Thursday, April 15, 2010

Dr. 90210

Well, the girls just left for Disney World with their godfather Uncle Barry (everyone needs an Uncle Barry!) Luke looked a little confused as yet another family member walked out the front door and didn’t take him with them. We have to put the girls’ framed photo face down in the living room while they are at school each day or he gets sad and points at it because he misses them so much. I told the girls to send me a picture from inside Space Mountain - how totally 1970s, but supposedly it is still one of the most popular rides - I remember going on it the last time I was at Disney World in, say, 1976 wearing a fiberglass walking cast having fractured my left ankle. I also remember throwing up in the Tea Cups). So here I sit a little sad, a little lonely looking at the grenades that are still hanging from the left side of my new bionic frame draining all sorts of unattractive liquids from my healing wound. When I went to see Dr. Spear, my plastic surgeon, at Georgetown today, I was assuming they would take all 4 of the drains out of my underarms and chest. They took out three. Let’s just say I haven’t had a shower for 9 days because I am too scared to get them wet and for them to get infected and let’s just say that even on Percocet I know that is not totally acceptable from a personal hygiene point of view.

Let’s talk drains because if - God forbid - you or your spouse ever has to go through this nightmare, you are going to need to know what to expect. Rewind to the first time that I walked into Dr. 90210’s office. He kind of has the affect and wry humor of Wallace Shawn in Princess Bride - though Dr. Spear is taller. The first time I met him was the same day that I was diagnosed in September. I was in shock. I had been shuttled from radiology and some bone scan machine from Dr. Willey’s office into Spears. I was in tears as I told him I had a 9 cm tumor growing inside of me. He cavalierly - as is his style - and with just enough tough love to be funny said, “We all have something growing inside of us.” I stood in front of him with the gown open and he lifted each breast unceremoniously as if he were lifting a dead slab of meat. He had an antiquated ruler that looked like he was going to measure the hypotenuse of some invisible triangle and come up with some elaborate algorithm. The nurse handed me a pair of disposable white string bikini underwear (which she apologized for but which I realized were not all that much worse than my not-exactly Perla underwear that had sufficed through my child-bearing years when I stopped really caring.) Note to self: it is bad when your plastic surgeon’s disposable lingerie is better/as good as your own. Need to rectify asap.

They sent me across the hall to some photo studio that looked like it was out of Sears. There is a picture of Rachel Hunter shaking hands with one of the surgeons in a framed photo as you walk in that is supposed to make you feel as though at the end of this it will be ok because you will look like Rachel Hunter (marketing lie). It’s such a Sears photo studio setting with the big umbrella lights (you almost expect a fake leaf backdrop or some toys to keep the children in the family photo “occupied” while the photographer tries to get the winning grin from your nine month old who really doesn’t want to be there. (I really didn’t want to be there.) And you are wearing these disposable white string bikini underwear and you are told to drop your gown on the chair and stand there with your hands behind your back like you are being booked for a crime. Let’s just say it’s a little uncomfortable as you stand there in all of your glory for the “before” set of photos. You feel a little violated. But that is at the beginning of the journey. By the end you just don’t care anymore and you have pretty much lost any sense of modesty and you are willing to lift your shirt and show just about anyone your new breasts - even if they have a few scars across them - just because you can’t believe that you made it through this rite of passage and because you really are still on so many drugs that you don’t really know what is appropriate anymore.

The second time I went to Spear’s office, there was a snafu and my mom was supposed to join me - I had finished chemo and was gearing up for surgery. The appointment started early. I was there alone. I made the mistake of asking to look at the photo album of before and after photos of mastectomy patients. I thought it would help me prepare for the surgery. Boy was I wrong. NEVER look at the photo albums of before and after shots. NEVER. The nurse explained how the procedure worked. They toss a sling made from a corpse’s tissue into your breast and fill it with a sack of saline or something hard as a placeholder - these are called expanders. The corpse part threw me - did I really need to know that? They then offered as an alternative to make the sling from a pig’s tissue. Haram! No go. Can any of this be on a need to know basis please? Way too much information. Because I really did not need to know. I forgot all of my questions and sat there in shock. Dr. Spear tried to console me but I was inconsolable. This was the week about 3 weeks before surgery when the penny dropped and I started mourning the loss of my breasts. The pictures (even the good outcomes) were horrifying. I was told if silicone didn’t work and the radiation messed up the outcome I could always gain a few pounds around my belly and they could suction it up through my sternum and place the fat from the “tummy tuck” into each breast. Or they could take a “flap” from my back and hope that worked (again after a little fattening up (presumably in a darkened basement dungeon with a crack FBI profiler named Clarice looking for me). It was so Silence of the Lambs. I was told I wouldn’t have any feeling across the breasts forever basically - but that doesn’t seem to be true because I can certainly feel something when the Percocet wears off every 6 hours). Then they sent me down to the Sears studio for another set of photos. I was a bit disoriented, clinging to my hospital gown and then I made my way back to the examination room and studied the family photo album of before and after mastectomies. The nurses kept bringing in more tissues. I was in shock. They weren’t sure I would ever leave.

