COLLATERAL DAMAGE

It has been said that “surgery is minor so long as it happens to someone else.” But if that “someone else” is your spouse, on the major-minor continuum, even if the physical slicing of flesh is happening to a different individual, it’s major. Believe me.
This past week saw my wife, Katie, operated on for repair of her rotator cuff. Because her pain level was manageable when she initially visited the orthopedist last month, she expected he would detect a minor irritation in need of treatment, followed by a week of physical therapy. She was shocked when an MRI revealed a major tear. Apparently, years of tennis had separated three crucial ligaments from the bone. Without repair, explained the doctor to our astonishment, her arm would be ruined. He was so convincing I didn’t express my habitual suspicion that he simply desired a new Lexus.
One month later, when we finally arrived for surgery at the ACC (Ambulatory Care Center, though everyone at UNC thinks of the Atlantic Coast Conference) the receptionist said: “We don’t have you on the list. Are you sure you’re scheduled for today?”
Since Katie had had innumerable confirmations from the surgeon’s office, the question barely merited a quickening of our heartbeats. After a few minutes of panic by the receptionist and her assistants, (the ACC is fully staffed, to say the least) the appointment was confirmed, and we proceeded to “intake.” There, an assortment of doctors, interns, nurses, anesthesiologists, ombudsmen, and their respective assistants and adjuncts, proceeded to introduce themselves while we sat dazed.
“They may kill you with kindness,” I whispered.
“Shhhh,” said Katie.
After fifteen minutes of meet-and-greet, I was ushered to the waiting area while the surgery took place. I returned to the recovery unit three hours later to find an understandably bedraggled and bedrugged wife, babbling cheerfully thanks to pharmaceutically-induced relief. It would be twenty-four hours before she had sensation in her left arm. By the time of discharge, the next morning, major doses of Tylenol and oxycodone, accompanied by a “pain ball” filled with narcotics, were keeping the pain in check.
“This is going so well,” said Katie, in a rare moment of naiveté.
“Wait’ll that pain ball is empty in two days,” I said, in a customary moment of doom-and-gloom.
Unfortunately, I would prove correct in that regard. Still, the recovery was going well, and we were sent home. Upon arrival, Katie took control of the living room like Russia took control of Crimea. Her domination became absolute from the staging area of the lounge chair. An ice machine squealed 24-7 while she sat/laid/lounged (not in the fun way) the days away. A huge sling, like a medieval contraption of war, immobilized her left side. Somewhere, beneath its straps, pads and levers, was her newly excavated shoulder, healing.
There was a surge of pain on the third day when the “ball” was empty, but the next two days showed marked progress. Now, the oxycodone has been almost eliminated from the routine and Tylenol is lessening. The stronger, morphine-like back-ups were unnecessary. After visiting the doctor yesterday, to celebrate the progress, we treated ourselves to a quick biscuit breakfast at Hardees.
More disposed by temperament to Nurse Ratched than to Florence Nightengale, I am doing my best to provide water, food, fresh ice, blankets, encouragement, foot-rubs, reading materials, television and music. So far, my efforts have proved satisfactory, if I say so myself. But it’s only been five days; the sling is on for five weeks, so “mission accomplished” cannot yet be declared.
One of the nicest aspects of this experience has been the kindness of our neighbors. They have provided an abundance of meals, snacks, flowers and visits. I’ve had to manage traffic at the front door.
“Perhaps, we should periodically fake a surgery,” I suggested, “just to find out who really loves us.”
Needless to say, Katie did not indulge me with a response. She has been admirably stoic throughout this experience. While I would be wallowing in self-pity in her position, her complaints have been largely confined to imbecilic responses received from service providers, like the resident who, when asked about colace-resistant constipation, suggested a name-brand product that drew a belly-laugh from the pharmacist, since it consisted of the exact ingredients as colace. In the same vein, three nurses at the ACC warned Katie of likely reactions from doses of the pain-killer neurontin, though Katie’s records indicated in block letters she is allergic to it. Each time, Katie patiently, but incredulously, directed them to the drug-allergies section on the chart.
Surgery has allowed us to ponder the likely-related subject of aging. Is this a one-time event for this decade, as were my back and knee surgeries in my thirties and forties, respectively, or is this a harbinger of frequent procedures as we travel the back-nine of life? I sure hope it’s the former because, while we enjoy spending time together, this is NOT the way to do it.

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