My Year Away. And Back.

The Joys of Getting Back into Academic Life after a Year-Long Sabbatical.


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A Tool Kit for Surviving Surgery—and learning a whole lot in the process

I’m alive!  But, Yowzers.  That was one painful surgical experience. As I wrote about recently, I had surgery on February 2 to make my Achalasia manageable.  I am early into the recovery process, but on my way.  As I move on to the next step toward recovery, I thought it might be helpful to present this nifty guide for anyone who is facing a hospital visit.  While you might not be able to use all these tools, I hope there is at least something you’ll find helpful.

  1. If you are having laparoscopic surgery to your abdomen area and the pre-surgical directions tell you to “wear loose clothing,” take this seriously.  I thought “loose clothing” meant I should wear something that I could change out of easily.    You have to wear loose clothing because you are most likely going to pumped up with gas and will resemble the Michelin Tire Man.  As I mentioned in my previous post on my condition, a benefit to having Achalasia (albeit a painful one) is that you’ll most likely lose weight.  So if you need to shed a few pounds, at least this is one good thing that happens.  By the time I headed to the hospital, everything I owned was loose. Even my underwear.  When I left the hospital about 32 hours later, I could barely fit into my underwear, let alone the loose pants I had worn in.  This “pumping up” phenomena is fascinating (especially if you are observing from afar) but painful.  I was pumped up with CO2 so the surgeon could move my organs around easily.  You know, I was all about climate change and the evils of too much carbon dioxide in the air before my surgery.  I’m even more committed to ridding the world of excess gas now.  But, I need to concentrate on keeping it local and trying to get rid of my own personal greenhouse gas emissions.
  2. Don’t panic when you meet your first nurse. There are a whole lot of people who will be taking care of you.  Everyone has a role and they know what they’re doing.  It’s a good thing, too, because my first nurse was, uh, well, not quite feeble, but heading in that direction. I found myself wanting to hear her perspective on WWII.  I’m thinking to myself, “Okay, there is no way I can let this sweet and lovely woman put a needle into my hand.”  Before I had to figure out a plan, an athletic, energetic, and completely confident woman (with steady hands, no less) bounded into the room to get me ready.  Deep breaths.
  3. Try to pay attention while you’re in the recovery area. It’s fascinating what you might observe.  I was there for several hours before I got moved to my room, so I was able to observe quite a bit (of course, this was all through an anesthetic fog).  One of the most interesting events was watching the patient in the next bay hitting on the recovery nurse who was taking care of both of us.  Hitting on a woman anytime is just downright inappropriate, but doing it after you’ve had surgery, while your target has your health in her hands is just plain stupid.  How she rose above all that and gave him fantastic care is a testament to the professionalism of nurses everywhere!
  4. Make sure you do your homework about your surgery so you can speak with knowledge and authority during your recovery. The surgeon ordered shots of heparin to help prevent blood clots.  The first shot came several hours after surgery.  The nurse said something along the lines of “Okay to put this in your belly?”  Now, think about this.  I had incisions all over my torso.  I considered all sorts of wisecracks each time a nurse came in to give this shot.  “Seriously.  Take a look.  What do you think?” was effective, but a little snarkier than I wanted.  I finally settled on “No thanks.  I’ll take the shot in my thigh.  You’ll find lots of unused space there.” Worked like a charm.
  5. When you’re home and in the thick of your recovery, do not, under any circumstances, watch The Money Pit. Especially if you haven’t seen it since it originally came out in 1986. And, I especially mean this if you and your spouse do home renovation projects.  There is a scene when Tom Hanks starts to fall off some scaffolding creating a domino effect that made me laugh so hard I had to think about taking an extra dose of hydrocodone.  I don’t care what anyone says, this was not worth it.  I’d recommend a movie that you’ve seen multiple times so you can prepare yourself to get through the funny parts without splitting your sides laughing.  Guffawing is to be avoided at all costs after having surgery that impacts your core muscles.  I think Office Space might work, but only if you’ve seen it at least three times and can stay in control when Amir smashes the printer.
  6. If you’re getting pumped with CO2 gas, make sure you ask your surgeon all sorts of questions so he understands that you understand what’s going on. Be intelligent and he’ll give you all the specifics.  This was especially helpful for me; otherwise, I may have totally freaked out after taking a sip of soup and feeling debilitating pain in my shoulders.  Say what? Turns out, this is called “referred pain.”  What happens is that the gas allows the surgeon to move the organs around, but all sorts of nerves get bumped around a bit in the process.  Your whole body is now confused (and rightly so, I might add).  Everything hurts—including your nerves, which send out messages like “Help me!”  The group of particular nerves near where a lot of my surgery took place have a direct path to the shoulders.  Understanding why I hurt helps.  Not with the pain, unfortunately, but at least to know I don’t have to panic.  The pain in my face cheeks is a little harder to explain, but who cares?  I find that I have a limited amount of areas that I am able to process as “Yikes, that hurts like crazy.”  For now, the cheeks are going to just have to take a back seat.
  7. Remember why you’re having the procedure in the first place. I have a fairly high pain tolerance, but I hurt all over.  I mean ALL OVER.  I’ve shed a few tears over the pain (listening to sad music at the same time is probably sub-optimal, but, honestly, it hurts too much to change the channel), and I’ve had a couple of whiny moments where I have lamented the six-week recovery.  I thought I might be able to eat like a normal person sooner than that.  Turns out, it will be awhile.  Right now, I’m on an even more restrictive diet than I was before the surgery.  My husband has had to strain my beloved tomato soup because it’s not smooth enough for me right now.  But in the middle of all this self-pity, he asked me how I was swallowing.  Wait a minute!  I realized that while I’m only eating a bit of tomato soup at a time, it is travelling directly from my esophagus to my stomach. The surgery worked.  It’s a miracle.  My surgeon is a genius. My husband is a saint.  My colleagues and graduate students are concerned and supportive. My rowing friends and church friends are praying for me or sending good thoughts my way. My new blogging buddies are reading this post.

And, I’ve learned a lot. For an academic, that counts.  That counts a bunch. In the meantime, I’m watching the Food Network and dreaming (okay, maybe hallucinating) about all kinds of food. So that’s how Bobby Flay roasts tomatillos. Sunchokes? Interesting. Ancho chili pepper in chocolate frosting?  Why not? Gruyere in French toast? I’m ready!