The idea of going into hospital for an 8 hour surgical procedure has become dare I say, appealing. The day to day has become mentally and physically tiring, most likely I’m still reeling from the post chemotherapy side effects. Checking into hospital is about the closest I am going to get to a 14 day health retreat only this time there is no spa suite, no sunshine, no swim up bar and I definitely wont be checking out with a glowing tan.
Around this same time last year I was still in the early stages of attempting to grasp this confusing diagnosis and treatment. We were forced to enjoy what would feel like my last vacation before chemotherapy began. I was spending my days taking calls from the breast care nurse who was touching upon frightening topics like chemo, mastectomy, tissue expanders, new nipples and was planning to put me in touch with other women who had already been through these phases of treatment. This was not my idea of a relaxing holiday, I was teary, shit scared and felt a little ripped off.
On this particular beach holiday I vividly remember the day of fun and laughter we had sitting at the pool swim up bar. My cousin unexpectedly popped into our resort to spend the entire day with us, in fact we spent the entire day in the pool with the kids splashing about while I clung onto my seemingly bottomless glass of champagne. I don’t recall exactly how many bottles of Moet we went through in the swimming pool bar, but I do remember repeatedly yelling: “Fuck it, lets get another bottle, I have cancer.”
I’m in room 1004 at St. Vincent’s Hospital and the room lighting is of course the mandatory fluorescent white, it feels harsh and all exposing. The plush holiday bathrobe is replaced by an exhausted looking pale blue hospital gown. I couldn’t shake the thought about the countless patients that had bled, wept, been confused and hollered out in pain in this same blue gown. I relinquished my own clothing and donned the patient uniform which had become a symbol of my surrender to the system. I was going to lie back and take a slashing in the name of reconstruction.
The bed linen is fresh and has an industrial crispness to it. The drawers and chairs are more of an afterthought and the colour palette is monotone and somber apart from the print of a street scene facing my bed that hints to Seurat and pointillism. I have never quite understood why hospitals don’t have shelving in front of the bed, a chatty nurse kindly took it upon herself to move the furniture around so I could get to enjoy the flowers and gifts that had been carefully chosen by well wishing loved ones.
I woke up from theatre for what seemed like only a few minutes and remember the surgeon’s head nodding and telling me that everything went well. Apparently I spent three drowsy drug induced hours in recovery then I was rolled into a hospital room. By this stage I was more lucid and the donor site hurt like hell, more like an axe had been heated over hot coals and then wedged into my abdomen. I needed more painkillers and I need them pronto. This time the PCA was not cutting it. The nursing staff felt my pain, heard my groans and someone with a kind face held my hand and didn’t let go. This simple gesture of being touched by a stranger had helped- I was no longer scared or alone, someone cared.
At one point I looked up and saw an assortment of heads surrounding the bed looking down at me, listening to my groans. One nurse suggested that I try to shift my butt as that might help to relieve the pain. I mustered some strength, raised my head and explained to the nurse that in all fairness the positioning of my arse was not going to soothe the pain from the massive incision in my abdomen. She in turn suggested I wait 20 minutes before calling the Anaesthetist. I kept my cool and insisted, letting her know I was certain he would cope with getting a phone call at 9pm. I figured a few calls were factored into his hefty up front six thousand dollar fee. The PCA dose was immediately doubled, the pain subsided and I fell asleep.
I remember peeking down at my body under the sheets, checking for a mound where my once cancerous breast had been. I was wedged with pillows into what is known as the jack knife position. My knees were raised and bent and my torso was elevated forward: this would be my resting position for the next 12 days in hospital.
I’m now home, still in the jack knife position and can not stand up straight even if I tried. I’m shuffling about hunch back style and showering on a rented hospital bath stool. Standing for more than two minutes becomes painful to the point that I can only think of getting myself into a seated position and quickly.
My new breast looks voluminous and surprisingly natural and of course has a circular flap transfer from my abdomen. It doesn’t look so great but from experience I know that the blackness of the stitches will heal and fade to pale. There is of course the unforgiving incision from hip to hip. A DIEP FLAP procedure is no walk in the park. In fact the idea of being able to go for a walk in the park seems fairly illusive at the moment. The procedure involved a rather significant amount of stomach tissue and fat that has been cut away and transferred to my breast with blood vessels from my abdomen. It’s nothing short of remarkable to think how far plastic surgery has come. The killer breast tissue that was removed in August by mastectomy has now been replaced by my own living tissue, which I think is pretty damn cool. However, not being able to stand up straight is far from cool.
On discharge my surgeon flippantly reminded me that this is going to take several months to heal and to not worry about it too much. For the time being I feel fairly redundant as I can’t contribute or help out at home and I am not exactly in love with my hunched reflection.
This road has been quite long, often times it has been lonely and I’m pretty certain that it is not over yet.