The C Word – Part 20: Comfort

February 28th, 2022 was the date of my liver resection surgery. As the date approached, I found my nerves unraveling. All the strength I’d been striving to build over the course of the past year seemed to be eroding. In short, I was frightened. This was the third and (hopefully) final stage of my cancer battle and although I should have been able to see the end of the journey, I was fraught with doubt. The “what-ifs” came knocking. What if they couldn’t get all of it? What if there were complications? What if I couldn’t survive the surgery or the subsequent recovery? After the horrifying time I’d experienced after my first surgery, I was gripped with fear that the pattern would repeat itself. I was afraid my body wouldn’t be strong enough. Even though I’d done everything in my power over the previous months to build myself up for success (yoga, meditation, swimming, our healing retreat to Hawaii), I still feared failure.

At least I went into the hospital stronger this time. There was no bowel prep  – no chugging gallons of vile liquid while trying to choke down horse-pills of nauseating antibiotics. In short, I wasn’t hurling into a bucket upon my arrival to the hospital this time, which was a marked improvement. But this was a much bigger surgery. They were about to remove a little over half my liver, which would then, presumably, regenerate. The liver is a very bloody organ. I was asked to be part of a study – that they might remove some of my blood prior to the surgery to reduce the amount of bleeding during the operation, then return it to my body upon completion. They are aiming to make that a standard procedure for all liver surgeries. What I DIDN’T know is that it was a blind study, so I don’t know whether they did so or not. But many patients require transfusions during the course of this surgery, so it made sense to me.

I arrived at the hospital very early in the morning of the 28th. Doug took the day off and waited nearby until he got word the surgery was complete and I was in the recovery room. I was later moved to what they call a “step down room” and he was able to visit. The step-down room was a ward with five beds and nurses on call IN the room at all times. Sort-of between an ICU and a regular hospital room, for patients who required constant monitoring, but not major ICU equipment or isolation. Patients often graduate from that room to a standard room for the remainder of their recovery. But I remained in the step-down room during my stay.

I had an epidural for pain management again. So, upon waking, I was heavily medicated and was able to enjoy my husband’s wonderful face when he was allowed to visit. I felt no pain and my surgeon told me everything had gone very well. He said there had been a small adhesion onto my hepatic artery which they removed and repaired with a bovine patch, which is made from the inside of a cow’s stomach, and much more compatible than a synthetic patch. So, now there’s a bit of cow inside me. Hey! I’m a real-live COWGIRL!

Over the first couple of days, my hemoglobin and blood pressure were low so I got an infusion of platelets, which quickly rectified the situation. But again, as last time, I struggled with my stomach over-producing acid, so I was able to eat very little. I lightly vomited a few times, but at least I was eating and did not require a naso-gastric feeding tube this time. I was committed to trying to keep the nausea at bay so I wouldn’t have the same catastrophic results as my first surgery (see the first installment of The C Word).  I still find such difficulty in ascertaining whether I’m feeling pain or nausea when it’s all focused in the same region, but I did my best to keep on top of both and let the nurses know when I needed medication.

Flowers were not allowed in the step-down room, due to the propensity for strong fragrances to provoke nausea in already nauseated patients. But visitors were allowed, and Doug came every day after work. My dear friend Noreen managed to get a teddy bear to me, and one day I even had a rotating cast of dear visiting local friends, checking in on me.

The ward seemed to be populated with patients who had gastrointestinal conditions. I was the only female. My bed was near a window this time, and the view was enough to entertain my mind which couldn’t focus on much. There was a channel between the buildings which seemed to provide an updraft in which seagulls spent their days effortlessly sailing and swooping. It was very comforting and peaceful to watch.

Much more peaceful than listening to the sounds of one of my roommates: a 30-ish man of whom I overheard the nurses say had the mental capacity of a four-year-old child. I felt badly for the man. He clearly didn’t understand where he was or what had happened to him. His voice was of the type which exhibited no form of volume control, and he was also very congested. His repetitive cries of “Whegadayegeduh? Whegadayegeduh? Whegadayegeduh? Which meant “When can I get up?” resounded through the room at all hours. Over and over and over –  day and night.  Thankfully I had a nice collection of meditation and healing frequency music on my phone to plug my ears with. Sometimes the cries changed to “Goho! Goho! Goho! Which was “go home”. Poor fellow. It was constant, until he took his Benadryl and subsequently passed out. It was aggravating, but clearly not his fault. His family came often to help calm him down. And to the credit of the stalwart nursing team, no one was EVER impatient with him in the least. They calmly gave him the same answers over and over, not one ever losing their temper. My already sterling opinion of the nurses in our healthcare system turned a bright, shining gold.

This man’s one comfort was watching sporting events on his screen. He had a notebook where he carefully kept track of all the scores. So, on days when there was a hockey or soccer match, he was quiet as a mouse for hours. When he got aggravated and loud, his visiting family members gently threatened to take away his “book” and he immediately quieted.

