When I pushed open the oversized door to Suzie’s room it was dark and empty. The rain and fog outside the windows set a mood but added little light. Flipping a switch revealed an expansive room of muted pastels that looked more like a luxury resort than a hospital. It was designed to hold two beds but, for the moment, it was a private room for one patient.
I dropped her bag in the double-wide closet. There was a round breakfast-sized table and chair in the corner with a swag lamp on a chain. I turned on every light I could find and settled in to make phone calls. Compared to the crowded Donelson hospital and the tiny Same Day Surgery room, the overall effect was both elegant and lonely.
After Dr. Burn’s report, Larry and Richard had left to take care of more pressing matters. Their absence was as obvious as their presence had been. We were on our own.
I settled in to wait. I prayed. I rattled around the room. I prayed some more.
Down the hallway, the murmur of footsteps and voices finally changed character. A nurse was asking questions a little too loudly, analyzing an inaudible response. The door swung open in a flurry of activity.
I first saw her eyes, which looked dazed, then her face. Her forehead was wrinkled the way it does when she’s confused. Then I couldn’t prevent my eyes from going to her chest. It was wrapped in so many layers of gauze and ace bandage that it almost looked as if she’d not had surgery.
Two nurses wheeled her in but since Suzie is six feet tall they enlisted my help to move her to the bed. One, two, three. A painful moan and she was in.
There was a lot of plumbing to arrange. The I.V. had grown into a snake sometime during surgery. There was another small plastic bag of medicine hanging from the pole as well as several connections and valves to snag on things. There were also two quarter-inch sized tubes coming out through the bandages and under her arms. They were clear plastic which showed a mixture of blood and a yellowish fluid draining into two bags that they pinned to her gown.
I tried to stay close and yet out of the way of the bustling nurses. They soon had her tucked in neatly with a lot of extra blankets.
“These are heated blankets, Hon.” one of the nurses said to her sleepy patient. “They’ll help warm you up from surgery. They keep it really cold in there.”
“Oh, really?” I answered since Suzie couldn’t.
“Yes, but they heat these blankets up in the autoclave down in recovery. They really feel nice.”
I slid my hand under one of them and it felt toasty warm to me. I hadn’t noticed how cool the room was until then. I thought about doctors and nurses wrapped from head to foot in sterile garb with their hands, hair and faces covered. Bundled up like that, they would naturally set the thermostat low. But that leaves an unconscious and uncomplaining patient naked on the table for hours.
Suzie was still shivering.
“Can you find your call button dear?” the nurse asked. Suzie nodded. “Just press the button if you need anything. It buzzes the nurse’s station and lights an annunciator in the hall so we can find you quickly. There’s one in the bathroom too, but call us so we can help you the first time. It takes about twenty-four hours to get all of the anesthesia out of your system so you’ll still be groggy.”
They finally finished their tucking and spoiling and left us alone. We looked at each other.
“How are you feeling?” I started.
“Okay. I’m still loopy,” she said. “It was so cold.”
“Do you need another blanket? They can warm them at the nurse’s station.”
“No. I’m okay. Just give me a minute,” she said.
I slowed down and took a deep breath. I tend to swing between way too helpful and totally clueless. I’m not sure which is more annoying. In a few moments, I heard deep rhythmic breathing. She had dozed off.
I watched her sleeping. I watched her chest slowly rise and fall and I was filled with a wave of love stronger than I ever remembered. I knew, then, that nothing had really changed between us. We would still stay up late into the night talking. We would still stop to stare at the moon together. We would be okay.
Well, we would be fine as long as the cancer hadn’t spread. Maybe, we’d gotten lucky and dodged the bullet. There were things to look forward to now. My sleepy thoughts turned to Christmas and chemotherapy.
Sometime later Suzie woke up. It’s hard to tell how long it had been. In hospital time minutes can turn into hours and hours can pass in seconds. She was groggy but smiled when she saw me. Then she tried to swallow and her throat was uncommonly dry. She winced.
“Water,” she whispered.
“Sorry, but the nurse said you can only have ice so far.” I gave her a plastic spoonful from a styrofoam cup I had ready.
