Part Five (ii of iv): Surgery
January 1, 2015 § 2 Comments
Missus will tell you that for her, these days were the darkest.
It began for her in the cardiologist’s office, on the day he reckoned it was time to schedule Lucy’s surgery. It lasted until the day after surgery, and once we knew Lucy was out of the woods. Some five weeks and change.
Missus could tell you about how over the course of that stormy spring and summer we’d somehow managed to strike a new life balance that hinted at normalcy, or even something better. And then she’ll tell you that the lights went out on that new normal in mid-August. One month before the surgery and prior to our meeting with Doctor Fox. She could tell you about stepping out of that light and into somewhere much more benighted and different. Someplace moonless.
Missus is uncommonly compassionate, and is doubly blessed with some singular form of quiet strength that does not come off stony. Neither is she what you would call bubbly, but she would appear not to be in possession of that depression gene that afflicts so many — even on her worse days. She is not prone to sadness or gloom. But if it was not depression she was walking in during these days, she might explain, this was perhaps walking in depression’s shadow. She will tell you from that day forward — for a time — she was not strong. That she did not feel strong. She will describe watching some specterlike version of herself move about appearing to be strong, belying the silent and toxic fear that had permeated her blood.
I was fooled. Didn’t know this until days ago. Or maybe I was too enveloped in my own absence of strength at the time to notice that one afternoon my wife had begun inward preparation for — not the possibility, but the likelihood of — not bringing her baby home from surgery.
By the time it arrived, the day of the pre-op appointment had nearly assumed, for us, the importance of the surgery itself, so painfully slowly had it crept-to.
Only five days in front of the surgery, the pre-op served as a kind of natural precipice separating our new normal from the next unknown: The after. It was another time stamp in the journey and also a point of no return, not that there was any looking back for us, or that we didn’t want the surgery to happen. We just wanted, simply, to wake up and find ourselves on the other side and Lucy in the clear, thank you very much. But the truth is that very little stands out about that day. The pre-op day. It wasn’t a big deal.
We did it like any other school day, which it was. Missus remembers it all better than I do.
Once we had gotten everyone up and dressed for school, breakfast consumed, lunches packed, and had all loaded up in the minivan, we were driving along and slowly realizing what a rarity it was: All of us in the car together on a weekday morning. It is always one or the other of us dropping the girls off at school. They were giddy to have both Mommy and Daddy driving them, and it was one of the only times they had gotten to see their still-new baby sister on a school morning. It felt different. Special. They were both petting and talking to Lucy all the way in — an unexpectedly sugary start to the day.
We got lucky with Austin traffic that morning, no significant holdups, and we arrived at Dell Children’s even earlier than we’d planned to. A small miracle. Early enough that we pulled in first to the Ronald McDonald House across the parking lot from the children’s hospital, thinking we’d see about arranging for our stay that next week. It was too early. No administrative staff there to buzz us in, no answer. We got back in the car and parked closer to the main entrance.
We negotiated our way to the waiting room on the bottom floor without getting lost and were marveling at all the neat things that greet new little patients and their parents as they enter: The Neverland touches and the bright, Christmas morning feel of a well-imagined, well-executed space designed for lifting whatever burdens it might from those who walk there.
In the waiting room I signed us in and we sat down. Our name was soon called and while Missus fed Lucy I went over and furnished insurance information and answered general questions as the nurse looked over Lucy’s file. For a second she seemed surprised that we were there on a Thursday, her procedure not until Tuesday. Soon enough she came to the part where the file informed her of what all she would need done that day. Why Lucy was there to begin with. I was quiet while she read, waiting for another question. I wasn’t sure what the nurse was reading until she tilted her head and went Oh.
Then she said, “Well. She’ll just be getting the whole nine yards then won’t she?” I nodded my head yes, I supposed she would.
First we met the nurse who was assigned to us for the day. A very sweet, soft-voiced older woman who would double as our chaperone and tour guide for the day. She acquainted us first with the areas of the hospital we would mainly be traveling in on the day of the surgery (the PICU, the recovery wing, the waiting room), and the rest of the day shepherded us from one corner of the hospital to the other, one appointment to the next. And that’s what Pre-op day is: A series of tightly scheduled appointments, really. All under one roof.
