Dirty Tricks In A Sterile Environment

I have pain today. All the way to the bone. This a photo of my pain, localized in one place in my body but deep below the surface, under tissue and structure. Radiant pain.

Not really. I mean, the pain is real but I took this photo a few days ago, before I knew how the pain would be. But now it seems to fit, which feels witchy to me. This is actually the exterior wall of a smoking cabinet The Chef uses for cooking meat meals. Not my meals. Meat is smoked in an upright cabinet for The Chef’s consumption or for meat-eating guests. At some point during one of these smokes there was a flare-up inside the cabinet. Something briefly caught fire and the incident created this heat bloom on the outside of the back wall. I took a photo of it two days before my surgery. I cropped it but otherwise it is unedited. It is me who has been surgically edited.

It hurts. I hurt. I hurts. They gave me a bottle of opioid pain medication to take as needed. I don’t want to take it even if I do need it. I made it through the night without it. I slept. Today is harder but I’d still rather not take it. I only bring it up now because I loved the serendipity of the black cabinet photo suddenly becoming relevant. It feels romantic to say this is a photo of my pain.

In that vein, this is a photo of my vulnerability.

I took this about a week ago but like the black cabinet bloom, it became relevant yesterday. Because it makes me feel vulnerable when medical professionals play tricks on me. When they don’t mean to — as in this probably wasn’t their intent, I forgive them but I still cry hard, bitter, and alkaline, because it feels the same to me.

For example, I went in for a routine cleaning last year. My dentist came in to inspect at the end, as usual. Before he finished his review he disappeared from the room in a rush. He suddenly jumped up from the stool and ran out of the room. Neither I nor the hygienist had any clue why. He said not a word; just up and ran. When he came back he was holding a small paper cup. He said it was a new mouth rinse he wanted me to try. I should swish with it for a few seconds and then spit. I like him and trust him completely, so I complied.

It was horrifyingly awful. I began to panic. Red alert. DEFCON ONE. General quarters. Fight or flight. Internally I was screaming; the proverbial every fiber of my being flailed in alarm. Wrong! Bad! No! Danger! I couldn’t get it out of my head fast enough.

After I spit he gauged my obvious torment and asked, “Was it really that bad?”

I answered, “It tasted like bleach.”

He admitted, “It was bleach. Maybe I didn’t dilute it enough.”

When I got into my car I cried my eyes out in the parking lot. Because he didn’t warn me. Because I trusted him and he let that happen to me. I couldn’t fathom why he wouldn’t prepare me for something so frightening. When I got home I cried some more retelling the story to The Chef. I love my dentist. I’m an exceptionally good patient. I take my responsibility for being a good patient seriously. How could he do this to me? Just a heads up would have helped. It felt like a dirty trick he didn’t mean to play on me but was played by neglect to warn me it was coming. I forgave him but I still felt vulnerable and hurt.

For context, he wanted me to try swishing with a diluted bleach solution for a month and then come back for a follow-up. It was an experimental therapy and because I am such a good patient, he thought I would be an ideal test case. But he explained all of this to me after the incident, not before. And because the incident felt so traumatic to me I couldn’t do it, even though I’d typically be happy to help out. I did try but as soon I opened the bleach at home I started crying again. I called his office and left a message, I’m sorry. I can’t do this.

Fast-forward to yesterday’s surgery. No one explained to me that the injections of anesthetic I would receive contained epinephrine. Not a word of warning. Not from the nurse. Not from the doctor. I had no inkling to ask. I’m a good patient. I ask lots of questions but at no time did I consider I was about to be blindsided. I calmly endured my injections of local anesthetic until the epinephrine hit and I began trembling, sweating, my heart raced, my belly lurched, and a tsunami of dizziness welled up in a manner of seconds. He kept injecting me without a word. I was panting and shaking. I had no idea what was happening to me. I thought I was either having an anxiety attack or a violent reaction to the anesthetic.

When the nurse asked if I was okay I said NO so forcefully they both stopped and stared me. I assumed the fact they seemed so surprised at my distress meant this really was an emergency. I was frightened. They stared. I started crying. They stared.

The doctor left the room. He LEFT THE ROOM. The motherfucker bailed on me. Without a goddamn word he just got up and left me.

