Several months ago doctors discovered a potentially cancerous cyst on my husband’s pancreas. They saw it on a CT scan, taken to investigate a possible infection before performing a rather simple hernia operation. The cyst was a surprise to everyone. Frank promptly had his hernia repaired and shortly after that had a major operation to remove the cyst.
The whole experience was very challenging for both of us, as you can imagine. But through our struggles, we grew. In fact, the difficulties that arose made me realize I’m much more than I ever thought I was. Abilities and strengths had been hiding inside me, undiscovered until Frank’s operation. Here are some examples.
PATIENT ADVOCATE: I’m usually rather timid, but as Frank’s advocate I was take-charge and creative. I wandered around the hospital and stole magazines from waiting room areas when Frank was out of reading material. When the doctors switched his diet to solid from liquid, I went out to wonderful little restaurants around the hospital and smuggled in sushi and sashimi and tempura and other favorite delicacies. When he became alert enough to want to watch television, I figured out how to operate the TV in his room because the nurse didn’t have time. This is the accomplishment I am most proud of. There wasn’t even a manual, and to say that I am electronically challenged is a real understatement. But I did it. I stretched my boundaries. Maybe I’ll even do some troubleshooting to solve some problems with my PC. On second thought, never mind. That’s why God made Geek Squad.
I was at the hospital early in the morning every day for the week and a half he was there. I nagged him to make sure he breathed every half hour into his spirometer, a device to help prevent pneumonia. Nagging isn’t pleasant but somebody had to do it and I rose to the occasion. It’s a lot more pleasant than pneumonia. I took him for at least two daily walks around the corridors, so he wouldn’t get pneumonia just lying, inactive, in bed, and after I got home in the evening I always called and made sure a nurse or assistant walked him before bed. I made sure he ate, instead of sitting and looking at food that was often left in front of him too far away to reach, in containers he couldn’t open in his weakened condition. I think without someone in the room to help him with his food he would have starved. When I left I made sure he was warm and positioned comfortably and his nurse call button was in reach. I made sure he drank lots of fluids. I emptied his plastic urine container.
WOUND NURSE: I am alarmed at the sight of blood. That’s another understatement. There’s a great line in a Woody Allen movie (I can’t remember which movie). It goes “Blood. That’s supposed to be on the inside!” I couldn’t agree more. That’s why I can’t quite believe I did what I describe below.
Our wonderful home health nurse, Mandy, came three times a week to change Frank’s wound dressing. As queasy as I am, I forced myself to watch her every time because of the possibility, though unlikely, that someday there would be too much drainage to wait for Mandy’s next visit. Sure enough, the someday came. I checked his bandage one evening and saw a lot of pus and blood. I took a few deep breaths and splashed my face with cold water, to keep from shaking. I knew I had to do the deed.
As queasy as I was, I managed to calmly remove the old bandages. Mandy kept her supplies in our house, and I cleaned the wound out by putting saline-soaked gauze pads into the sizeable incision on his abdomen, pushing them down gently with long Q-tip type things, and used them to lift out the gauze pads along with the pus and blood that clung to them. I did that several times until the soaked gauze came up clean, then wiped his abdomen around the hole, tamped fresh saline-soaked gauze down into it, and sealed it up with tape and several gauze pads.
Okay, I confess. I had help. Panicked, I called the home health service and told the night nurse on duty what was going on. I couldn’t have done it without her, or without my speaker phone. Her calm, professional voice broadcasting from my landline led me through the whole process step by step. Still, I can’t believe I mucked around like that in a hole in my husband’s stomach. The next time Mandy came I told her about it, and Frank actually said it was “heroic.” I treasure his remark. I think he has a new respect for me. It’s the highest compliment I’ve ever gotten from him. The only one, actually. He’s a man of few words.
CHARGE NURSE: When Frank came home from the hospital I set up a detailed medical schedule, giving him all his antibiotics and pain and other medications on time using a timer I bought just for that purpose. I kept a killer written schedule and recorded time and amount of every single medication dose I gave him. You’d have thought I went to nursing school. I made sure he walked with his walker at least twice a day and breathed into his spirometer frequently. Every day I made three balanced, nutritious meals, sufficiently bland for his tender, surgically assaulted digestive organs. I gave him a daily sponge bath. I stayed with him day and night leaving the house only for groceries and prescriptions and the occasional furtive stop at Starbucks, for several weeks until he was able to do more things independently and was steady on his feet. If I had to leave I made sure the phone and the emergency inhaler for his COPD were within reach.
