Coming and going outside the OR

There’s an unspoken camaraderie that forms in a room where no one wants to be.

My son underwent minor surgery this week. It was planned, scheduled months ago — a procedure to correct something we learned about at birth. Padding down the NICU wing just days after he was born, a nurse pulled us aside to tell us there was an “issue.” Had we been told about it yet?

(Excuse the vagueness about the condition itself, but I want to be sensitive to my son’s personal story . . . it’s his, not mine.)

But the issue was not life-threatening; it could be corrected. Nothing that should affect him in the long term. We took comfort in that.

On Wednesday, we woke at 3:30 a.m. to get into the city by 6 a.m. for his appointment: the first of the day. Spence and I were fortunate to have my father — a well-versed D.C. driver — take us to the large facility. He sat with us all day, fielding questions from our family, as my mother- and father-in-law waited at home with dinner already made.

I’d been dreading this moment since that first mention in the NICU: having to return to a hospital; watching Ollie go into an operating room; seeing him in pain. I had nightmares for weeks leading up to Wednesday, fear upon fear building like tortuous blocks in my mind.

Anesthesia. Recovery. Complications.

I willed myself to be calm: to get into a state of peace. Sometimes I felt angry again, wondering why our 10-month-old had to go through this — any of this — and, as usual, why we couldn’t be “normal” with a “normal” experience.

Whatever that is.

As we sat in the waiting room, the families of 30 other patients filled in around us. We carried coffee and smartphones. Most wore matching looks of fear and exhaustion, springing to life as soon as Smith or Blair or Thompson were called to the front desk.

It was like an airport waiting lounge, all of us unsure if we were coming or going. Parents studied a digital screen with the status of each OR. Patient in, 7:32 a.m.

They kept us all informed. The place was loud — noisy, even — as relatives chatted nervously in small circles. Some napped, heads back or resting on shoulders; others tapped at phones, zoning out on Facebook. The desk phone rang constantly: nurses with updates. Name after name, family after family.

We were an anxious crew. Older parents, younger parents, grandparents, siblings. Parents with children in wheelchairs; others with babies on a hip. Some with children too weak to stand. Others who — “Ella, please!” — just would not sit still.

We were all there because, at some point, the same words had echoed in a sterile room: “He will have to have surgery. She needs to have surgery.”

And I thought of our collective faces, a range of colors and expressions; wide eyes, closed eyes, eyes leaking fat but silent tears. We were wan and dull that morning. The nervousness beat like a pulse.

I willed my heart to stop pounding. My mind to be clear. The panic to dull. When it was time to speak to his surgeon, to shake hands with the anesthesiologist and ER nurse and recovery nurse — an endless stream of faces I studied, people intimately tied to protecting my child — I wanted to beg them to be thorough. Focused. Caring.

But I didn’t need to. It was obvious from each handshake, every soothing assurance, that they would be.

It took four hours. We read in the waiting room, tapping our feet; we walked to the quiet cafeteria, chewing lifeless salads. They called for us at the front desk with updates, and each ring made my mouth go dry.

“It can’t be bad news,” I tittered nervously to a woman on my right. She was well-dressed and serious, waiting alone for news on her daughter. “They wouldn’t call with bad news. That would be awful. They would come out.”

She nodded, clutching a magazine in her lap. “That’s true. Yes,” she said solemnly. “You’re right. That’s very sensible.”

See? I can still be sensible, I thought. Even when I’m scared out of my mind.

The waiting board clicked with updates: OR in. PACU. Patient discharged.

Finally, mercifully, it was our turn.

Surgery complete.

Heading home.


Oliver has done so well — maybe better than his parents. He’s recovering beautifully and was back to his smiling self within a day. (The pain meds might have helped.) The surgery was successful, and we are so thankful he’s too young to remember a thing. After one rough evening when he first came home, he’s back to sleeping well and enjoying endless episodes of “The Muppets.” And I don’t complain.

I thought of myself last April: rattled to my core, shaky and hurting, terrified at the responsibility of caring for this tiny child. Worried about our future. Afraid of doing something — everything? — wrong. Nervous to even press a finger into his tiny, delicate palm.

But I am not who I was 10 months ago.

I am not even close to who I was 10 months ago.

I scrounged up all the patience and strength I possessed on Wednesday. I stood at my son’s bedside, leaning on my husband as we listened with the dedication of med students to Ollie’s team. Hanging on every word.

We asked questions. We took notes. We rubbed our son’s head, running delicate fingers through the dark curls that have suddenly sprung above his ears.

Sometimes I had to sit down — to gather myself, to breathe . . . but that’s okay.

I took Oliver’s hand and I held it.

And I stood up.

13 thoughts on “Coming and going outside the OR

  1. I glad all is well with you and your family. Oliver looks so peaceful. It is always difficult to have your baby undergo surgery. The vagueness is understandable.


  2. Mothers are strong. The strength isn’t fearlessness, it is a need, and we give it, use it. Cultivate it in the strangest of ways. But that is what mother’s DO. I’m glad everything went well.


  3. Thank you for sharing this. Your strength emanates from your words. I cannot relate completely to the surgery but I know how hard & heavy feeling it is for us Mothers to see our child in pain. Sometimes I wished if I could take whatever she’s having. Sending warm prayers for your Little one. Stay still, everything will be alright.
    That photo is so charming though!


  4. Sending plenty of strength and will your way. I am glad the surgery went well. That yearning for normalcy (whatever that is, like you said) – I hope you get it. Ollie is thriving! And much of it is because of the love his parents shower on him.


  5. Surgery is always a stressful thing, but especially so when it’s your child. We’ve been through several such instances with our kids and it’s never easy. Glad to hear all seems to have gone well. Hope Oliver is doing better and making a full recovery.


  6. Way to go…are my exact cheers as well! You’re a strong mama and you made it! God trusts you with his son…way to go! Praying for Ollie’s speedy recovery and for many non-medicated smiles to surface! Thanks for sharing difficult stuff.


  7. Wow. You nailed it. My oldest spent 3 weeks in the NICU after birth because of a congenital heart defect that required open-heart surgery. 18 months later we went in for what would be the first of three minor procedures for a different issue that was also discovered after he was born. When they told me about it, I was still in shock over the need for heart surgery and all I said was, “Does it matter right at this moment?”. It didn’t and we finally worried about it later. We sat with him before they took him for surgery and watched him get drowsy from the medication. And I will never forget watching his sweet surgeon walk away from me, carrying him into the OR. I still remember sitting in the waiting room, surrounded by strangers with whom I had this strange bond: all of us waiting, wondering and worrying. And you get through it simply because you have to. You’re an amazing mom! It makes you so grateful for advanced medical care and compassionate doctors and nurses, doesn’t it? So glad he’s doing well. He’s just beautiful!


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