Kathleen had stage 3b rectal cancer. Treatment involved 28 days of chemo-radiation, nine hours of surgery including a colostomy and perineal reconstruction, and six rounds of chemo with the consolation prize of minimal hair loss and the gift of neuropathy that keeps on giving. She is a retired attorney and forever aspiring writer with unfinished pieces stashed in Scrivener including a memoir and a novel. She said she has been married forever to the most patient man on earth. Her son is a newly minted lawyer and was in the middle of law school when she was diagnosed. Her family took up pandemic gardening that she said produced an alarming surplus of cucumbers and eggplant which led to an oversupply of pickles and ratatouille.
I’m sitting in the surgery waiting room at 6 a.m. Two hours to go. I swallow a dose of ibuprofen, Tylenol, and gabapentin to blunt pain and an antibiotic and anti-fungal to avoid infection. I chug a bottle of blue Gatorade to sustain me through long hours of surgery. Doctors’ orders, but it doesn’t seem right. You’re told not to have anything to eat or drink before even the simplest procedure. It’s the weirdest day of my life, so what the hell. Let’s break some rules.
A nurse ushers us to a curtained pre-op cubicle. Minutes later, hospital gowned and lounging on my gurney, I’m ready to hold court. Nurses, surgeons, and residents stream in and out. The anesthesiologist explains that there will be a team taking care of me during the nine-hour surgery. Good. I don't want anybody nodding off.
I have two surgeons, Mike for the cancer and Sue for the reconstruction. I figure that Mike makes the mess, and Sue cleans up after him.
During my first visit with Mike, he does a digital rectal exam. One end of his examining table has a well-padded place to kneel. It makes bending over and presenting ass almost pleasant. With my face pressed into the cushy top of the table, I’m relieved when the exam doesn’t hurt. Later I notice his fingers are long and thin.
He tells me he’s the captain of the team. I’m glad somebody’s in charge because I’m in a daze a week after diagnosis, showing up for scans and doctors’ appointments and feeling there’s no escape.
When I see my medical oncologist the first time, I mention Mike's fingers. She looks up from making notes and says, "You know, the other colorectal surgeons do, too." A giggly discussion of self-selection and medical specialty follows.
At one of my pre-op visits with Sue, my abdomen is photographed from every angle. I feel awkward standing there naked while the nurse takes photos. My abdomen has never been my best feature and sucking in my gut isn’t allowed.
Sue will transplant abdominal skin to my backside to close the wound when Mike removes my rectum and sigmoid colon. He’ll also create a permanent colostomy on my abdomen. To fill the void Mike creates, Sue will transfer tissue internally. I will no longer have an asshole, so I insist I can no longer be an asshole.
Mike is 6’4”. Sue admits to 5' 2". I ask her how she and Mike operate together. She says, "I make him do surgery on his knees." I know the operating table goes up and down, but I love the image.
Mike arrives at pre-op smiling and upbeat. His flock of residents and medical students clog the hallway. When he disappears from the doorway, Sue and her crew take their place.
“Wait! Tell Mike to come back,” I shout.
When he arrives I say, “Stand where I can see you both.”
Finally, the sight gag I had been longing for. Her head does not reach his shoulder. I’m delighted.
It’s time. Five months since diagnosis. Sixty days after chemoradiation. A nurse rolls my gurney through the complex maze of operating rooms while overwhelming emotions surge through me. We enter a huge operating room. She introduces me to three nurses who are sorting instruments. I glance at the operating table. Then lights out.
Surgery on both sides of my body means I have to be turned over a couple times. I picture a spinning table but wonder who flips me back and forth. There is plenty of muscle power in the room. In nine hours I figure a couple dozen people trail in and out, nurses, anesthesiologists, techs, residents, and a few medical students.
In post-anesthesia, as I come back to myself I struggle to open my eyes, convinced I have webbing holding them closed. I have tunnel vision and think I’m in a long dark room. I can see silhouettes walking back and forth beyond the foot of my bed. I extend an arm straight up and wave calling, “Yoooo hoooo!” several times. A nurse appears at my side.
“I can always tell who’s a happy drunk by the way they come out of anesthesia,” he says.
I’m sober for years but still silly under the influence.
The next thing I remember I’m gliding through hospital corridors, laughing and entertaining my gurney driver. I am Cleopatra floating down the Nile greeting my subjects with loud "hellooooos" bursting with anesthesia fueled good cheer. My husband and son are waiting in my room and hear me coming. They’re smiling when I arrive and tell me later they knew I would be okay when they heard the laughter.