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.


Ollie


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.


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Devil Tooth is out to defeat me, but I’ll win with soup and milkshakes

Have I ever told you guys about my Devil Tooth?

(If you’re squeamish about dental stories, please read no further.)

It’s a tale of woe spanning almost a decade. When I was 17, fresh from a trip to the International Theatre Festival in Lincoln, Neb., I noticed an ache on a tooth I’d had filled. A quick jaunt to the dentist was sobering: I had to have a root canal on my very back tooth, up high on the left side of my mouth.

The root canal itself was pretty disturbing. In addition to getting the awesome shot in the roof of your mouth that accompanies having to be numbed for the procedure, I was still feeling things even when I shouldn’t. I cried and cried, tears creating sideways rivers down my face. Then I started to hyperventilate. Though the surgeons let me listen to the soundtrack for “Blood Brothers,” a play I was obsessed with after seeing it at the festival, even the melodic voices of the British actors couldn’t drown out my anguish.

So, you know. Then that was over. My tooth went back to doing whatever it is that it does — disintegrating and making my life hellish, apparently. Because we fast-forward six years later to me, sitting before my ridiculously good-looking dentist, Dr. Bob, as he tells me in his lovely voice that I’m going to have to get a gold crown on that baby.

I’ve talked about my crown before. It’s in the back of my mouth, sure, so no one can see it, but I know it’s there — and that makes me feel like Flavor Flav. After going through the uncomfortable crowning procedure, my coworkers took to calling me “Miss Rap Supreme.” And they even got me a nameplate for my desk.

I wish I could tell you that the story ends there — I got my crown and lived to eat corn on the cob, saltwater taffy and caramel popcorn once more. No food was too sticky for my liking; no candy too hard for me to chomp on.

But, of course, that’s not what happened. Continue reading