13 July 2013

Surgical experience

"I'm sorry, I'm really sorry", I kept on repeating, tears filling up my eyes.

"You are not going to faint on us, are you?", jointly said two nurses as they stopped trying to insert a drip in a vein of my right hand.

I had been asked to be on an empty stomach since midnight. I couldn't forget that the last time I hadn't eaten any breakfast and had then stared at the bright light put into my eyes by the ophthalmologist, I had fainted – also known as a vasovagal syncope. Once they put my legs slightly upwards and an oxygen mask on my face, I managed to recover. But I was still shaking like a leaf as if feeling terribly cold. And the nurses still had to put me on a drip so the surgeon could then get started…

The chapel next to the hospital...

I never really stressed for that surgery that had been scheduled two months earlier – I had other things on my mind – except until that morning, waking up after a short night's sleep. The feedback I would give to the hospital was that I felt I didn't know what to expect at each intermediate step of my hospitalisation: I thought I'd just go to the hospital for a couple of hours and undergo surgery on a seat like the one at a dentist's, especially since I had opted for deep local anesthesia (in-between local and general anesthesia, hence the drip). That was not exactly how it went... and I didn't realise I'd feel so vulnerable, even though that was only a minor surgery, nothing (at all) compared to Aileen Apolo 's heart-surgery experience.

Within the hospital corridor

This feeling of vulnerability started that morning, as soon as I arrived at the hospital: I was asked to take a shower, receiving very specific instructions to use the iodine-loaded Betadine liquid "soap" and then dress in the infamously ugly patient dress (the one with which one's bottom is too easily exposed – yes, you can laugh!). For a brief moment I thought it was the nurse who was going to wash me – no, not the erotic way, but the sadistic way with a high-pressure water hose pointed at me... When I say I need to know in advance what's going to happen, you better understand why...

Thoroughly clean, I walked softly back to my room, swallowed the medicine supposed to make me feel relaxed and lied down on my bed. I would wait for about an hour. On purpose had I put away my phone – I'd have otherwise been tempted to answer work emails... Stress was mounting up. I stared outside the window: the wind was blowing on white clouds across the blue sky, the massive tree was lush with green Spring leaves. I tried to sleep. I needed to focus my attention: too many things in my head were making me feel sick, too many memories were loaded with a sad emotional twist to them. So I started to remember that memory of floating in the Zürich river, letting go and going with the flow of the current – but then I would remember that I had to be careful not to be hit by teenagers jumping off from buildings straight into the water. And that the water could be a bit cold as well. So I switched my focus to the warm and turquoise waters of Koh Lipe in Thailand.

Two muscly men showed up. It was time to go. I had not dozed off and didn't feel particularly relaxed. For the next twenty minutes, I would repeatedly state my name and date of birth to a dozen health professionals who were lugging me around various corridors, up and down, left and right, parking me as if I were a trolley. I avoided making eye contact with any of the couple of patients equally lying down on their rolling beds: I really didn't want to see anyone at that point. I avoided looking around, too scared to be horrified in imagining what various instruments and surgical tools could be used for. One male nurse started joking, asking if I had seen any Grey's Anatomy episode – I had not but was aware that it was a medical drama – because what would happen to me "would be worse"!

Within the hospital grounds

And then I was rolled into the operational theatre. A dozen people greeted me with their surgical masks on. A female nurse would from now on try to reassure me, although still using dry humour (I think they realised it was my style). The first attempt at inserting the drip felt as if a pen was forced hard up inside the vein of my hand. The nurses then explained that they were required to attempt a first drip as farther away from where the surgeon operates so they don't interfere. The second attempt up in my arm, after my almost blackout, proved successful. By that time, I had been offering a (pretty) nurse's hand... which I first clenched before caressing it :-).

The operation had started – I was asked to keep my head steady and slightly on the side – but I luckily didn't hear – or notice – any electrical razor-type sounds. I did miss seeing the pretty face of my female surgeon though. I started blabbing about work – I don't know how many trade secrets I revealed as I was by that time feeling more relaxed with whatever was going in my blood stream and in my lungs – and the warm air that was blown under the sheet up along my legs. I could still pay very much attention to what was going around me – and just like when I had my wisdom teeth removed (I was also a "warrior" then, going through local anesthesia), I found unbearable to hear the random discussions a couple of nurses were having in a corner of the room.

But I couldn't complain. I was very well treated in that public hospital and the scar is barely visible today. I would get a call the day following the operation asking for my feedback and my rating of the quality of the service: it was a nine out of ten for me, one point missing for the lack of detailed information on each sub-step of the hospitalisation. How could I anyway not be thankful for a functioning medical system. Fair enough, I had to pay the full price because I had opted to have the surgery in France, where I'm not insured, instead of Switzerland where my deductible was anyway too high to be reimbursed anything. Paying full price – a couple thousand dollars – actually confirmed what I always try to put into practice: everything is negotiable. It doesn't mean one will be successful in the negotiation, but it doesn't cost anything to ask. And so I did ask: the hospital cashier had no decision power so I wrote a brief letter to the director of the hospital. At the end of the day, I got a 10% discount, which surprised me because public hospitals have by definition public rates but it was clearly worth the five minutes it took to write a manuscript letter. What's more is that it gave me an even more positive note to the whole experience, even though I'm not keen to repeat it too soon. Too bad one doesn't really say "see you soon" to a surgeon, however pretty she is!