Earlier this year I had been diagnosed with an enlarged Thyroid, and subsequently hypothyroidism. My surgeon, Bill Altringer had taken a couple of needle biopsies, which showed “atypical cells.” That was good news, but Bill had told me a couple of the nodules in the gland were firmer than they should be. I was familiar with the term “atypical cells” from Joanie’s problems over the years, and knew that while it meant they weren’t cancerous cells, they might present a problem sometime in the future.
I hadn’t told Joanie about my problem until after I was diagnosed, since I felt she had enough on her plate without worrying about the state of my health as well. I knew her, and I knew she would, so I downplayed everything.
Bill had wanted to do surgery to remove my Thyroid, since it was no longer functioning anyway, just to be sure that any possibility of cancer could be ruled out. At that time, I told him we would have to hold off, since Joanie was about to embark on a the six month regimen of chemotherapy, and besides, there was no immediate threat to me. He agreed, and I told him we would revisit the issue later in the year.
With the 8 week layoff of chemo for Joanie, and the fact that she was feeling better, I called Bill to talk about doing the surgery, or if he felt it was necessary. Playing doctor to myself, I had convinced myself that since the symptoms that had caused me to see my regular doctor, Dr. Doug Moen, who had diagnosed the issue in the first instance, were absent now. I wasn’t having any difficulty swallowing like I had then, and so I figured, since the cells were just “atypical” we could put it off until sometime in the future.
The day I talked to Bill, it was in late September, I explained, using the best medical term I could think of, that I was presently “asymptomatic,” hoping he might agree with me. He agreed, but then he gave me this caveat. He told me that we could wait until next year, but there was no guarantee that the cells that were identified as “atypical” would not be identified that way then. He said he surgery would amount to one night in the hospital, and the recovery time was just a day or two.
When I heard that, it got my attention. I knew that the “atypical cells” that had been found in Joanie’s Pap smears a couple of times had turned out to be cancerous in the end. So, I said, “Okay lets do it,” and I told him to schedule it, and to do it as soon as possible since Joanie was about to begin chemotherapy in less than two weeks, and then we would have to wait. I didn’t want to take a chance on being laid up when she started.
He called me back in a few minutes, and told me the surgery was scheduled in two days, and a nurse would be calling me the day before with instructions. I told him I knew what she would be saying, since I had been through the same process with Joanie many times in the last 10 years.
Now I had to tell Joanie. I knew she was going to be worried, so when she and I talked about it, I put the best face on it I could. I told her the surgery was fairly straight forward, and I would only be in overnight. I said, I thought Dr. Altringer, had my confidence, and I saw no problems coming out of it. I did tell her that having it done now would avoid any potential problems down the road, and besides, my Thyroid was essentially useless now anyway.
So, there we were, at 6:30 on the morning of the surgery, driving to St. Alexius Medical Center for my appointment. When I checked in at the desk, the receptionist asked me what I was there for, and I said, “I’m here for some slicing and dicing.” She smiled, and I figured that was not the typical answer she hears to that question. I was trying to keep things as light as I could for Joanie.
I wasn’t nervous about going in, though I would have rather not been there, but I figured it was time to get it done and over with, and the sooner the better.
After finishing up some more paperwork, we were escorted to my room, and shortly thereafter to the pre-op area, and this was where it got weird for me. Instead of me accompanying Joanie, our roles were now reversed, and it was her coming along with me. She was quiet. I knew she was worried, even though I had kept reassuring her this was a routine deal, and I would be fine.
After I got changed into the gown I would wear, I took my place on a bed they had ready for me, and the nurses began the process of hooking me up to an IV. From here on, it was virtually the same routine I had witnessed every time Joanie had surger over the years.
Joanie just sat quietly by, as if this was the first time she had seen anything like this, and I suppose that was true. She had always been the one in the bed.
I got a visit from the anesthesiologist, the nurse anesthetist, and then Dr. Bill came in to go over with Joanie and I what was going to happen. He also told us, sort of matter of factly they would be sending tissue samples to pathology to check for any cancerous cells. That kind of got my attention, and I know Joanie’s ears perked up when she heard that.
I think he remembered Joanie from earlier this year, but obviously didn’t mention it. He had been the surgeon who put in her port-a-cath before the chemotherapy treatments that had started in March. After he told Joanie where she could wait, about how long it would take, and how long I would be in the recovery room before I would be back up in my room, we were ready for the nurse with the Versed. All of this was a new experience for her, and she seemed tentative and out of her element, which was understandable considering how our roles were now reversed.
This time, and this is something that I remember distinctly, because it came just before the gave me the Versed, Joanie bent down and kissed me and squeezed my hand. That was something I had done every time before she was wheeled off to the operating room. Then they gave me a shot of Versed, and that was all I remembered until sometime later when I woke up in my room.
When I came to, I was in a fog. I had this ugly white dressing covering my lower neck area where my Thryoid once was, and the pain medicine and the remnants of the anesthetic were conspiring in an effort to make me want to go back to sleep.
Then, I looked over to where Joanie was sitting. I had no idea of how long she had been there. She had changed clothes, and was wearing the black topcoat with the red scarf that she always wore well, and was staring at me. Then she began to cry. She had never seen me as being the one who was vulnerable, laying in a hospital bed, and in some pain. When I saw her crying, I wanted to get up and show her I was fine, but I was still spaced out on the drugs and the pain I couldn’t. All I could think of was here was this woman who had dealt with more medical indignities over the last ten years than anyone I knew, and was still facing more, and she was crying, worried about me and this minor problem I had experienced. I didn’t know quite what to say or do.
What I did do finally, was to tell her this, “Joanie, I’m going to be fine. Everything is going to be fine. Right now what I need, or want to do, is to sleep, so why don’t you go get some breakfast, and go to your office. I’ll be her all day and all night, so I will see you later.”
She sat there for a moment, drying her eyes with the Kleenex she had been partially shredding as she sat there waiting for me to come to, smiled weakly and asked me if there was anything I wanted. I assured her there wasn’t and she got up, squeezed my hand and told me she’d be back.
Before I nodded back off to sleep after she left, which didn’t take long, I thought how worried she must have been to see me like this, and how all of my efforts to keep her from worrying hadn’t worked.
But then, as I closed my eyes, I realized that was just Joanie, and that was the way she was.