Category Archives: Surgery

1000 Words: Fear & Loathing In A Hospital Gown

In what setting are you compelled to remove all your clothing and lie down while three, four, or even five people fuss around you, ministering to selected parts of your body?

I suppose one or two Pencillistas might flash, in their venereal imaginations, to that variety of intentionally inconspicuous business wherein money is exchanged for certain diversions.

Me? I’m thinking about the hospital. That’s been on my mind a lot of late because all the pre- and post-surgery appointments have been made for what I hope will be my final slicing and dicing in a long series of such excavations I’ve experienced, grudgingly, over the last 15 or so years. In that time, I’ve been carved open, re-jiggered, and sewn back up at least eight times that I can recall off the top of my head.

These operations included sawing bone ends off, the inducement of a therapeutic heart attack (honest: a surgeon actually caused a myocardial infarction in me, intentionally, to rectify a heart malformation), the insertion of a rubber feeding tube directly into my stomach, the implant of a defibrillator, the repair of gaping holes in my abdominal wall, and several other forms of knifeplay.

I’ve known about most of these things well in advance. I’ve planned the last three surgeries, including the one scheduled for Monday, April 10th, to take place at reasonable intervals over the last three years. The upcoming gashfest will entail my second total hip replacement.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m eternally grateful for the care and professionalism exhibited by the doctors, nurses, anesthesiologists, attendants and all the other fine employees I’ll encounter on the day of surgery but, truth be told, I hate it, hate it all, hate it, hate it, hate it. I even hate them, much as I wish I wouldn’t.

Okay, I’ll Admit It: I Hate These People.

It ain’t easy to walk into a place and be told to strip and lie down on a cold bed in the pre-op room, while various people pepper me with questions about my medical history, my allergies, my living will, and my health insurance, while others poke and jam needles in me and record every measurable sign and symptom of the life remaining in me. Worse, at one point, someone’s going to come into the room and shave the hair off me in some ridiculously huge neighborhood surrounding the point where the surgeon plans to plunge his shiv.

I grit my teeth and try to be a good sport about it all but occasionally I get testy, pleading for only one person at a time do her or his thing. It’s the only remnant of bodily autonomy I have left at that moment. Sometimes the gang surrounding me even accedes to that wish.

One thing I dread is being pressured to characterize my pain using the numeric system hospitals have developed over the last few decades. Here it is:

Am I the only one who is baffled by this system? I find it almost impossible to answer when the nurse asks about my pain level.

I’m torn between being honest and being a he-man. Then — and don’t try to figure this out; several shrinks have tried and come up short — there’s my own doubt in my pain recognition. Am I imagining my pain to be worse than it actually is? Would a frail old lady bear similar pain better?

After one surgery, to remove a cataract from my right eyeball (into which a nurse had actually inserted a hypodermic needle beforehand — swear to god!) I experienced severe pain to the point of nausea. One attendant harrumphed and said little old ladies could take the pain better than I could. Turns out I was severely allergic to the anti-inflammatory drug they bathed my eyeball in. Again I kid you not, but the eyeball swelled, making me look like a monster from a cheap 1950s movie.

I was brought up in the 1960s when male boys were ordered to suck it up, don’t cry, don’t be a baby, you’ll get over it, only little girls cry, et cetera. Much as I’ve tried to move past those messages in the ensuing decades, they still reside in my psyche, sort of the way the chickenpox virus lurks in the system, just waiting to spring shingles on you when you’re 66 years old. Only there’s no vaccine to prevent the re-emergence of toxic male messaging.

So, if I think to characterize my pain as, say, a seven — very severe — am I being a baby? Would the 79-year-old woman down the hall be tolerating even worse pain?

I tell you, my very senses of valor and masculinity depend on my getting the answer right. Meaning the answer is never right.

For pity’s sake, why isn’t my assertion that the pain is severe — using those exact words — be sufficient? Oh no, we have to know whether that severe pain is 10 or 20 percent less than the Worst Pain Possible. Is this kind of thinking driven by computer programs or insurance risk managers? They’re very insistent on precise figures. If you get slugged in the nose, splattering the proboscis over much of your face, would the pain be a six or an eight or even a ten?

Who knows? More importantly, who cares? Why isn’t It hurts like hell enough?

We all understand pain levels exist on a spectrum. And that spectrum often is skewed by conditions. When you stub your toe in the middle of the night, the pain, for a scintillating moment at least, feels like a ten. But when your throat’s been burned by cancer radiation therapy for the last few weeks and you’re spitting out sloughed-off bits of the mucous membrane and skin lining your larynx, the pain begins to seem like a four or five.

It isn’t, but we get used to things, even severe pain.

I’ll survive April’s ordeal. Hell, I’ll probably be able to walk again, making all the discomfort, the loss of control, the ordeal, well worth it. But, please — please! — don’t ask me what number my pain is.

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