5 Things I Learned From Having Sugery


I recently broke my nose playing basketball, but that’s not what happened.  I didn’t break my nose – someone going for a rebound hit me in the face, and he broke my nose.  Anyway, I broke my nose.  The emergency room doctor sent me to my regular doctor who referred me to an ear nose and throat guy who forwarded me to a plastic surgeon, who determined that I needed surgery.  It was a clean break, so the doctor didn’t have to cut anything open – just knock me out and pop my nose back into place.  As surgery goes, that’s about as lightweight as it gets, so this isn’t going to be an “Orange is the New Black” kind of memoir about the ins and outs of surgery and the medical system.  That being said, here are the five lessons I learned from having surgery.

1. Everything is Jewish

When I was growing up, if I wanted to do something my father considered risky, he would say, “That would be like a getting a non-Jewish doctor – you might be okay, but you’re not playing the odds.”  I don’t think he had a lot of math to back that up, but he said it all the time.

So, I couldn’t help feeling a bit uneasy when I arrived for surgery at a hospital called The Little Company of Mary.  There were crosses everywhere – they were really flaunting the non-Jewishness of it.  I felt a little out of place.

But then, in the elevator, there was a cross with Mary on it. Her eyes were bugged and her arms were raised to the sides.  She looked super pissed.  It occurred to me that Mary was a Jewish woman, probably not that different from my mom.  I looked at her on that cross and I knew what she was thinking:

“If I told that boy once I told him a HUNDRED TIMES: ‘Stop preaching that michigas about helping the poor or you’ll get yourself KILLED!’  Oyyyy, vey is mir!  You know whose fault this is, don’t you?  His FATHER’S!”

And then I felt better.

2. Hospital Selfies are the Best Selfies

I’m not big on selfies, but I have a couple from my surgery that I think are kind of fun.

First, here’s me on the night I broke my nose:

OMG! Totes #siked to be in the #EmergencyRoom with my @wife waiting to get X-rayed :-)) !!!

 See? Isn’t this more fun than yet another photo of three girls at some club making the Blue Steel face?

Here’s another that really captures a bonus lesson I learned from having surgery, which is that I need more bows in my wardrobe:

Cute, right?

But this is my favorite:

Me in my bed, waiting to go into surgery.  This is my surgical riff on the foot selfie, as in the “look at my feet while I’m lying on the beach” selfie.  That’s a boring selfie.  Are your legs tan?  Did you just get a really cute peddie?  That’s nice.  “This beach makes me think about just, like, being happy, you know?”  Sure.

MY foot selfie is about being alone in a crowd, lying in the bed in which my life could possibly (probably not, but possibly) end.  Covered in a white sheet, watching the world go on without me.  My foot selfie is about death.  Now THAT’S a selfie.

And while lying in that bed, I made my next discovery:

3. The Hospital is an Airport

My surgery was scheduled for 1:30.  I was nervous.  I’d never had surgery.  In fairness, this barely counted as surgery.  It’s hard to say you’re going “under the knife” when the doctor expects to not cut anything open.  But still – hospital, gown, I.V., anesthesia: surgery.

I lay in bed alternating between an essay about Hamlet and Bill Murray in “Scrooged” on TV.

Patients rolled into the waiting room, then into surgery.  Relatives shuffled around, leaning on each other.  Nurses rotated shifts.  Nobody noticed me.

I watched the time: 12:30, 12:45, 1:00.  I took a deep breath. Let’s do this.

Nobody came.

I tried to get a nurse’s attention, sheepishly hoping to make eye contact without bothering anyone.  I mean, it’s not a restaurant, right?  I couldn’t yell “Garcon!” and demand my surgery.  Plus I had an I.V. in my arm.  So what do you do?  I read my book and watched Bill Murray argue with the ghost of Christmas past.

By this point, I had already been at the hospital for three hours, and had gone through:

1. a check-in process;

2. a second check-in process;

3. a security process where I surrendered my clothing in exchange for surgical undies and a gown, and;

4. two nervous hours lying in the waiting room.

(All basically the same as the airport, but it hadn’t clicked, yet.)

There seemed to be nothing left to do except go get surgeried.  So why was I still waiting?

Finally, a nurse wandered over to drop off some cables for the heart monitor I would use while on anesthesia.  She looked at my chart – I was supposed to be in surgery already.

“Let me see if I can find out what’s going on.”

She left and came back wincing.

“Uhh, well, your doctor’s previous procedure is running long, so he won’t be done for” – big wince – “two hours. I’m really sorry for the delay.  We’ll try to get you on your way as soon as possible.”

And that’s when I got it: the hospital is an airport.

I looked around at all the people coming and going – the staff and the patients and the relatives, all the little bubbles in the big soda bottle, trying to be civil, trying to maintain a little humanity and individuality in the big system, just trying to get through the day and get home safe.  Same as the airport.

So, I had a two hour delay.  Happens all the time.  I had my book, I had Bill Murray, I had an all-you-can-drink saline drip.  I was good.

Two hours later, the doctor showed up.  He’d been assisting to transplant a woman’s lymph node from her torso to her thigh, which involved stitching a blood vessel that was three millimeters wide!  By hand – no robots!  Apparently it went very well.  That’s a better reason for a two hour delay than “heavy rain over Milwaukee,” right?

