga anywhere else in the city....


Claudette said...

Hello again.
He's dead, Jim is actually a Star Trek reference. It's what the doctor was famous for saying...

Thanks for reading and for your kind words.

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About Me

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Northern Westchester, New York, United States
I live by a duck pond. I used to live by the East River. I don't work. I used to work a lot. Now, not so much. I used to teach a lot of yoga. Now not so much. I still practice a lot of yoga though. A LOT. I love my kids, being outdoors, taking photos, reading magazines, writing and stirring the pot. Enjoy responsibly.


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