And, like any good nurse, I didn’t put up with any shit. It was for his own good. I watched him like a hawk. No way could he get out of breathing exercises or walking or eating his veggies or taking his multivitamin, which he thinks is for sissies. He didn’t want to take the probiotics I gave him to prevent diarrhea either. He’s suspicious about anything that’s new and unfamiliar to him. He argued and gave me a big hard time about it, but I brought him in line by dropping subtle hints about putting him in a skilled nursing facility. I was up to cleaning out his wound and changing the bandage, but I wouldn’t have been able to deal with diarrhea. A baby’s diarrhea is one thing. I’ve done that. But an adult male? Forget it.
One day I heard him mutter something under his breath about Nurse Ratched but I just let it go. I don’t think I was that bad. And I was tough on him because I love him.
BAD ASS BIG-CITY DRIVER: I’ve been a timid country girl all 70 years of my life, hiding out in the suburbs of Silicon Valley. I was born here when it was still sleepy Santa Clara Valley. I’m a bit reclusive and I have a big phobia about driving in big cities, like San Francisco, which to me is huge and frightening. It’s way bigger than Fremont, the boring little bedroom community where Frank and I live.
Hiding behind my phobia, I had managed not to drive to San Francisco for decades. But SOMEBODY had to drive Frank to his biopsy since he would be anesthetized and could not drive himself home. And the biopsy was in San Francisco. A cab or Uber simply wouldn’t do.
The demon was at my door. It was staring me in the face. The SOMEONE who had to drive him was ME.
I went to war against my phobia. I pored over printouts of Google Maps. I memorized all the streets and printed directions for the drive not only to the hospital but the drive back home as well. A friend showed me the basics of my iPhone GPS, which I had never used, and I drove around with it on all the time until the biopsy date, getting used to it. To top it off, Frank and I made a couple of dry runs before the appointment. We parked in each nearby parking garage so I could get familiar with the drill. They don’t have parking garages in Fremont.
I even prayed.
On the big day my knuckles were white on the steering wheel but I made it to the parking garage for Kaiser San Francisco. The biopsy was positive, which meant another epic drive in a few weeks, this time to the surgery center in Oakland. Again we did a couple of test drives. Eventually I got to be an old hand driving around Oakland streets because Frank was in the hospital for 11 days and I made the round-trip drive every day by myself.
Today I no longer shrink from city driving. I can outmaneuver the best of them. I can change lanes on a dime and cut people off and beat people to parking spaces like I’ve been doing it all my life. I can be as verbally abusive as any Type A driver. I’ve used words I never even knew I knew. Frank no longer likes to drive with me. He says I’m rude and reckless, and that I could move to New York City and make a good living as a cab driver. And he says if I do, he will stay here.
Those are the highlights of challenges I rose to meet. I look back at when we first found out about Frank’s cyst, and remember how daunting it was to contemplate being his sole care giver. But I did it. I did it all, from changing his bandage and being an all-around nurse to taking care of the house and the housework and the yard and the cats and taking out the garbage and paying the bills and chauffeuring and cooking and grocery shopping and all the rest of it. I continued doing it all for months after his surgery while he slowly recovered.
All the things I was afraid of actually expanded my horizons. Things that I was certain would be too much for me to do turned out okay. I learned first-hand that I am up to more challenges than I ever thought possible. I’m going to say it, just this once: I was awesome.
Everything worked out including the outcome of Frank’s surgery. The cyst was completely removed, and turned out to contain an extremely low-grade cancer, and nothing had spread beyond its borders.
It doesn’t get any better than that.
Scripture: “But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God, and Google Maps, and nurses on speaker phones, and a mocha latte now and then, all things are possible.” ~ Matthew 19:26
The Power of Chocolate: “I’ve been through some tough times, with no one to talk to, to share with, to count on. Thank God I had chocolate.”
Relax. It all works out.