I should say that one important difference between the hospital and the airport is that at the hospital, your trip is much more pleasant, which brings me to my next point:

4. Anesthesia > Life

As the anesthesiologist wheeled my bed into the operating room with the nurse and the doctor, I noticed a set of speakers with an iPod dock.  I asked what they planned to listen to, and the nurse mentioned that the hospital’s resident heart surgeon listens to Abba while he performs open heart surgery.  I told her I was extra-glad not to be getting open heart surgery.

They started the anesthesia and asked me to count backward from 100.  I told them I wanted to count fast.  I made it to 78.

Then I was on my bed, rolling into the recovery room.  “Hey, there he is,” said the nurse.  I tried to sit up.  She pushed me back down.

I needed to get back to my gang.

I was a member of a horseback gang in the Old West.  The leader was a woman.  I assume she was the leader because she was riding in front and I was riding behind her.  We were going somewhere in a hurry.

The gang was real.  This woozy hospital situation was not.  I wasn’t supposed to be in a windowless hallway, rolling on a hospital bed; I was supposed to be in the sun, riding a horse.  I was supposed to be . . . on anesthesia and dreaming.  Dammit.

The nurse parked me in the recovery room and left.  The woman next to me was recovering from an appendectomy.  “How do you feel?” a nurse asked her.

“Bad, not good, really bad,” she said.

A frazzled recovery room nurse passed me a cup of ice chips.  “This is ridiculous,” she told a colleague, “I’m supposed to be on break right now.”

An elderly man across from me sat propped in his bed.  He glanced at me.  I raised my cup of ice chips and nodded at him.  He immediately grimaced and looked away.  He thought I was hitting on him.

Nice to be back, I guess.

My brain rebooted and attacked me with everything I’d been doing before surgery: “Nietzsche says Hamlet resembles the Dionysian man and Bill Murray needs to learn the true meaning of Christmas!”  (Another bonus lesson: don’t read or watch anything too weird before surgery.)

I was disappointed that I had lacked the leadership skills to run my own horseback gang, especially one that existed at the bottom of my own brain.  But pursuing a sun-bathed female figure on horseback was probably a metaphor.  Most brain things are metaphors.

I chewed my ice chips and waited for the double vision and nausea to pass.  I was alive.  In the hospital, you can’t ask for more than that.

5. Take the blanket

The nurse brought a wheelchair to roll me out of the recovery room and spit me back into the real world.  I didn’t need a wheelchair and I didn’t want one.  It’s humiliating.  I didn’t want to be a burden.  My grandmother is like that – she doesn’t want to be a burden.  We tell her she’s not a burden but she doesn’t believe us.  She’s 100 and still lives alone.  She hates wheelchairs.

But I didn’t argue.  I took the wheelchair.  I know they make you use it – I’ve seen TV.  Plus, with pain meds piled on top of the lingering anesthesia, I felt about 75 years old.

The nurse rolled me next to the door and left me for a moment.  An old, bald white man who looked like Eisenhower lay in a bed nearby, dry heaving: uhhh-lah, uhh-lah, uhhhhhh.  A much younger Asian woman, presumably his wife, sat by his side, patting his hand and cooing at him while he continued: Uhh-lah, LAHHH.

My sister in-law, who had come to drive me home, couldn’t hack it.  “I can’t, I’m not, I’m, I’ll be outside.”  She cast a backward glance at me as she doubled over and hustled to the door.  I nodded – I was fine.  I didn’t mind watching Ike dry heave.  I’m comfortable with death as a thing that will inevitably happen to other people.

Plus, how often do you get to see Ike Eisenhower dry heave?  “Hey, Ike – you know the military-industrial complex owns the whole country now, right?”  UHHHHH-LAH! LAHHHH!

His wife watched him, totally calm – not disgusted, not upset, just empathizing, toughing it out with him.  He didn’t seem to mind being a burden.  And she didn’t seem to mind helping.

My nurse returned with a blanket.  “Would you like a blanket?”

The wheelchair was one thing, but the blanket was too much.   Unless she was wheeling me to play canasta with Bessie Rosenbaum in the nursing home activity room, I did not need a blanket.

“No, thanks,” I said.

“Are you sure?” she said.  “It’s chilly out.  You’ll be more comfortable.  Just take it.”

I gave in and took the blanket: if the old man in bed was Eisenhower, then I would be FDR.  I draped the blanket across my lap, used a tongue depressor as a long cigarette holder, slapped a grin on my face and looked at the nurse.  I don’t think she got the reference.

Outside was not only chilly, it was cold.  The nurse waited with me while my sister in-law hunted for the car in the parking lot.  I would have been freezing, but I had my blanket.  I pulled it over my shoulders and cheerfully huddled under it like a grandmother.  “Ooh, it’s nipply out!” I said.

“I told you,” said the nurse.  “Aren’t you glad you have that blanket?”

“Yes I am!” I said.

Lesson: if someone offers you a blanket, take the blanket.  You’re not being a burden.  Life is hard enough.  Just take the blanket.

So, that’s my surgery story.  I went home and rented “Scrooged” — Bill Murray did eventually learn the true meaning of Christmas, in an 80’s kind of way.  And my nose is still on my face.  Apparently, when the doctor reset it, there was an audible POP.  But maybe someday I’ll rupture my spleen or get a really bad gallstone and have another surgery, so I can go see my gang.  They seemed like a nice bunch.