Episode 7: The Day I Said Goodbye to My Right Breast
I can't stop thinking about what kind of bra I'll wear and how it will work.
Illustration by Kitron Neuschatz
This is the seventh entry in a multi-part series. Read the rest here.
Two days before surgery, I come down with a terrible flu.
It's my first time seeing my general practitioner since getting diagnosed and I'm reminded how much nicer regular doctors are than surgeons. "Will they postpone my surgery?" I ask, already knowing the answer. Yes, she says, I think that would be for the best. This time I'm too sick to care. A few days go by in a blur. Friends come by to check on me, to bring me food, but I barely remember.
Surgery gets postponed two weeks and in a way I'm relieved. It seems like there's so much more I need to do. I can't stop thinking about what kind of bra I'll wear and how it will work. I know it's silly. Petty, even. I Google "mastectomy bras" and they're awful. Ugly. Matronly, made for old women. I wonder if I'll have to buy all new shirts, mine are so low cut.
I stop making my bed for days at a time, which historically is not the best indicator of mental health. The night before surgery, I eat my feelings in the form of an entire pizza. I would love a glass of wine, but I'm so sad that I don't trust myself to stop at one.
After dinner, I shower, air dry, then wait an hour to wipe my body with the medical wipes they gave me at my pre-op appointment. I'm worried I won't be able to sleep, but the upside of feeling down is total physical exhaustion. Sleep comes easily. My alarm goes off at 5:30 and I feel great—well-rested, happy, at ease. Weird, right? Kim picks me up at 6 and I drink two small Gatorades in her car on the way to the hospital.
We go to admitting on the first floor and I'm surprised by how many people are there at this hour. Like I'm the only person getting surgery today. They take me into that office where I sign my first consent form. He's apologetic when he tells me my co-pay will be $290. Kim and I guess after what the total cost will be. It's a favorite game of mine.
We go upstairs and it's the usual to start—they check my blood pressure and my weight and my temperature, I pee in a cup. Then we get moved into the holding area. I remove all of my clothes and the nurse gives me a sacrum tramp stamp in the form of a bandage on my low back. I think it's to keep it from getting bruised, but I'm not sure. Then it's the socks with the stickies on the bottom so I don't slip and compression wraps around my legs. I'm underneath a blanket being filled with warm air and its puffiness is silly, a stark contrast to the the dark feeling of the room.
The holding area is large and there are a lot of other people waiting for their surgery too. It feels like a healthcare factory and I wonder, Why are so many people sick? What's wrong with us? For some reason we're talking about Tipper Gore and laughing. They haven't even given me drugs yet—they won't do that until I've signed all of the consent forms and my breast surgeon likes to wait until just before surgery.
At one of my pre-op appointments, I was warned that I'd be asked a series of repetitive questions before surgery as a safety precaution. And they do—what's your name, when is your birthday, do you have any allergies, what are you here for today? We lose count of how many times I'm asked.
"What side is the surgery on?" one of the anesthesiologists asks. You don't know? I joke. He's not amused. Probably gets it all the time.
At some point, I have to go to the bathroom. The nurse helps me because I'm hooked up to so many things, my hospital gown open in the back. As we walk to the bathroom, it strikes me that this is a strange processional.
Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.
My plastic surgeon comes by to check on me. "Since we have time, let's mark you up." Yeah, sure. I'm not going anywhere. He notes that my right breast is larger and lower than my left. Thanks?
The deconstructor (also known as the breast surgeon, the doctor who performs the mastectomy) is last. Kim and I ask her if she weighs the breast after and she looks at us like we're crazy. Like it's the strangest thing anyone has ever asked her. But we want to know and she promises to weigh it.
I sign my last consent form and it's time. I only vaguely remember being wheeled around the holding area to my room. I think I was asked to count backwards, but I can't be sure. Maybe I just saw it on a TV show one time.
Then I wake up. I don't know what I'm expecting. My only other times going under were a long time ago, but I can remember both vividly. Waking up sick and disoriented. Crying because I didn't know where I was. But this time isn't like that. I don't throw up, for one, and I'm relatively with it.
They keep you in the holding area for at least an hour after surgery, often more like two or three. While you're there, one or two friends or family members are allowed to visit for five minutes each hour. Kim comes and goes. I fall back asleep, I wake back up. I have no idea how much time has passed. It seems like the guy across from me has his wife next to him the whole time.
I look down at my breasts for the first time, expecting my right side to be totally flat. It's still covered, so it's hard to tell exactly what's there, but it's more than I thought it would be. My drains are full, so I tell the nurse. She sends someone over, a lackluster assistant.
"Hello? Nurse? She only emptied one of the drains." I can see her across the room.
"You didn't tell me there were two," she says, like a petulant teenager.
"Should I have to?" I challenge her.
The nurse intervenes—it's my fault, she says, I should have told her.
Time goes by. "I want out of here," I say loudly, to no one in particular. "If you're not going to let me out, can you send my friends back in?" To my surprise, they do. But it's short-lived—they move me to my room almost immediately after. Kim hangs out for a bit then leaves me and Paula for the night.
I'm still not allowed to eat anything except clear things, which for some reason includes Jell-O. Paula brings me gummy bears because she knows I love them. "They're kinda like Jell-O, right?" Sure.
Paula and I watch trashy TV. The daytime nurse leaves. It seems like a lot of people are coming and going.
The drugs start to really wear off right as it's time for bed. Since I've more or less been resting all day, I'm finding it hard to sleep. Not to mention the pain. It's not as bad as I thought it might be—I think. It's hard to know which way is up. I can't get up on my own to go to the bathroom, which I seem to need to do every hour, so I have to buzz the nurse each time.
It doesn't help that the guy in the room next to me hits his button every few minutes. I can hear him through the wall and the nurse's station is right outside my room so each time it echoes, ringing twice. I'm awake on and off all night, finally falling asleep around 5:30. A short hour later, the door opens loudly and the lights flash on as a team of five or six doctors come in to check on me. A rude awakening.
A few hours later, I get to go home.
Read This Next: Episode 6: Everything I've Had But Couldn't Keep