I had to come back a few days before the surgery to get marked up with a black Sharpie so the surgeons would know where to cut the next day - a very imprecise science it seemed to me. Amelia could have drawn a straighter line and then Greg was told to retrace the lines after my shower that night and first thing in the morning before surgery. What was this? Painting by numbers? Fortunately, we had a rainbow assortment of Sharpies at home because they are Amelia’s pen of choice. She couldn’t find the black so she brought me the purple. The whole pre-op experience did not inspire confidence and when I asked about a little valium to take the edge off the morning of surgery, Dr. 90210 said he really didn’t understand or feel the need to indulge pre-surgery jitters. I realize now that was the turning point. I wasn’t going to cry that day. In fact I didn’t the entire time I was in the hospital. I thought I would be a wreck during the 4 hour pre-op check in on the day of surgery. Especially when they stuck three needles in my nipple to inject the radioactive dye for the lymph nodes - many women scream from the pain - it felt like a slight bee sting to me. No big deal. I was joking with Greg - riding on adrenalin and damned if I was going to give Spear the satisfaction of being a girl about all of this. I was like a prize fighter going into the ring. They even handed me a robe compliments of the Ritz that was supposed to make you feel like you were actually heading for a massage. I was laughing with the nurses. Telling them I needed a private room because I am actually a little bit “difficult”. Sassy to Greg - totally ready to get this show on the road. Spear helped me by not indulging my worries. I toughened up and you know what? It was a piece of cake. They didn’t even make me count backwards. I slept like a baby through the whole thing. Dr. Jackson, the anesthesiologist was a pro, and when I made it to post-op, I began doing Pilates deep breathing exercises to get the last bits of anesthesia from my lungs. I whispered to Shawna (Willey) my very fine surgeon - to go to the waiting area and tell Greg it was the Pilates that made all the difference and got me through surgery because I knew he would soon start to balk at the cost of these private sessions which saved my life as soon as we left the hospital. They laughed at me and he laughed when he heard I was negotiating and outmaneuvering him even under the effects of anesthesia. (In a weak guilty Mommy moment the day before surgery I had sent my mom on a hunt for two iPads for the girls without telling him - she bought the last two at Pentagon City and almost let them slip through her fingers while I spoke with the Apple salesman on the phone about whether a 7 and a 9 year old need 32 or 64 gigs - what was I thinking? These were their consolation prize for me being in the hospital on Annalise’s 9th birthday. “It was as if Steve Jobs and God got together and got Phil (Annalise) a birthday present.” Modern Family from the week before - Annalise got the joke.)

So one drain still hangs by my side - it looks like a plastic grenade, Greg has been emptying and measuring the output of all of them each day. He is never queasy. That’s what I like about him. (When I had all four around my waist, I looked like a suicide bomber.)

Now I have taken enough valium to sleep and relax the chest muscles, enough to perhaps kill a horse. So I will close out this missive with just one thought:

“I may not know it
But these are the moments that
I'm gonna remember most
Just gotta keep going
And I, I got to be strong
Just keep pushing on...
Ain't no matter what's waiting on the other side...It's the climb...”

When Amelia left tonight I said, “Have fun in Florida” to which she replied: “I hear they have a lot of oranges there.” How true and how odd that that is what popped into her mind as she headed to the Magic Kingdom.

But she was right, as always. Vitamin C - good for healing. We all need a little healing after the winter we have had.