“Mmmmm,” she moaned. It was all she could say for a while as I kept up the ice flow in a steady stream. The ice was too cold and melted too slowly to give her much liquid but it soothed her mouth.
“I’m so cold but it tastes so good! My lips are all cracked and dry.” I fed her more and soon she was shivering. Her blankets had cooled off so I tucked them up a little higher. I had to be careful because of the tubes. Because of the cold, she was fairly awake so we rehashed the conversations that had been erased by the lingering effects of anesthesia.
“How do you feel?”
“Not too bad. My chest doesn’t hurt. It’s mostly my mouth that bothers me. I can’t seem to get enough water but I’ve drunk so much I’ve got to go to the bathroom. I don’t want to move but I’m going to have to before long.”
“Do you want me to call the nurses?”
“No, I just want to stay here and not move.”
“It may take them a while to get here if they’re busy. So don’t wait until the last minute.
“Well, O.K. I guess I’d better get it over with. I hate this part.”
The nurse came in going full throttle. Maybe it just looked that way because I was so sleepy, but it didn’t take her long to get Suzie up and walking. I manned the I.V. Pole, steering the five legs around obstacles. With a few groans, she made it. I stepped outside the door to do what I could to protect her dignity and waited.
We got Suzie back to bed without too much trouble. She was doing remarkably well. She would doze off but in between naps she was coherent and almost talkative. We spoke about insignificant things and I was lulled by the quiet murmur of televisions from down the hall and nurses soft footsteps.
Things had gone smoothly. There were no unexpected problems. Maybe this wasn’t as bad as we had thought. I was starting to get sleepy.
Suddenly Suzie stiffened with a sharp jerk! Her eyes closed and her mouth opened in a look of agony. She sucked in one short breath and then stopped breathing. Her hand clamped down on the bed railing in a white-knuckled grab.
“What is it, sweetie?” I asked but there was no answer. I had seen my wife deliver three children and suffer a variety of bangs and sprains but I had never seen an expression of such pain on her face.
“Suzie! What’s Wrong!!” I shouted as I came up out of the chair.
“My chest!” she whispered as I saw a look of panic through the tears in her eyes.
“What is it?” I said stupidly as she winced again. There was no answer. I fumbled for the nurse call button on the side of the bed trying to stay calm.
“Yes?” came the reply what seemed an hour later.
“Could you get someone down here? My wife is having extreme chest pain!”
“We’ll be right there.” came the answer. The adrenaline surged through my body as I stood there unable to do anything else.
“Suzie?” I touched her arm and she opened her eyes and took a quick shallow breath.
“Oooh!” she moaned. “This pain is shooting through my right side.”
Her right side! Then she must not be having a heart attack, I thought to myself.
“I just moved a little to try and reach the water.” She was sounding a little better now. “It must be these tubes. They must have moved but it felt like my chest was being ripped off!”
Two nurses slowly hurried into the room and I stepped back out of the way.
“What is it, Hon?” they began but Suzie was still having trouble talking. I filled in the blank.
“She tried to move and suddenly got this sharp pain in her chest and couldn’t breathe. It’s some better. It may have been the drainage tubes.” I said it in one long adrenaline charged phrase.
They checked her pulse quickly and made her repeat what was wrong as if I wasn’t there.
Then a tall, blond nurse with a loud voice said, “It’s O.K. Hon. The anesthesia is just beginning to wear off. We’ll get you some pain medication right in.” Then she turned to me and boomed, “Are you sure YOU don’t need a valium, Hon?” and laughed out loud.
I was speechless, thank goodness. It was the only thing that kept me from saying something foolish. I felt my face flush with anger as they calmly walked out. Was she making fun of me? Didn’t they believe me? I had never seen Suzie in that kind of pain before but yet they just dismissed me and walked away!
I was steaming. I told myself I needed to concentrate on Suzie. She was the one with the real problems. I just had a bruised ego from the embarrassment of overreacting. The loud blond came back with the medicine and tucked Suzie in carefully.
I resisted the urge to trip her on the way out.
By the time the morning shift nurse came in to check Suzie’s blood pressure, we felt like experts. We had learned during the night that because Suzie’s lymph nodes were removed on her right side that her blood pressure and I.V. lines had to be done on the left side. We didn’t know exactly why but when she began to wrap the cuff around her right arm Suzie reminded her.