Our first appointment was with the blood lab. A bright and airy sun-drenched room with a lot of toys and windows, a large fish tank, and its own entrance facing another parking lot, for in-and-outers. Simply sign-in, wait to be called. If you’re lucky and there’s no problem getting a good stick, then you’re out pretty quickly and the vials are sent to pathology for screening. Lucy was lucky. A good clean stick, first attempt. Out of there. On to the next.
Our next appointment was with the X-Ray lab. Very different from the blood lab. Located in a cavernous, below street-level wing of the hospital it took a while to get to. No toys here, and no windows. No fish tank.
We signed in and after a short wait we were guided to a wide and sparse, dimly lit x-ray room where different apparatus stood along walls or alone in the open. The lab technician squared us up to one of those near the center of the room and we began applying Lucy to this cantankerous looking machine while taking his cues. He said something to imply that if Lucy took a pacifier, this might be a good time to make sure one was handy.
Her infant body straddles something like a tiny saddle. Her arms go up above her head and both halves of a clear cylinder not more than eighteen inches wide close around her, encapsulating her elongated frame. Her little walnut belly balancing over her hips and wriggling, searching for equilibrium. The tube closes around her tiny chest, entire body, in a way that seems prohibitive to the act of breathing. For a finishing touch the technician secures the instrument shut with a pair of leather straps. Actual leather straps. Just when you were wondering to yourself whether or not this thing could come off any more medieval, the situation flatly answered Yes. Yes it could.
It wasn’t a long time that Lucy was inside the thing while the x-ray arms swung round her in a 180. But the sight of this was enough to make even the mildest claustrophobe feel kind of woozy. Your poor sick child, placed gently into that position and frozen, statuesque, as if a little molten cast of her were being forged there in some aspect of saintly martyrdom. A visage of the unseen Baby Jessica maybe, in her contorted repose, lodged deep in the well.
Minor anxiety attacks were being tamped down inside both Mother and Father and we freed Lucy hastily the second our technician said we were through. Missus returned her to her rightful place at her bosom, relieved, and we thanked the man went out, and on to our next appointment.
Our nurse led us back to the pre-op room, where it was her turn with us. She sat with us and explained the sequence of things that would precede the actual surgery. Where we would spend the pre-surgery hours waiting to meet with the surgeon, and where family would be welcomed also, on the day of. If we liked. And where Lucy would be taken from our arms, ultimately. This is when it is likely to get emotional, she said.
We chatted a while longer with the nice nurse and then took the opportunity to put away a light lunch of packed sandwiches and Sun Chips; grapes and apple slices. Not long later a nurse from Doctor Fox’s office came in and introduced herself; a dark-skinned woman with a bright, welcoming smile and a kind understated countenance.
She explained that it was her role to give us a picture of everything that happens after they come for Lucy. She was with us for the remainder of our time there, delineating the hour-by-hour benchmarks that dot the day. The updates that are phoned in to the waiting room by a member of the surgical team periodically, letting you know when they have the line, and successful placement of the chest tube. When they’re “in”. Where they are in the repair stages. When they’re closing up. She explained that when the surgery was over we would be shown to a room separate from the waiting room where we would wait to speak with the surgeon — receive his synopsis of the procedure.
The nurse was equipped with a gift bag from a support organization bearing trinkets handy for waiting room warriors, and a canvas tote bag from which she withdrew a model baby. It was decorated with an array of wires and tubes stuck-to or running off of, into or out of her skin and esophagus. To prepare us for how Lucy will look the last time we see her before the surgery, if there is time for that – or for the first time we’ll see her after. She says this can be traumatic for some parents, preparation or no.
That was it, really. She didn’t hurry through or drag this session out and we didn’t really have many questions by the end ofit — search one another’s faces though we tried. Another one of those times where it feels like you should ask astute, well-informed questions, but we had none. We felt like we were as prepared as we were going to get, or as much as we needed to be. We thanked our kind nurses and they wished us well and wished Lucy well, fawning over her benevolently, and we headed home. We left early enough to beat the afternoon traffic and were home earlier, much earlier, than we thought we would be.