Saturday, June 25, 2011

June 25, 2011 – On the Mend, Post-Surgery

I haven’t been as on the ball as I could have been, posting updates on my recovery. After returning home late Sunday afternoon, I needed another couple days to rest up, then on Tuesday evening I jumped back in with both feet, for our monthly Session meeting at the church (“Session” is Presbyterian jargon for “local governing board”). It’s been a whirlwind ever since.

Generally speaking, Memorial Sloan-Kettering was just great. Tremendous professionalism there, from every staff member I came in contact with. The one mix-up that could have been avoided was that I got a phone call from Dr. Boyle’s office on the day before my surgery, advising me that I needed to got to Manhattan immediately, for a pre-surgery testing appointment they’d only just made for me. It seems that, with the cancellation of my surgery 3 weeks before, no one had noticed that my pre-surgical testing (which had taken place 2 weeks before that) was now 5 weeks prior to my new surgery date. Since hospital policy declares that pre-surgical testing is to take place within a month of surgery, that meant I had to re-take some of the tests.

All they did was some blood work and an EKG, as well as have me undergo a physical exam by a nurse practitioner. I sure didn’t appreciate having to drop everything and jump on a NJ Transit train and then the subway, but I did make it there in the nick of time – then rushed back just in time to attend our niece, Elizabeth’s, high-school graduation that evening.

I even arrived in the city a little early – and so had 20 minutes to spare, to sit and listen to a lunchtime outdoor jazz concert at St. Peter’s Church, which just happened to be going on just as I walked out of the subway station. One of those quintessential New York experiences.

I suppose the error about the pre-surgical testing is understandable. It’s not every day that an operation is cancelled at the last minute, with the patient already on the gurney. I don’t imagine it happens all that often, either, that the rescheduling of said surgery exceeds the shelf life of the previous testing. It all worked out OK in the end.

A few random recollections on the surgery experience...

For over 5 years I’ve been going in monthly to have my port flushed, preparing for the eventuality when it may actually prove useful. So, when the pre-op prep nurse asked me if I’d prefer that she use my port rather than sticking me in the arm, I said, "Sure." Come to find out, she couldn’t get the needle into my port – and neither could another nurse she called in to try to do it. Both kept shaking their heads and saying my port is the tiniest little old thing they’ve ever seen: a pretty small target to hit with that needle. I guess the nurses in Dr. Lerner’s office, where I go for my port flushes, are more used to that kind of port, because I can only recall one or two times in all the years I’ve been going for port flushes that they haven’t hit it on the first try.

Then, I learned they probably couldn’t have used the port, anyway, because no one’s been able to get a blood return out of it for the past year or so – something that happens to these devices, as the years go by, which partly limits their usefulness. It still works with stuff going in, but there’s evidently some kind of one-way blockage that prevents them from pulling blood out the other way – something they surely need to do in the hospital, for certain blood samples and the like. Makes me wonder why I still go through the trouble of those monthly port flushes – although every time I ask Dr. Lerner about it, he says we may as well leave it in, because if I ever have to receive chemo again, it'll be useful.

I was surprised to learn from the pre-op prep nurse that MSKCC has recently enacted a policy of asking patients if they’d prefer to walk into the operating room, rather than being pushed in on a gurney. Evidently, there’s been some kind of study that’s revealed that certain patients find the surgery experience less stressful if they walk in under their own steam and hop up on the table.

No thanks, said I. My mental preparation for surgery involves going into sort of a zone where I just lie back and let it happen, and I find it easier for that to begin on the gurney, rather than in the operating room. So, I let ‘em push me. Different strokes for different folks.

They actually ended up inserting my IV needle in the operating room, because of all the time lost fussing around with the port. Not the usual plan, and I could tell this was causing a delay in the tight-as-a-drum operating-room schedule. The anesthesiologist herself did it, and she had a little trouble finding a good vein – evidently she’s not as good at it as some of the nurses are. She ended up sticking me in the back of my hand (never my favorite place, because it hurts like blazes) for an initial dose of anesthetic, then her plan was to put in a second needle in the middle of my arm, a place she told me it would really hurt, after I was zonked out. So, I woke up with two needles sticking out of my arm, with the one in my hand in an awkward place where I kept bumping it on things later.

