On Thursday, my five-year old son, Andrew had his first (and hopefully his last) surgery. He’s been suffering from sleep apnea, as well as from constant upper respiratory infections. Like me, he just can’t seem to shake a cold. It’s no surprise that my sniffles need antibiotics immediately, given that my immune system is so purposefully beaten down from the various treatments I get for my sarcoidosis. But Andrew, who is otherwise healthy, should be able to overcome a bug without antibiotics. It turns out that both problems–the sleep disturbances and the persistent sickness–stemmed from his tonsils and adenoids. The ENT doctor we consulted in Missoula was adamant that Andrew needed them removed–sooner, rather than later.
So at 6:30 in the morning, we arrived at the surgery center in Missoula. It was odd for once not to be the patient. I wasn’t the one slipping on a hospital gown, being quizzed when was the last time I ate or drank, being given a sedative to relax me, or being told I would have an IV. For once, I wasn’t the one who slept under the hard shell of anesthesia while family waited in a sterile lobby, made even more institutional by its small attempts to seem homey. For once, I wasn’t the one who jolted awake after the operation, with a thick taste of plastic and chemicals in my lungs from tubes and anesthesia. For once, I wasn’t the one who came to consciousness in post-surgical pain, confused where I was. I wish it were me. I would have given anything to have that surgery instead of Andrew. I spent the forty-five minutes of his operation feeling like I would vomit from anxiety. I prayed for nothing bad–or even remotely unpleasant–to happen to my son. I felt powerless. Because I was powerless.
When Andrew first came out of surgery, he was sobbing from pain, disoriented, and thrashing. The nurses settled him into my arms. I could smell the blood in his mouth and that awful odor of anesthesia coming up from his lungs along with his cries. Together, Jay and I calmed him. The surgical center had a kids’ room for recovery, where Andrew got to pick a movie to watch. Rather than see something new, he chose “Cars,” an animated film about a racing car who learns to love others, that he has watched at least twenty times before. But seeing the familiar scenes of Lightning McQueen and hearing Jay and I patter on about how brave and wonderful he was being calmed him. He sipped ice water, ate three popsicles, and told us, “Having my tonsils taken out is a lot less fun than I imagined.”
Jay and I weren’t lying to him. Andrew has indeed been brave and wonderful. He deals remarkably well with pain. In fact, the liquid pain killers taste so vile that he usually chooses to eschew them. We’re fine with that, as long as he keeps hydrated. As far as surgeries go, this one was pretty darn smooth. (I’m knocking on my desk right now so I won’t jinx the next week of recovery.) The doctor and the nurses were used to having kids in for tonsillectomies. They spoke to Andrew at his level, were honest with him about what would happen (without sounding dire or threatening), and made sure to listen to his questions and account for his needs. During the surgery, the doctor discovered that his adenoids were infected and filled with pus–and this is when Andrew felt healthy–and said that Andrew’s tonsils were so large that they were indeed impeding his airway at night.
I have taken pride in being healthy enough now (during an “off” chemo week) to care for my son. I am relieved the surgery is done and that it seems as though the upheaval and anxiety it caused in Andrew’s life are worthwhile. But I have lain awake most nights next to my son, watching his chest rise and fall, and catching his small hand with every twitch in his sleep. This is what it is like to be the caregiver–not the patient. I suppose this is the pain that Jay and my parents and Andrew experience with every surgery I undergo. This terrible helplessness, this all-consuming worry, this sense of needing to do something to help my child (which usually results in me rearranging the blankets and his pillows and adding fresh ice to his water glass every five minutes) is new for me. I prefer the other side–being the patient–instead of feeling my love for Andrew rise like a tsunami in my throat and realize that this love alone cannot protect him from germs and knives. But it is all that I have to offer. So I let it flow out of me and hope it covers him like a blanket.