“I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.”
The thing about surgery waiting rooms during the busy times is that you are not alone, but you are. The ones I’ve been in are generally not very large spaces, and they can seem crowded at times, filled with anxious people, like me, who are waiting for the doctor to come out to see them after the operation on their loved one is over, and rarely, if ever, talking to one another. Isolation in a crowd.
That morning, after I had checked in at the waiting room, I went outside for a smoke, and ended up having more than one, not wanting the waiting to begin, even though it already had. I think I was trying to trick my mind into believing that the waiting didn’t start until I took up residence in the waiting room for the day.
I picked up the Star Tribune, a copy of the Pioneer Press, a free copy of The Onion, stopped at the coffee cart in the lobby of the hospital for a large cup of coffee and went back up the two floors to begin the waiting.
The place had filled up by now. Looking around it wasn’t hard to see the dynamics at play in this room where hope had also taken a seat. I first noticed a group of seven or eight people, who were obviously from the same family. Looking around the rest of the room you could also see a couple here, a couple there, and several lone individuals like me. Except for the couples and the family group, you didn’t hear much conversation going on, but I noticed one thing they seemed to have in common was the vacant, kindred look of people who were both hopeful and afraid of what they might hear when the doctor comes out to see them. I wondered if I looked the same to them as they did to me. I found a place to sit, drink my coffee and opened one of the newspapers.
It was shortly after eight, when I got a surprise. My son Ryan showed up to spend some time with me. He was a student at the University of Minnesota, and it turned out he was there to spend the day with me. It did give me a lift, and we went back outside to talk and so I could have a smoke. I told the volunteer where I was going, and we weren’t gone but about twenty minutes. When we got back to the waiting room she told me that Dr. Carson had been out to see me. My heart stopped. Then she told me the message she got from Carson was that the first phase of the surgery went fine, the margins were good, and they were going ahead with the exenteration. I breathed a sigh of relief, and Ryan and I found a place to sit where I could wait and worry in earnest. The next time we would see Dr. Carson that day would be when the surgery was done.
Anyone who has gone through the waiting and the hoping when a loved one is in surgery, knows that something happens to time. The clock never seems to move, no matter what you try to do to pass the time. For me, reading the newspapers, doing the crossword puzzles and drinking coffee usually would help speed things up. Today, it didn’t work.
Ryan and I spent much of the time talking. I got brought up to date on his life at the university, and I brought him up to date on what was going on with Joanie. The time still didn’t seem to move.
Little by little, in the waiting room, there would be fewer and fewer people, as doctors would come and go, and family members, and couples who were there in the morning had left after receiving news on the results of whatever surgery had been done on their loved one.
By late afternoon, there were only a few people left, and it wasn’t long before Ryan and I were the only ones remaining. These last few hours were going to be the longest ones. I suggested we play some gin, and we found a deck of cards lying about. However, after we checked, we found there were two card missing from the deck, both jacks, so we had to play the cards we had. We just adjusted how we played around them.
We were still playing at six that evening when Ryan’s friend Kim came to join us. I didn’t know it then, but they would be married one day. As we talked, and the clocked moved ever so slowly toward the hour of seven, I got to be a little more nervous. I couldn’t leave now, in case the surgery was done earlier than they said it would be. Finally, at seven-fifteen that evening the door opened and Carson came walking in.
Her first words were that Joanie was fine. She told us they were finishing up the surgery, and everything looked good. She said they had put in some tubes that would be used for cesium implants in the area that might be at risk for recurrence. The radiation would take place in few days, and Dr. Dusenbery would be taking care of that part of the treatment. She then said, they would take her to the recovery room where she would remain for about two hours or so, then she would be taken up to the Intensive Care Unit, most likely for two days so they could keep a very close eye on her for any complications that might arise.
She told me the good news about the procedure last, and that was it appeared they would be able to take the ileostomy down after Joanie had healed up from the surgery, and they could hook up her bowel again, so the only thing Joanie would be left with would be the Miami Pouch.
That was the news I had been waiting to hear, and I know it is the news that Joanie would want to hear. Facing a colostomy for the rest of her life is something she had been dreading.
I felt like a heavy weight had been lifted, and Ryan, Kim and I headed back to the hotel so I could make calls I needed to make to her family, Ginny and others. I was so excited to hear the news about being able to take down the ileostomy, I was almost giddy on the walk back. I called her brother Richard in San Francisco, her sister Ann in Bismarck,
Ginny and several other people I was supposed to call with news of the surgery. Dick told me he would be flying in the next day to spend a day or two with Joanie. I opened a beer and felt the tension of a day spent wondering, worrying and hoping melt away. Then I walked back to the hospital. I told Ryan and Kim I would meet them later at Stub and Herb’s for something to eat, and I headed for the Intensive Care Unit, having no idea of what I would find when I got there.
Joanie hadn’t been brought up yet when I arrived, so I just stood around watching what appeared to me to be a chaotic, noisy place with nurses and doctors running about doing nurse and doctor things. It was not what I expected to see.
I walked around for about fifteen or twenty minutes when I saw nurses wheeling a bed toward the ICU, and what I saw almost brought me to my knees. It was Joanie on the bed, but I had to look twice to be sure.
What I saw was Joanie, with tubes coming out seemingly from everywhere. They had put in another line on the other side of her neck, and there were IV’s connected to both of them. There was the NG tube in her nose that was draining her stomach, and there were bags hanging from both sides of the bed draining her bladder and bowel and I didn’t know what else. They had her on a ventilator, so she could hardly talk, and her wrists were tethered to the rails of the bed to keep her from pulling out anything. She was frantic, I could see it, and there was a look in her eyes that shocked me into silence. I felt paralyzed. As a reporter, I had seem some troubling sights in my life, but nothing prepared me for this.
I stood there dumbstruck, wondering what I should do knowing that there was nothing I could do. I stood at the side of her bed, with her looking at me, awake, agitated, frantic and trying to talk, but barely able to be understood. I knew she wanted the ventilator out of her mouth, but the nurse told me that would have to wait. As I stood there helpless, I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. I had never seen anything like this in my life, and I wondered, “What the hell has happened.” All of the clinical talk we had heard before the surgery couldn’t have prepared us for what was going on right then. I’ve never fainted in my life, but that night, I almost did.
I asked one of the nurses if they were going to give her something to settle her down, and she told me they were doing everything they were supposed to be doing, and for me to not worry. I thought, “For Chrissakes, she’s telling me to not worry, how am I not supposed to do that.”
I will admit that I was absolutely as close to losing it as I’ve ever been in my life, and all I could do was to stand there by her bed, hold her hand, and try to not think about the suffering she was going through and me not being able to do anything about it. It hurt so bad.
After being there about an hour after they brought Joanie up, and after the gave her something to sedate her, I left. I couldn’t stay any longer, and the image of her lying there stayed with me for a long time.
Walking out the hospital, I was feeling as empty and sad as I ever had in my life. It was different from when, just a few hours earlier we had walked out feeling so good at the news about the surgery. I got Stub and Herb’s and met Ryan and Kim, and they asked me how things were. All I could say was, “I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.”
I nibbled on some appetizer we ordered, drank a beer and went to the hotel. Back in my room, I checked the clock, and it was midnight, I sat down at the table by the window, lit a cigarette and looked out toward the place where Joanie lay, thinking about what she was going through, and trying not to think about what I had seen that night.
Then, I remember thinking I was really tired.