Wow! – the second surgery pretty much kicked the stuffing out of me! I was in no way prepared for it to the degree I thought I was. I guess I was taking too much for granted. I figured it would just go pretty much the same as the first one; after all, wasn’t the whole thing simply the completion of the first surgery? They had taken out half of my thyroid, now they just had to go back in and finish the job—same song, second verse—right? I was feeling pretty confident and had it in my mind that this was only another “out-patient” procedure, like the first. I even had everything timed this time, right down to the minute: check-in at 7:30AM, a couple of hours prep-time and then surgery at 9:30AM, back in recovery by 11:00AM, and then released two hours later. I figured Ne’ and I would be back in our hotel room by 3:00PM at the latest. Then, after a simple post-op consultation the next day, we would be on an afternoon flight back to Kona. Whole episode, less than 36 hours—start to finish. Well, that’s what I figured, anyway.
Five days—four nights—later, after finally being released from the hospital, I crawled out of a wheelchair and into the airport shuttle feeling like I had been put through a meat grinder and wondering to myself, “What was I thinking?” I mean, I should have known better than to be so presumptuous. Surely I have learned by now that every time I get up on my high-horse and get to thinking to myself, “I’ve got this,” I get knocked off again. While it’s okay, I guess, to look confidently toward the future and to try to put a positive spin on things, how dare I get so cocky about it and make such bold assumptions all the time. When will I ever learn?
I first knew I was in a little trouble when the doctor came to me in the recovery room and said something about how well the surgery had gone, with the exception—“Wait! What? There’s an exception?”—that they had to use a much larger trachea tube, the largest they had, for the intubation (please, save the preacher jokes till I’m feeling a little better). He also said that the anesthesiology team had problems inserting the tube due to residual swelling from the first surgery. He said that only their clinically administered pain control measures would spare me the kind of suffering inevitably heading my way. The other unsettling news was that my calcium level was exceedingly low due to trauma to the parathyroid glands during surgery; and he could not release me until it leveled out. He then described possible symptoms of low calcium levels for which they would be monitoring me, including: facial tingling, tightening, and lack of control; severe muscle cramps and seizures; even interference with my cardio rhythm; and, well, death. Okaaayyyy—so, yeah, I’m staying!
The first night in the hospital was frightening. Not only was I suffering with the “sore throat from hell,” which the 4mg of morphine every two hours didn’t seem to faze, but my semi-private roommate, Uncle Miguel, kept me spooked all night. He was 83 years old and recovering from gall bladder surgery. He was an old, proud, fiercely independent “paniolo” (Hawaiian cowboy). And, of course, they would put “me” with Uncle Miguel, right? I mean, who better to bunk with the old salty than another old salty?
I didn’t realize it at first, but soon discovered that Uncle’s one goal was to break out of that joint that very night. Furthermore, he was determined to fight anybody that stood between him and his goal. And, as my luck would have it, my bed was right between his and the door. His wife, Aunty Margarita, was of no help at all. While she was the only one who could control him, keeping him on a pretty short leash while she was awake, still, she slept deeply and soundly; and, I might add, she snored like a Harley Davidson—I kid you not, even the nurses were amazed! So, Uncle would lay there, biding his time, waiting until the Harley was really revving, then he’d attempt an escape.
His first attempt came about 11:00PM. I’m lying there, trying to doze off and on between the Aunty’s rumblings, when I see the divider curtain swing back and there stands Uncle ready to fight. Now, I don’t care who you are, or how weak and feeble he is, the first sight of a crazy, old, angry and determined—not to mention, virtually naked—paniolo swaying back and forth in his flimsy hospital gown in the middle of the night, eyes as wide as silver dollars, is enough to send a shiver down anybody’s spine. It might as well have been an angry pit bull coming after me. What could I do?
There was only one thing to do—scream! I pushed the button on the call gadget and screamed into the microphone, “Uncle’s up, Uncle’s up, he’s wandering around the room!” To which I received a response that sounded vaguely like laughter. Well, they didn’t laugh long because Uncle, being sufficiently discombobulated by my screams no doubt, began to lose his balance and bounce this way and that off the various items around the room, much like a pinball. Finally, he hit the wall, bounced off, spun around and fell backwards over an aluminum tray stand, scattering debris of all kinds in all directions. It sounded like a train wreck.
