The post-op routine: Turns out, it's personal

  • Article by: RICHARD LOKEN
  • Updated: June 3, 2013 - 9:29 AM
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Illustration: Health care

Photo: Nola Lopez, Associated Press/NYT

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 I’ve learned something about the sick and those who become their caregivers, willingly or unwillingly. These relationships go on all of the time — all around us — yet we barely notice or acknowledge them.

Cast in the role of the sick person, I’d just like to share one thought — with a story.

On a recent morning, I got to take a shower. Not a “hop-in-get-clean-hop-out” kind of shower. This one took a bit of planning.

Drug ports, like little arm- and hand-based drilling platforms, were carefully wrapped in plastic, electronic leads buried into non-Latex glove material — all isolated from the outside with waterproof surgical tape. Next was cord and pole management.

We were lucky that day; we just needed the telepack for the five leads in my chest bagged and sealed — it would hang loose around my neck during ablutions. Only one bag of medicine would need to drip into my veins, so I could just let that hang well away from any water stream from the shower. The incision would be avoided as much as possible.

The procedure that set me up for this personal hygiene ritual was cancer surgery. Two days before, a doctor had made a 12-inch incision between my seventh and eighth ribs, removing cancerous lymph nodes and lung tissue from my chest in order to keep me alive a little longer.

I was just getting my first look at his handiwork when something changed. I’m not sure when it happened or why, but somewhere in my preparations, it all became personal.

I was not a patient at a hospital preparing to take a shower anymore. I was a needy, imperfect, insecure human being, keenly aware and overwhelmingly sensitive to my situation as both a life-changing event and a horrific visual reality.

I knew the apparition in the mirror was me, but I was still able to keep enough emotional distance to deny it — until a second glance. I looked like the Michelin Man after a losing knife fight with the Pillsbury Doughboy. Bloated and bruised, violated and scarred — I just wanted to be alone. The completely self-centered, self-motivated, self-involved attitude of the victim. But I was not alone.

I wanted to be alone with the person I had now become. Alone to reflect on the future and make some sense of my past. A Genesis of one.

But as my soapy hands worked lather between necrotic folds of skin, she breezed in. Eighteen-year-old hips pumping past. Flipping a switch on one of my medical electronic devices. Chirping something about bad reception from the other room. I couldn’t be sure.

I dried myself and got dressed in self-esteem from the bottom drawer.

I now realized that I had become a nonentity, a type of person who always existed in great numbers around me, but with whom I had never shared any traits. A public-domain human being, where personal decisions regarding many aspects of my life would now be made for me, sometimes without regard for personal feelings or consideration of the fact that I might just want to be left alone.

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Richard Loken lives in Bloomington.

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