It's all come down to waiting. Waiting since the middle of night for morning and my trip to the hospital. Waiting to answer endless questions. Waiting to have my clothing, jewelry and identity removed. Waiting for a doctor to cut out a piece of my breast. Waiting to find out if I have cancer.
I should have prepared a large sign to wear around my neck that reads, “Warning! Do not try to start an IV in this woman's hand.” I inherited my maternal grandfather's hands complete with bulging, blue veins, veins that make lab technicians and anesthetists positively giddy when they see them. I always try to explain that as soon as they put the needle in the vein, it will collapse, but what do I know?
In the patient waiting area, the nurse at my bedside calls to a doctor. “I'm not having any luck with this IV. She's got great veins, but the IV won't start.”
“Push it in a little harder,” the doctor says as he approaches the bed. Did I hear the word push? Did I hear the word harder? It's hurting to the point where I want to wrap my hands, with their great veins, around the nurse's neck and squeeze, but I promised myself I'd be calm and stoic.
Forget calm and stoic. I start to cry. “Give her some Valium when you get the IV started,” the doctor says. Give me the Valium now, I think. I'll eat it while you keep pushing that needle into my hand. “Stop crying,” the doctor says. “You'll make yourself sick and they won't be able to do the procedure.” I have news for you, Doctor. I might be very sick. That's why I'm here.
Without my glasses, the entire room is a brilliant blur. Another hazy face appears in front of me and says, “It's your turn.” More tears roll down my face and I wonder if someone is sticking a yellow sticky note to my chart that says, “Psychiatric consultation recommended.”
The faceless man takes me into an even brighter room where the anesthetist introduces himself, injects something into my IV and asks me to count backwards from one hundred. I feel an icy liquid rushing through my arm, and I begin to count. “One hundred, ninety-nine, ninety-eight, ninety-seven,” I say, and then like the end of an old movie, the scene in front of me freezes, and my screen goes black.
When I wake up, I don't know where I am, and I begin to shake as though someone has attached me to a paint mixer. I call out for my husband and a nurse appears. “You're in the recovery room,” she says. I struggle to sit up, and she calls to another nurse for pain medication. “Are you allergic to anything?” she asks.
Yes, I think. I'm allergic to you and this place and I want to go home. Why can't I stop crying? I want Tom. He's my Valium. He's my pain medication.
“Your husband can't come in here, and you will have to be quiet. You're disturbing the other patients.”
I glance to my right and there's an old woman lying there, her head turned in my direction. “Don't cry, honey,” she says softly. I decide to take this woman home.
Someone takes the old woman out of the recovery room and I begin to cry again. An automatic blood pressure cuff keeps squeezing my arm like an angry parent. I want to rip it off and throw it across the room. Who is this childish, self absorbed person who has taken over my body and my mind?
I lift my blanket and peek under the bandage covering my incision. The nurse scurries over again. She looks as if she wants to slap my hand with a ruler like my piano teacher did years ago when I didn't arch my fingers properly over the keyboard. “Don't touch that,” she says.
It's been my breast for forty-five years. “Don't touch that” is my line. I wonder if I ask for more pain meds, she'd give them to me. If I get stoned enough, it might all just go away. “I'm in pain,” I say. A few minutes later, she injects something into my IV.
I'm finally taken back to my room, and there's my sweet Tom waiting. I immediately start to get dressed. Another nurse walks in pushing one of those automatic blood pressure machines. Huge surprise.
“You can't go home just yet,” she says. I'm wearing my glasses again so at least I can see this nurse. Her kind smile and sincere voice tempt me to tell her that she made a wise career choice. She takes my blood pressure. It's as if they keep hoping it'll change just so they can write something different down.
“I'm ready to go,” I say.
“Let me get your blood pressure one more time. Then I'll get your discharge orders and you can get dressed.”
An hour later, I step through the automatic doors into the sunshine outside and experience a tiny sense of victory for having escaped from the hospital, a place where six hours can feel like six days. A plastic cup has been taped to my wounded breast. A cup, for God's sake. I feel no physical pain, only a sense of profound exhaustion. Not the pleasant weariness that comes from finishing, but the fatigue of only just beginning. Why can't this be over? Tom told me that the surgeon came to see him in the waiting room. He said that the surgery went well and that he doesn't think I have cancer.
Over the next few days, all I seem to able to say to Tom is, “Tell me again what the doctor said.” The monster under my childhood bed has turned into a bunch of cells on a slide and a pathology report yet unwritten. Still, I cling to the doctor's words.
When I tell some women in an Internet support group what the doctor said to Tom, three of them respond, “Don't get your hopes up.” Two of them say, “My doctor said that too, and he was wrong.”
What's with these women? I'm not asking for a guarantee. I'm just trying to stay positive. Maybe it's like those pregnancy competitions that women get into. If you tell a woman you have terrible heartburn, she'll tell you that she had heartburn so bad that she lost twenty-five pounds and had to be hospitalized. If you say you were in labor for eight hours, she'll tell you her labor was thirty-six hours long and the doctor had to use forceps.
I make the mistake of telling these same women that I have to wait a week for my results. “No way,” they say. “You should get your results in seventy-two hours.”
My surgeon explained that he doesn't freeze his specimens. He prepares his slides using a method that takes longer, and then he looks at every single slide. He told me it's like looking for a needle in a haystack. It used to be a breast and now it's a haystack. He explained that if there is a malignancy, we could be dealing with something fifty to hundred cells in size. “I keep looking until I'm sure,” he said. “I want to be able to sleep at night. To my knowledge I have never sent a woman home with a misdiagnosis.”
One woman tells me, “I did a lot of reading. I know what I'm talking about.” What does she think I've been doing? Cross-stitch?
Bio: Susan B. Townsend is a writer and stay at home mother. Transplanted from the west coast of Canada five years ago, she now makes her home on a 300 acre farm in southeastern Virginia with her husband, five children, and a zoo full of animals.