I never did see Dr. Boyle after the surgery. He did come out and talk with Claire, of course, and told her that everything was successful. There was indeed a tumor visible on my thyroid, and he could see no sign of lymph node involvement – a good thing, though not something he’d expected to see, because the CT scan had indicated the lymph nodes looked clean.

The doctor I saw every day in the hospital was Dr Boyle’s fellow, Dr. Arash Mohebati. He’s the one who had initially marked my neck with a Sharpie, pre-surgery. That seemed to me an odd little low-tech safety check, in light of all the pre-operative scans that had been done – I suppose it’s ostensibly to make sure they don’t wheel me into the wrong operating room and take out my appendix instead. Still, the Sharpie routine seems a little ridiculous, since a specialized thyroid surgeon ought to have no trouble figuring out where the thyroid is located – and doesn’t need to rely on his own fellow to show him with an x-marks-the-spot, in any event.

I was really pleased with Dr. Mohebati. Compassionate, knowledgeable, a good communicator, unhurried when I had questions for him – in short, everything a good doctor should be. Even though Dr. Boyle is my official physician, Dr. Mohebati was there before, during and after surgery, and was really the person I dealt with, since Dr. Boyle’s involvement was limited to a time when I was unconscious.

My stay in the post-op holding area was way longer than anyone expected. After the nurse told me I had a place on the 17th floor, in the head-and-neck surgery unit (“our part of the hospital,” as Dr. Mohebati had put it), she came back and said “they took the room away from you.” Never did learn who the mysterious “they” was, nor why the last-minute change. I ended up going, just before 8:00 pm, to another room elsewhere in the hospital. When it became clear I’d need to stay in for the extra day to deal with the calcium problem, Dr. Mohebati came in and told me he’d arranged to have me moved to the 17th floor – which subsequently happened.

The rest of the stay was pretty uneventful. My Sunday-morning blood work showed a normal-enough calcium level, so I was released just after noon. In keeping with MSKCC’s new walk-on-your-own-two-feet policy, I was told I didn’t need to wait for a wheelchair, but could just hoof it out of the hospital on my own. So, that’s what Claire and I did. Felt more like checking out of a hotel room than leaving a hospital.

The ride home was a little uncom- fortable. I hadn’t thought beforehand about the distinctive experience of bumping along Man- hattan’s notoriously potholed-and-patched streets with a stiff neck. Behind the wheel, Claire did the very best she could, but she couldn’t improve on the condition of the streets. It wasn’t until we inched our way through the bumper-to-bumper traffic into the Lincoln Tunnel that things smoothed out.

On Monday, I was mildly alarmed about a tingling in my hands and feet, which I knew to be a symptom of low calcium. I spoke with someone in Dr. Boyle’s office, who relayed an instruction from Dr. Mohebati. He very helpfully suggested I double up on my calcium supplements (which are nothing more than Extra-Strength Tums) as well as my Calicitriol (a vitamin-D supplement that’s supposed to help build up the calcium level). By the next day, the tingling went away, so I guess that was just what I needed.

I’m taking daily Levothyroxine (Synthroid) pills, of course. The 200 mcg dosage is a standard figure, based on my weight. There will be blood work sometime in the next few weeks, in order to more carefully calibrate the dose.

I do feel a little different. A bit tired, with noticeably less appetite than usual (not a bad thing, I say, because getting to a more healthy weight has long been one of my goals). The neck’s been swelling a good bit, and there’s some stiffness under the skin around the incision – both of which, based on my reading, anyway, are normal side-effects. I’m supposed to leave the bandage on until it falls off, or until I see Dr. Boyle for the follow-up consultation this Wednesday, whichever comes first.

So far, so good...


Anonymous said...



Julie Orvis Marcinkiewicz said...

Thanks for the detailed blow by blow on the surgery. I had to chuckle a little about the doctor unable to stick you as well as a nurse. It's my experience as someone with notoriously hard veins to find and who's very squimish, that only phlebotomists and surgical nurses seem to know how to stick people with finesse. Never rely on a doctor if you can help it -- but I bet you know that too. You are in my prayers for continued speedy recovery. Send my love to Claire.

Anonymous said...

Yeah! Good Report! Love, MB

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