When you find out you have cancer time just stops. Everything about your old life switches off. I didn't find out about my tumor in a sterile doctor’s office. Instead I was home, watching my little girl play with her Barbie van on the floor. The sun was shining through the window and little dust motes floated up and down. My daughter made humming engine noises as the Barbie van rolled under the coffee table. I held the phone to my ear and tried to comprehend what the doctor was saying about my CT scan.
“I’m seeing tumor. When do you want to schedule surgery?” He said it as if he was calling me back from the auto mechanic shop. “I’m seeing some damage to your strut bearings. When do you want to schedule a repair?”
His matter of fact voice was incongruous with the magnitude of what he told me. He was talking about a thymoma tumor. He was talking about doing this to me. (Warning! Graphic link of actual surgery.) The surgeon planned on sawing through my entire breastbone, butterflying me like a chicken, and then putting me back together. To my doctor it was all in a days work. Blood on his clothes was like motor oil for a car mechanic. But, it was my blood he planned on spilling and my body he planned on sawing open. When did I want to schedule surgery? How about August 21, 3198.
Instead I scheduled it for August 21, 1998. I had my 29th birthday a few days after that phone call. All I wanted for my 29th birthday was a 30th birthday. I told my Mom I felt like I needed to roll a Yahtzee to survive.
The week before surgery a nurse called me on the phone. She said she was calling me to make sure I had all my affairs in order. I was 29! I didn’t know what affairs I was supposed to have in order. Then she told me something far more chilling. She said, “It will be easier for you to die than survive this surgery. I’m calling to teach you how to fight for your life.”
The nurse told me I needed to have three goals. A short term goal, something I could enjoy a few weeks after surgery. A medium range goal, something I wanted to complete in a year. And a long range goal, five or ten years later. Then she told me I needed an emergency thought for when dying would be easier than living. What was the one thing in this world I needed to see again no matter what?
My other goals were nebulous, but my emergency thought was instantly clear. I remember hanging up the phone and trembling inside. The days before surgery were stressful and passed way too fast. My dad came to pick up my daughter. She was staying with grandma and grandpa until I was well enough to care for her. I hugged her goodbye, only Evelyn wanted to leave with her grandparents. She was irritated with me for hugging too long. After she left I collapsed on the floor in tears. I even slid with my back against the hallway wall, bawling like a scene from a poorly directed melodrama.
The next day was surgery day. Early in the morning my husband drove me and some friends of ours to the hospital. I told my husband, “See ya,” because I didn’t want to say goodbye. Hands lead me to a changing room and then to a gurney where I met several nurses and doctors. Then the anesthesiologist said something about medication to help me relax. Relaxing sounded like a good idea. I watched her hands moving, putting a needle in the IV line. Then I looked at a hideous yellow-green wall. The wall clock said it was a little after six in the morning.
I looked at a hideous yellow-green wall. The wall clock said it was a little after five in the evening. Hands touched my arms and face. Voices chattered words I couldn't comprehend. "Mrs. Smith. Mrs. Smith?"
Who is Mrs. Smith? Where is Mrs. Smith. For that matter, what is a Mrs. Smith?
"C'mon. It's time to wake up. Surgery is over. You did great."
I did what? Surgery is over? How can that be? It's only been a second.
I turned my head a millimeter to the left. Apparently, my little head bob was the cue for the gorilla on my chest to dance. I'm not kidding. Right under my chin an invisible 500 pound gorilla wearing extra sharp golf cleats danced! Now, that woke me up! The pressure directly under my chin stunned me. I could hardly breathe. The pain was just off the scale. Not surprising, considering for the past nine and a half hours my entire rib cage was ripped in two down the center. Hand me the bone saw. Anyone seen my rib spreader? Sorry, I think I left it hanging on my barbecue grill.
There are no words to fully describe the pain of a median sternotomy and I know why. When the English language was in its infancy, and some poor dude got a battle axe imbedded in his chest, he died before he had a chance to cry out. He certainly didn't invent a new word on his way to a dirt nap. Whack! Dead. Meanwhile, I clung to life.
While this gorilla danced on my chest, I opened my eyes and wanted to say something, but all I managed was a groan. I stayed in that room with the ugly yellow-green paint for a minute. Or fifteen hours. Time was all the same to me. So, I can't say I remember August 21, 1998. But, I'm forever marked by the seven inch scar on my chest, and memories from the fight to recover. It was so difficult, my life is divided into before surgery and after.
The next day after surgery I got an infection and my heart started beating erratically. While a group of doctors scrambled around me I saw the nurses haul the crash cart into my room. Then my sight got blurry and my hearing disappeared. It was so peaceful after that. I felt calm and quiet inside. At that moment dying would have been easy. Easy like letting go of a balloon string. All I had to do was exhale and I would float away. I remembered my emergency thought. The one thing I knew was more powerful than death: motherhood. I thought of my eight-year-old little girl’s face. I am this child's mother.
That was all I needed to fight back. There was no way I was going to leave my little girl alone. Motherhood is a powerful thing. I’m glad I was able to fight back so I could be with Evelyn again.
I no longer fear death. It is as gentle and simple as letting go of a balloon string. Floating into what lies beyond doesn’t frighten me. The last five minutes of life, that is what scares me. I gained a deep appreciation for my life when I almost lost it. Sophomore Year at the University of Catastrophe taught me about how fragile I can be. And how strong I can be when it really matters. Those lessons came in handy when my Junior Year began.