When I pushed through the glass door into the surgical waiting room, a wall of eyes turned and locked on me. My already high adrenaline levels kicked up another notch. The surgical waiting area seemed to be standing room only. There were neighbors and church members, Suzie’s friends from the church nursery and Sunday School classmates, all there to support Suzie.
It had been years since I’d stood on a stage and felt the weight of that much attention. I was used to the cocooned isolation of the studio and my reaction was unexpected. I wanted to run. The adrenaline rush on top of nurse’s station coffee had the predictable effect on my stomach. How much caffeine had I drunk?
I realized I should greet everyone and thank them for coming. But I’d never been good at working a room. That was Suzie’s gift. She smiled and was gracious. She listened to people with focused attention. She said the right things at the right time.
I missed her intensely and felt a wave of inadequacy at the same time. I needed her but my imagination flashed horrible pictures of where she was and what was happening.
I snapped myself out of it. Everyone was waiting for me to settle somewhere so they could express their support. The adrenaline demanded that I do something while limiting my choices. Fight or flight, Dennis? What’s it going to be?
“What time is it?” I asked. Larry looked confused and checked his watch.
“Ten ’til four.”
Wow, had it been that long? I had learned that my moods were tied directly to food the day a producer turned at the console to look at look at me and stopped the session.
“We need to get you something to eat,” she said. Was it so obvious to everyone but me so that other people needed to tell me when I was hungry? I must have the demeanor of a hungry bear.
“I think I need some food,” I said. “I had breakfast at 5:00 A.M.”
“You haven’t had lunch?” Larry asked. “Well, let’s get you something right now.”
A wave of concerned faces concurred.
“There’s a McDonald’s downstairs,” I said.
That’s all they needed. Larry, Dad, and Carl turned me around and escorted me out the door. The motion felt good. The tension ratcheted down.
Flight. Flight was definitely the answer.
The moment happened right before surgery began. The chaotic bustling slowed and people came to their places. Conversation stopped and a stillness settled.
More than anything else, the operating room looked like a very clean auto repair shop. There were multi-colored tubes and cables hanging from the white ceiling. The lower half of the wall was a darker gray. Metal rolling racks, head high, filled with drawers and stacked with tech loomed nearby. I.V. Poles were hung with bags of chemicals. Stainless steel cabinets with glass doors held surgical supplies.
Intense circular lights designed to eliminate shadows were supported from the ceiling by gleaming articulated arms. The breathing machine was a cluttered mass of cables and hoses.
The black padded operating table was tilted at the exact angle that would give Dr. Rosenthal the most ergonomic access to the patient’s left hemisphere. Monitors flashed and screens glowed. There was a bucket on wheels with a trash bag beneath the table.
Suzie’s head was shaved, her eyes were closed and her face covered by a clear plastic mask with hoses attached. She was shrouded in sterile drapes and warm blankets to fend off the bone-chilling cold. Even I.V. fluids and blood transfusions were heated to prevent patient hypothermia.
The frigid temperature was in part to slow the growth of bacteria, a life-threatening complication in the sterile environment. It also slowed bleeding. But there was a more practical concern. Stress, bright lights, and layers of surgical garb make body temperatures rise. The main problem it solved was to prevent doctors from sweating while they performed their delicate work.
Everyone stood quietly except the patient and the anesthesiologist who was seated on a stool near her head. The stillness reflected focus. This was the last chance they had to review the details. They double-checked to be sure they had the correct patient, equipment, procedure, and side. From the first cut, there would be no going back.
Classical music played in the background.
Dr. Rosenthal ran through the plan in his mind and looked at each person in the room for confirmation. The last ritual done, he took a deep breath and began.
We sat in a booth and I took full advantage of the menu. Never has stress eating tasted so good. The lack of food plus the novelty of a McDonald’s in the wrong place were a potent combination. I asked an occasional question between ravenous bites to pretend I was part of the conversation but mostly I listened.
They were three interesting men from three divergent areas of life and the interaction was instantaneous. After being so isolated for two days, I craved mental stimulation as much as I wanted the food. The loneliness of hospitals is of a different kind.
Time still seemed to fragment as I remembered what Suzie was enduring in flashes during the conversation. I felt guilty for enjoying myself but I reminded myself that I needed to take care of me in order to take care of her.
It wasn’t long before I was done.
“Well, I have to get back to take Rebekah to her performance,” Dad said.
“Of course. It was a great surprise to see you here”
“I need to go, too,” Carl agreed. “I have to . . .”
“I know,” I interrupted. “You have a million things to do and I really appreciate you coming more than I can say.”
“I guess I should go and get ready for church tomorrow,” Larry said.
“I’ve never met a pastor who had any spare time, Larry. Thank you all so much for coming.”
The meal and the company had transformed my mood and given me the energy I needed. I could handle the wait and the crowd upstairs without embarrassing myself too badly. I walked up the stairs and pushed open the door.
The surgical waiting room was empty.
The scalp was folded back and the skull piece removed. Dr. Rosenthal could finally see the problem clearly. The tumor was much larger than he’d expected. It was folded into every wrinkle of the brain’s surface and growing deep into the speech center.
He would not be able to get it all without destroying significant brain function.
There are places in the brain where surgery is more easily tolerated. But he was dealing with areas of the brain where a touch could change a person permanently. Once you lost brain function in this way, it didn’t come back.
This was going to take some time. He settled in for the long haul.