Another member of the room had been there for a month. All the nurses adored him – he was kind, optimistic and charming. It seemed he had had a full colostomy and ileostomy, and a terminal Cancer diagnosis, but faced each day with the same kind of optimism I’ve been trying to evoke. Hearing HIM was a blessing!

After they took my catheter out, it seemed I was the only one in the room who was physically able to use the toilet – handy as I never had to wait, but I was deeply grateful for my body’s ability to still be able to process my own food waste. My aunt Carmen had a colostomy bag most of her adult life, so the concept wasn’t alien to me. And my mom had one temporarily after her first major cancer surgery until they could go back in and re-connect her colon, but it seems it never worked the same. Me, I’ve been pooping like a champ since I’ve been home, thank goodness. Well, after my first bout of post-hospital constipation, that is. Between the narcotic pain medication and bed-rest, it was to be expected, I suppose. After much pain and effort, I dislodged a monstrous petrified log which enraged my (previously healed) ‘roids again, but now its smoooooth sailing!

On Saturday March 5th, I was told I was being released to go home. My surgeon had told me early in the morning that I was ready, but I could stay one more day if I liked. He said he’d return at about nine-thirty am to check if I was ready and to sign the release papers. After a moment of fear that I may not be ready yet, I said I only needed to call my husband to come pick me up. All releases were to happen only at ten am each day.

So, Doug arrived, thrilled to get me home, and we waited. And waited. Ten am rolled past. Then ten-thirty. I had the nurses try to check on the doctor, as he told me he was going into surgery at eleven. I packed, got dressed, and we waited. The doctor finally came to release me, but we didn’t get out of there until almost noon. Doug took me home then went out to fill my prescriptions and get supplies.

By this time, it was around one pm. I’d meant to be released at ten am, mind you, so in all the confusion and delay, I’d gotten behind on my pain medication. I was suddenly in terrible agony and called Doug in tears. It seemed like he’d been gone for hours, but it had only been fifteen or twenty minutes. I was writhing in pain again. I’ve experienced more acute physical pain this year than I have in my entire life. One would think I’d be getting used to it, but sadly, that’s not how the body works. Pain is pain and it’s there for a reason. And again, once the pain takes over, it’s incredibly hard to manage. Which is why the nurses encourage patients to try to stay ahead of it, requesting medication at the first twinge of pain, rather than waiting for the avalanche of agony which follows. Doug returned with my medication, and after a couple of hours, we finally got a handle on the pain again. Whew! Now it was on to the home recovery phase of this journey.

My stomach was still over-producing acid which caused nausea, pain and incredible discomfort. I couldn’t focus on anything: reading, listening to music, watching movies – there was nothing which served to comfort or distract me. I lay staring out the window, moaning for hours. Anti-nausea medications gave a momentary feeling of improvement but faded quickly. I still couldn’t eat properly, and the only way I could feel comfortable enough to sleep was lying on my left side. Lying on my back, the acid gurgled, bubbled and filled my stomach. And clearly the right – the liver side of my body was far too tender to put any pressure upon. I woke in the night to vomit on a couple of occasions. All in all, no fun. No fun at all.

I was depleted, exhausted and inconsolable. I wept in the fear that perhaps my body was not strong enough to heal itself this time. The fear of ever having another surgery crept in, and I plummeted into a deep despair, convinced I simply couldn’t survive another. I began fantasizing of euthanasia. Not a good emotional state at all.

Weakly, I tried to alleviate my suffering and manage my acid, I tried over the counter medications like Gas x, Pepcid and Gaviscon. Again, each gave me a temporary “band-aid” fix, but didn’t last. And now it was Friday. So, none of my care team were in their offices until Monday. Great. Another two days of misery. I got on the after-hours nurse hotline and the nurse on-call went through an extensive diagnostic assessment with me. She recommended I try to get in to see a doctor for a prescription within the next 12 hours. I was in NO shape to sit in the ER on a Friday night, so I made an online appointment with my GP for Monday morning and settled in to the reality of having to apply my pharmaceutical “band-aids” all weekend long. Sigh.

On Monday the 14th, I got my prescription for pantoprazole, which I recalled was one of the medications I was being given in the hospital. Why on earth I wasn’t sent home with a prescription is beyond me, but at least now I had a tool to manage my misery.

Just add a zipper pull at the top and I’m ready for Halloween!

Since then, my condition has improved. While my stomach is still a bit unsettled, I am thankfully able to eat, craving crisp apple and cucumber slices and savory miso soup above all else. My staple-filled scar is becoming less red and more flesh-toned each and every day. And I am able to focus on small projects, take short walks and – finally – sleep on my back.

All in all, it’s been an eventful few weeks, to say the least.  I long for the time when I can eat and move freely again. But until then, I rely upon the strength and love of my husband, family and friends who have been an instrumental part of my healing journey. My confidence at the success of my treatments is steadily increasing and I’m manifesting a reality where I will soon be able to call myself a “survivor” rather than a “warrior” and to see this long battle come to a triumphant close.

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