|Operating Room Manager screen at Tufts Medical Center
Panic is a sudden desertion of us, and a going over
to the enemy of our imagination.
~Christian Nevell Bovee
I know. I haven't been writing or making rounds. I've been AWOL. (Anxious Woman Of Late) See, my imagination tends to grab me by the neck and shove me toward worse case scenarios. Especially when it comes to health. Some years ago, I saw an ENT specialist who began our session by asking about my family medical history. I told him that there had been migraines, high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer. I told him my father had just died. Humph, the doctor said as he needled a scope through my nostril, you never know what's going to happen, you could get out of this chair, walk out the door and have a pulmonary embolism. That happened to a friend of mine about six months ago.
This is not welcome news to a pathophobiac.
And so a couple of days ago, when Little Miss Lulu—whose fear sensors are spindly stubs next to my yard long bobbing antennae—went into surgery for the very first time in her young life, I was in panic mode. What worried me wasn't so much the surgery as the anesthesia. She'd never had general anesthesia, and in my anxious mind, this is where potential waits for just about anything to go wrong. (Of course it's not the only opportunity for things to go awry—it can go topsy-turvy at any time, anywhere. Oh so horribly wrong!) Surgery is like slicing a wedge of Brie cheese, but anesthesia? That's more like baking a cheese souffle, it's a potent cocktail of carefully measured ingredients that requires close monitoring and a tender touch.
Above, on that nifty waiting room flat screen monitor, in forest green is my daughter—patient number 35628—in OR 03 at the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center. The screen is updated in real time through pre-op, surgery start, estimated finish, and recovery, including the location of each procedure. Sitting before that monitor I felt as if I were in a train terminal watching the split-flap display of arrivals and departures. Boarding track 6. Departing track 11. On time. Delayed.
We were just a few blocks away from Boston's South Station, and as that thought crossed along the troubled tracks of my my mind, I heard the whistle and chug of a passing train, and recalled the many times Lu and I had taken the commuter rail into Beantown. Appointments with a pediatric OB/GYN. Meetings with the Chief of urology. Listening, with earplugs inserted, to the clanging and buzzing of a the great MRI machine that seemed to swallow my daughter whole. (And for reasons less ominous, as well, like seeing Blue Man Group at the Charles Playhouse, roaming through the masterpiece-lined corridors of the MFA, shopping along Newbury, traveling through simulated space and sea at the Museum of Science.)
And then, an announcement: Attention residents. Instead of the ordinary Wednesday rounds meeting, all residents will meet in the Chapel to mourn and memorialize the loss of all the children who've passed.
Omens loom in the boat shaped hospital that fits snuggly in the maze that is Tufts.
I took notes. I scribbled down the only question Lu asked the surgeon before being wheeled away. When can I eat again after surgery? I noted how the surgeon had answered our queries, and how Lu had watched the anesthesiologist carefully insert the IV, and tape it down against her skinny arm. And how my imagination had abruptly taken me hostage. There! There's the culprit! IVs gone bad. Cellulitis. Infection. Sepsis. Air bubble. Embolism!
The girl was calm as a conductor. I stroked her hair, and fought to keep my fears invisible. But inside, I was Woody-Allen-neurotic. Pacing, and scratching my head, and talking nonsense. Here, a list of all the things that can go wrong. Review the list. Worry.
And even though I'm fully aware of the risks as being slight (my daughter generally in excellent health), I am fully aware of the risks. I've signed the paperwork. I'm also, for the most part, reasonable, but I've known cases in which ordinary procedures proved catastrophic. It's a benign cyst, the doctor says with authority. It's a textbook procedure. The norm is that she goes in and comes out perfectly fine. Better, in fact. The norm.
I wish I could be as blissfully ignorant as my eleven year old daughter who hasn't yet been acquainted with medical complications.
I love you, Mama, she said as they whisked her away to a sterile, well-lit theatre for which I had no ticket. I wouldn't hear the music or the actor's scripted lines. I wouldn't see the curtain open or close. I didn't know which scene was being played out. All I knew was that patient 35628 was in OR 03. Had she been anesthetized correctly? Was she tolerating it well? Were they ad-libbing? Had she been shivved and sewed up? How loud was the music and how funny were the jokes?
I took more notes. And though my daughter's malady was not nearly as grave as others, I was beginning to feel like the mother in Lorrie Moore's startling "People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk" (scroll past intro for full text).
Everything will be just fine. A textbook case.
The medical personnel at Tufts are sweet, attentive and empathetic, but I still wanted to get out of the building that housed the theatre.
When Lu woke in recovery the first thing she asked of the nurse was, Can you wheel me down to the Cafeteria?
No matter where we travel it's all about the food. We like to ramble off the worn tourist's path for the true flavor of a place. During each trip to the city, we took advantage of Tufts locale at the edge of Chinatown, and had some fine dim sum and barbecue duck in Chinatown's restaurants, pomelos and mangosteens from street vendors, and dense, bean-paste Mooncakes from the pastry shop.
Now, in the hospital's PACU, Lulu was ready for toast. That was a good sign.
A few hours later, I helped Lu into a wheelchair and slowly strolled her out of post-op. Pausing at the nurses station where an OR Manager monitor glowed in the shadows of early evening, I looked up and saw that number 35628 was off the board. Off the board! I shifted the wheelchair toward the exit and slid out the heavy double doors with Lulu.
The show was over. No ad-libbing. My girl was cyst-free and safe, and the enemy had let me loose.
And then, a fleeting thought: the children who hadn't made it. This was Children's Floating Hospital at Tufts, after all. Not all the children leave on wheelchairs, and I felt a pall of cloudy sadness as I pushed Lu into the wide elevator. But I was so grateful that my little girl was on her way home. A textbook case. The norm. Just as the doctor had said.
Now what was all that worry about?
The Tallest Man on Earth is Swedish singer/songwriter Kristian Matsson, who has a habit of sweeping away uneasiness.