I asked the nurse for some tissue. She handed me two brown paper towels from the wall dispenser. Did I want to sit up? No! Am I okay? No! Did I need a moment alone?  No, no, no I just don’t understand what’s happening to me.

As I swabbed my eyes with the two slabs of tree bark masquerading as paper and towels she explained everything she should have told me before I was injected. It was the epinephrine in the local. This was normal. It was considered the worst part of the whole ordeal and it would subside in a few moments and then I’d feel better. I asked her if patients typically freak out. She answer was a Yes, but then she turned and looked out the window and started taking about the weather. I guess she was trying to distract me by making conversation until I calmed down. It made me feel worse, not better. Remember when consoling a patient was considered part of nursing them? Not with clinical explanations but with kindness. Solace. If I pay extra will you soothe me? Please? I’m scared!

I felt exactly the same as after the bleach incident at the dentist. Why why why would someone not warn me? Why let me panic unnecessarily? It felt like another dirty trick. I felt vulnerable and hurt that no one thought to protect me from the fear that something was going terribly wrong and they didn’t seem to notice. I didn’t know if I was having a heart attack or getting sick or what but I was in full-blown terror and it could have been prevented with just a simple warning. Why couldn’t that warning have been given to me? Why wouldn’t medical professionals want to me have that reassurance? If for no other reason than to save themselves the hassle of dealing with my reaction?

I wanted to bawl my heart out but I realized the doctor was not coming back in to finish the procedure until I stopped. So I did stop. The nurse stepped out of the room and I overheard her say, “She’s ready now.” When the doctor came back he picked up where he left off without a fucking word to me. Not a sorry. Not a syllable of concern or compassion. Nothing; picked up his instruments and resumed his work as if I was an overdue task on a Friday afternoon. Body parts but not a person. Co-pay. Consent. Prescription. Paperwork. Business.

I laid there through the next 90 minutes of the surgery trying not to hate them both; trying to be grateful that I have access and privilege and means when so many do not. But off in the corners of me I was emotionally crushed that I rated no comfort whatsoever. I stared at the ceiling and conjured imaginary comfort the best I could. I wished the nurse would hold my hand. I wished someone would just put a kind hand on my shoulder. In the wake of the no-warning was a benevolent moment of sympathy so unreasonable?

I held so much tension in my body I could have snapped myself in two. My collarbones ached with it. I could smell it on my clothes. I wanted my dog. I wished someone who loved me was in the room, or even just waiting to drive me home. I wished someone’s fat black mama was my fat black mama like the way Kathryn Stockett wrote her character Abileen. I wanted one of those weighted blankets everyone just got for Christmas. I would have settled for a stupid stuffed animal. I wanted just 45 seconds of safe, soft, tender human contact. The split-second it was over I stumbled to the bathroom on brittle legs hoping it was one of those fancy bathrooms with a couch or a bench or little settee. Nope. Cold. Clean. Hard. Shiny. Modern medicine.

When I got home I cried it out all over again. And more now while reliving it. Plus the day-after post-op pain. And I have to go back in two weeks and get the same thing done on the other side of my body. But friends, in all honesty, the pain is easier. I understand the pain. I don’t understand why someone wouldn’t spare me an unnecessary scare and then not comfort me. Bail out of the room instead. Talk about the weather instead. World-class medical care for the body but stone cold detachment from the person inhabiting the body.

Not their jobs any more is it? I know, I know. Didn’t this used to be their jobs? Part of their jobs? To make us feel better while they were healing us? To nurse us? To care for us while they are caring for us? I guess those days are gone. Go away and take your opioids, Mercy. Ain’t nobody got time for that. Which makes me sad for all patients, not just me.

I have pain today. I am hurt and vulnerable today. If you are too, I feel you. I share it with you. I wish I was your fat black mama and you were mine. Know that you aren’t the only one who thinks it shouldn’t be this way. I’ll handle it better when I go back in two weeks, I hope, because I’ll know to expect no one to care. But for now I am reaching out across the virtual world like a whale calling the pod just to hear the song filter back and know they are out there. I care. I know. I understand. I feel it too.

— Mercy

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