Life after Surgery

I thought I’d share some of the ups and downs of my experiences after surgery.

I had stomach surgery three months ago, July 13, around 7:30 in the morning. I don’t recall much after waking up that first day—I was groggy and confused, but I do remember how happy I was to see my wife. I couldn’t turn or sit up in bed—the pain from moving kept me immobile, so I stared at the ceiling a lot and prayed I wouldn’t cough or sneeze.

My stomach was stapled and bandaged with thick white gauze and lots of tape, and I was hooked up to an NG (nasogastric) tube, which was a long, thin, flexible tube inserted through my nose and down into my stomach, which kept me fed and medicated by IVs of various sizes and colors. I couldn’t eat or drink anything, so I listened to my belly rumble for nourishment of the old-fashioned kind. Another tube, a JP (Jackson-Pratt) drain from the right side of my stomach, collected bodily fluids from the surgical site and collected them in a bulb that had been squeezed like an old tennis ball. It slowly expanded and sucked the fluids out of my stomach.

On day 2, the pain lessened enough that I was able to get out of bed and walk a little, despite the medical contraptions connected to me. I did better when the unit nurses moved me—bed and all—to a room on the other side of the hospital later that day. One of the nurses had lowered the bed during the transport, so I found it easier to get my feet to the floor. It was a slow and still painful procedure getting out of bed and walking, but I was determined to get healthy again. This attitude pleased my physical therapy nurse, so she added a few things to my To Do list.

When I wasn’t walking or doing chores on my list, I spent the time in bed and bored, so I read Kindle books and WordPress blogs, and hung out at Facebook on my phone and tablet when my wife wasn’t at my bedside. I never felt as lonesome as I did when my wife wasn’t with me.

My room nurses removed the NG tube and wicks (small, absorbent gauze between my staples) on day 4 (July 16). Then I had my first taste of water; it was delicious. Food came in liquids and gels—my favorite was lime gelatin. The physical therapy nurse visited me and added more exercises to my To Do list. I did them fine with hardly any pain.

On day 5, my room nurses awaited my first bowel movement. It didn’t happen, so I spent another day in the hospital, eating real food—soft and bland—and strolling around the hallways to fight boredom. I’m not much of a TV watcher, so I read a few more books.

The awaited BM arrived on the night of day 5, so my surgeons (I had two) came to see me the morning of day 6 and released me to go home. When I got home, I took to my recliner and slept for several hours.

I started Home Health therapy the next day, stuck to my exercises, and felt good during the rest of July. I had my first shower on the 29th; it was heavenly.

Two days later, my face and hands swelled. To this day, my doctors don’t know why, but the consensus is it’s my thyroid. I take thyroid medicine (have been for almost twenty year) and I was off my medicine during my hospital stay. Apparently, it knocked my thyroid levels out of whack, so I’m under a stronger dosage and awaiting more lab work and another consultation next month. Meanwhile, I have bouts with swollen lips, nose, eyelids, and hands. I’m writing this today (October 25) with a swollen left hand. The swelling isn’t life threatening (as far as the doctors say), though my throat swelled one time in August and had me worried.

I went back to work full-time August 24 and came home exhausted. I didn’t realize how much I charged through life until I couldn’t. Stomach surgery will do that to you.

Coming home weak, shaky and exhausted happened every day until September 17 when I had another bout with facial swelling and called off. My family doctor put me on a leave of absence. I’m still on it until November 2.

I still get weak and shaky. I wake up feeling tired. So, frankly, I’m uncertain whether I’m ready to go back to work at the old 9-to-5. Sure, I could use the paycheck, but how many times will I end up calling off because portions of my face are swelled to where I can’t see or talk and my hands can’t grip anything?

Thursday, I have an endoscopy scheduled. Next month, I have blood tests, probably another CT scan of my thyroid, and a few other tests on the books going into December. That means more days missed at work from calling off.

So, I’m seriously looking into retiring. I’m 63 years old and fifteen weeks away from turning 64. I planned to work until my full retirement age. That’s three years away and looking impossible to achieve. I could work part time. But I’d lose my health benefits if I did—not that my job’s health benefits are very good to begin with.

Retiring is a big decision. Can I afford to live on Social Security? I don’t know. But the biggest quest, I think, is: Where do I see myself in five years and how do I see my path of getting there?

With all the time I’ve had in recuperation mode, I’ve come to an insightful realization. I’m not the person I was before my surgery. And given my current status, I like being home with my wife. I like being able to go outdoors and be in touch with nature again. I love watching the leaves change color, the animals that scamper in my yard, and the way the trees and grass sway in breezes. October is a great time to change gears, relax, enjoy the out-of-doors, and embrace each moment as it arrives. My job took that away from me. It consumed much of my time and deadened me to the things I truly find beautiful in life.

I want to continue embracing each moment of that kind of life with joy, glad to think that my previous busy 9-to-5 life can be a closed chapter in my history.

My surgery saved my life. My sincerest hope is that I’ll continue living several years more. And with that life, I want to appreciate the beauty around me without dreading the thought of shutting the window on that part of my soul for the pittance of a paycheck from a 9-to-5 job I don’t particularly care about anymore.

Living

Three months ago to the date on the calendar, I almost died.

I woke up a little after midnight that Monday morning because I had excruciating stomach pain. My wife drove me to our hospital’s emergency room where they x-rayed my stomach and then loaded me into an ambulance and sped me north to one of the two major “city hospitals” where the awaiting surgeons sliced open my stomach and repaired a torn duodenal ulcer. Later, one of my surgeons told me that if I had waited an hour longer, I would have died.

That was some heavy info to ponder while I lay recuperating in a hospital bed for a week. My nurses made sure there was no sepsis or complications from the surgery, and I pondered about the important things in life while I made sure to exercise my legs and lungs to prevent blood clots.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the hospital allowed me only one visitor, which I had to approve in writing the best I could while on my back. I chose my wife, of course, and she visited nearly every day while I kept in touch with family and friends via phone and (shudder) Facebook. (I don’t like Facebook, but that’s another post for another time.)

Because of the drive and her part-time work schedule, my wife could only visit for four or five hours. We have been married for 39 years (40 in November) and she is my partner, best friend, and my crutch to lean on when I need to lean. So, when she wasn’t at my side and I wasn’t on my phone, the rest of the time I was busy soul searching. (I’ve been told almost dying can do that to a person.)

When I left the hospital and went home to finish recuperating, my love and appreciation for my wife and family had grown. My cares and worries about my job, social status, and everything outside my family circle became less important. Being anything outside my role as husband, dad, and grandfather, whether artist, author, or that guy who works in the photo center at a Walmart store: not important.

Three months ago, I almost died. But three months ago, I started living again.