“Oh, I’ll have to post a sign since they didn’t tell us. I hear you’re going home today.”
She and the other nurses spoke with a smile as if we were all having a dinner party and she was the hostess. It was nice but seemed a little out of place when addressing a woman with bandages, tubes, and I.V.s all over her body.
“Oh, we haven’t heard yet,” Suzie answered.
“Well, Dr. Burns will be coming by on his rounds before surgery. In the meantime, I have to check your drains.” To me, she added, “You should watch this since you’ll probably have to do it once you get home.” She carefully pulled up Suzie’s gown to reveal two clear-plastic, accordion-pleated bottles pinned to the ace bandage on her chest. They were half full of dark red blood and yellow liquid. I tried to focus on my lesson.
“First, we need to check the incisions,” the nurse said in her hostess voice.
Without giving us time to think, she began unwrapping the ace bandage. Underneath was a layer of gauze covering two cotton pads. In one smooth move, the nurse brought scissors from her pocket and made quick work of the gauze. Then she carefully eased the pads from the wounds.
Suzie looked down. Where her breasts had been, a pair of incision lines went horizontally across her chest. There were fine stitches and almost no blood. Clear tubes came from each outside edge. There was nothing awful about it.
Suzie looked up at me with eyes wide in an expression of naked vulnerability. This was the moment.
“What do you think?” she asked.
That look brought forth such a wave of love for her that I couldn’t help but smile. It reminded me of the look that she gave me when she was walking down the aisle toward me at our wedding.
“I only see the woman I fell in love with,” I answered. “It’s not so bad is it?”
“No, it’s really not,” she answered, returning my smile.
At that point, the nurse took back over and we realized she had been waiting for us as if nothing had happened. I had to work to focus on what she was explaining.
“First you have to wash your hands,” she said. “so you won’t get any germs into the tube which could cause an infection. Then you unscrew the bottle like this.” She popped open an airtight valve which caused the pleated sides of the bottle to expand to full depth. Then she unscrewed the bottle from the tube and poured the blood into a plastic glass with markings on the side. It half-filled the glass.
“Then you measure the amount for each side and write it down. Dr. Burns will want to know when the drainage is low enough to remove the tubes. You do this three times a day. It lets us know how well you’re healing.” she said, still in her dinner party voice.
“The drains keep the fluid from building up. The body can only absorb so much fluid at a time and any pockets of fluid are potential places for infection to set in. Then you put the bottle back like this.” She screwed the bottle back onto the drainage tube, squeezed it down to a flat circle and re-sealed the airtight valve.
“Make sure the valve is open when you squeeze the bottle so no germs will be forced back up the tube. That’s all there is to it. Now, you do the other side.”
I washed my hands and my teacher watched closely as I went through the steps. I tried not to think about pouring a half cup of my wife’s blood into a glass. I just wanted to get it done without embarrassing myself. The mixture of partly clotted blood and yellow plasma was truly disgusting but I was as proud as a schoolboy when the nurse said, “Very good!”
I felt like I had just spelled my name correctly for the first time.
Dr. Burns, in his blue surgical scrubs, came in on his rounds with nothing more to add. Everything had gone fine and we could go home today. It seemed too soon after such a surgery. But in fact, all they were doing now was taking her continually normal blood pressure and keeping us from sleeping. After one uncomfortable night, home seemed like an option. Suzie wasn’t so sure.
“I want to see you three days after the surgery, which will be Monday, to see if we can take the tubes out. We should have the final biopsy results by then. If you have any problems at all please call me. Otherwise, you’ll be better off at home. Hospitals can be unhealthy if you stay too long.” he said with a grin.
As he walked out the door I wondered what he meant by that but my mind was soon filled with plans to get us home.
“Are you ready to get out of here?” I asked
“Well . . . I guess so. But it’s a little scary. I still have tubes everywhere and there will be no nurse to call. But I know you can take care of things and Sandra will be there.
“Do you want to stay?”l
“I guess not . . . No, let’s go.”
Suddenly there were things to organize.