Finally, people arrived—rushing in the door like it was a code blue “stat” or something. I’m sitting up in bed, in searing pain, all hooked up to the IV lines and quite under the influence, crying out, “Where were you, I called for help, nobody came? Where were you?” But I also found myself profusely apologizing for not being a quick thinker and hopping out of bed to try to catch uncle before he fell.
The nurses quietly reassured me that I did the right thing, that it was not my responsibility to catch uncle, that doing so might have been worse, and that, since he landed on his butt, nothing was hurt except maybe the floor. Aunty gradually awoke from her slumber, asking the nurses what had happened.
Uncle tried to escape four or five more times that night; however, they now had him hooked to some kind of monitor that sounded an alarm each time his feet hit the floor. Needless to say, between the pain, the alarms, the Harley next door, the regular hospital hubbub—the room was right across the hall from the nurses’ station—and visions of a skinny, pit bull, attack ghost threatening me in the night, I didn’t get much rest. In fact, I went more than 36 hours without sleep—not a situation conducive to healing. The next morning I was profusely thanked by the nursing team for helping “save” Uncle the night before. I modestly, and a bit shamefully, accepted their praise. Later that day, as a reward for my heroism I presume—or maybe to silence any potential formal complaint (not that I was planning one, but how would they know)—I was moved to my own, private room—yesssssssss!!!
But, while life in my private room was peaceful enough, somehow, it seemed a bit boring; despite the vampires who kept coming to draw my blood every four hours around the clock for four solid days. Actually, I found myself rather missing the entertainment value of bunking with Uncle. I think I’m going to have to add him to my collection of “rainbows.”
The day after surgery, things began to progress from bad to worse. Because my calcium level was going down, rather than improving, and because of the blistering pain in my throat, all the meds were increased. The oral calcium dosage was doubled and they began giving me calcium glutamate intravenously. In addition to the morphine every two hours, I was also given an oral dose of liquid acetaminophen and codeine elixir every four hours.
The combined effect of these meds produced the predictable outcome of assailing me with the absolute worst case of constipation one could ever fathom. I mean, I’m serious when I tell you that I now think I’ve come as close as any man ever wants to come to experiencing what it must be like to give birth. I had never imagined myself begging for a suppository; and then sooooo regretting it when the thing finally went to work. I’m telling you, I nearly passed out!
After that second night, I made the commitment to quickly wean myself off of the pain meds. The way I figured it, at least I’d only have grueling pain at one end, rather than both. A couple of nurses warned me about putting off the pain medication, rather than taking it at regularly scheduled intervals, but they couldn’t “make” me take it. I was kind of proud of myself for being so rebellious and tough. I even dared to envision myself as a younger version of Uncle Miguel; that is, until the pain in my neck and throat really got to raging and I began to realize how much good those meds really had been doing all along. I soon found myself again the beggar. It did nothing for my ego when the nurse finally showed up with the morphine; and with a haughty, little Filipina “I told you so” look in her eye.
I do want to pause and say a word to, and about, my sweet wife. While they wouldn’t allow her to stay with me in the hospital that first night, she was determined to stay every night thereafter, even though I tried to send her back home to the Big Island. But she was having none of that; choosing, instead, to sleep night-after-night on three old, hard chairs that she lined up under the window beside my bed. This was against hospital policy, of course—she wasn’t supposed to stay overnight—but the nurses soon figured out that this cute little gal was virtually as tough as any old paniolo; and that no one would be sending her anywhere. So they decided that they might just as well go ahead and bring her a blanket and pillow.
As far too many of us already know, battling cancer is quite an ordeal—filled with all too subtle “ups” and way too obvious, and often crushing, “downs.” It’s easy, I think, to focus on the hardships, the pain, the fear, the setbacks, and the disappointments. But even in the middle of all that, there can still be found a deep and profound joy; a particular joy that, perhaps, cannot be experienced in any other context. Throughout this whole ordeal, while in the hospital and after returning home to recover, there have been those people—near and far—who have checked in on me, encouraged me, prayed for me, and who have gone out of their way to minister to me in a variety of ways. I know I’m not always the easiest person to get along with, even under the best of circumstances. And so, for that reason, I’m all the more grateful, beyond words, to be the recipient of such undeserved and unconditional love—yet another rainbow!