When Life Gives You Stones, Turn Them Into Milestones, Etc.
It’s been six months since I went under the knife. The first time ever.
Not one of those firsts you go to town with. But a life-changing ‘first’ surely. I’ve always believed that one must document life’s significant experiences, most certainly the ‘firsts’ that are usually deemed unforgettable: First love, first kiss, first heartbreak, first job, first solo trip, first loss of someone dear, and so on. I do it, so that I can revisit them when I’m old and grey.
Undergoing a surgery for the first time was a hugely significant event in my life. Because I’m someone who would freak out about even a blood test or a shot of tetanus. Hence, writing about such an event should have been fairly easy. Because there’s just so much to express. Really.
But in the last six months, there have been several occasions when I sat down to write and reflect upon it, and every single time, I failed. I could go no further than a few paras. I trashed many drafts. I started and restarted. I went out for walks in between. But the suffocation and restlessness I felt every time I revisited the event made me incapable of documenting it.
And thus, this post stayed unwritten for half a year. My catharsis too remained incomplete. Because until I bleed in words, I am never done.
When I was admitted to the hospital after 72 hours of utterly painful and extremely invasive medical tests/scans, I was terrified beyond words. People usually have more time to prepare for a surgery like this, the nurses told me.
I didn’t. I didn’t want to either.
What would I do with more time? Prolong my misery? Feel more horrified? And perhaps collapse out of fear even before the actual procedure began?
I was glad there was no time to think, and barely enough time to react. In all the haste, I forgot that I was scared. Until that terrible, and terribly long, night before the surgery — the time I spent “preparing” for it.
I slipped into a pale green uniform, the sight of which made me depressed. They inserted pins and needles all over my arm. They came with ‘case history’ files and asked me endless (and uncomfortable) questions. They put me on a liquid diet that kept me hungry through the night. And did several other things, the details of which I shall spare.
It drained me, physically and psychologically.
That night was more dreadful than the night my grandmother, whom I was very attached to, was dying. I’d never imagined that I could feel any worse than that had made me feel.
But I did.
I did feel infinitely worse lying there on the cold hospital bed, tied to drips, smelling of medicines, breathing trepidation, and waiting to be cut open the next morning. Those 10 hours before heading to the OT made me realize that there’s only one way to overcome fear — it is to face it and be done with it.
I closed my eyes on the stretcher when I was being taken to the OT. I did not want to see anyone. Not even my family. But I could hear indistinct voices that made me feel nauseous. Why were people talking so much early in the morning? Couldn’t they respect the silence of the hour?
The doctors began by explaining the process of general anaesthesia to me. I freaked out when they said its impact would be on the lungs. I promptly asked:
“How long would it take for me to regain consciousness?”
“3–4 hours usually,” they said.
“Five hours at the most.”
What if I did not come back to life? I had left so much unsaid and undone. What if I never saw my loved ones again? What if?
I was gripped by a fear of the unknown.
It might seem like an exaggeration now, but at that precise moment when a team of people were just waiting to make me unconscious, those were the very emotions I felt.
They asked for my consent. I learnt that general anaesthesia was never done against the patient’s will. Good, at least somewhere in this country they honoured consent!
I wanted to say NO.
But the other option was partial anaesthesia, they told me, which meant I would be seeing the surgery live. While I feared that I wouldn’t resume consciousness after full anaesthesia, I had absolutely no doubts that if I was awake to my surgery, I would pass out instantly.
One of the anaesthetists assured me, “Don’t worry. This will be the best sleep of your life.” I smiled. Not because of what he’d said, but because he had soft, empathetic eyes. That’s all I could see on this masked face. Sigh!
Inside the OT, those 30 minutes before the general anaesthesia kicked in, were the most painful 30 minutes of my life. Extreme cold, blinding lights, injections, medicines, wires, monitors, masks, and whatnot. One moment I felt I’d die of thirst. And another moment, I thought I’d freeze to death. I winced in pain as a team of doctors held me tight and injected into my spinal cord. An electric shock travelled down my body. I trembled and screeched.
“DON’T MOVE !” I heard.
I didn’t know why I was there. Or what was happening around me. My brain was incapable of processing anything. But perhaps it did process a few things, which is why I can write about them now.
I wanted to see a familiar face. Just one would do. But there was none.
That was the worst I had felt in my life. Recollecting the OT experience is quite tough even now. I feel sick. And nauseous.
I don’t remember losing consciousness. Well, of course. It would’ve been odd if I did. But as I was coming back to my surroundings, I started feeling cold. I heard distant, muddled voices. And felt a strange numbness in my lower body. Through half-open eyes I sighted a nurse who was putting me on drips again.
She said, “We’ll shift you to your room now.”
“Where am I?”
“In the recovery room. After the operation, patients are kept here until they are fully conscious.”
“What time is it?”
“I want to see my parents.”
“They are waiting in your room. We’ll move you there now.”
The next four days were spent battling pain, nausea, sleeplessness and immobility. And tasteless, nearly inedible, hospital food.
What bothered me the most though was my immobility. I needed the assistance of three people to merely move sides on the bed. And despite that, it would be a tearful exercise. My physiotherapist and every doctor on duty would encourage me to start walking as soon as I could. “Take baby steps,” they said. “We’ll hold you from behind, so that you don’t fall.”
They warned me that I’d make it worse if I didn’t start moving.
On the fourth evening since the operation, I stood up somehow. There was extreme discomfort still. Every bone of my body ached. My head felt like a log of wood. The world around me spun. And I threw up. My attendant-nurse held me firmly. “This is normal,” she said. “You’ve been in the lying position for four days. It’ll be fine now.”
Almost magically, after that little setback, I gathered the physical strength to “take baby steps” that night. It was hard, mighty hard. But I could do it. I strolled in my room for 30 minutes straight. And by the next morning, when the surgeon came on his customary round, he found me walking (baby steps still) without any support.
“Bravo!” He patted me.
“I want to go home.”
“Yes, today. I’ll ask them to get your discharge papers ready.”
“How am I doing?”
“YOU tell me.”
“I can’t walk much. I can’t sleep well. And there’s this strange irritation in my throat when I speak.”
“That’s a side effect of the anaesthesia tube we had inserted in your throat. It’ll clear in a few days.”
WHAT?! TUBES DOWN MY THROAT?! WHY DID NO ONE TELL ME BEFORE?! WHAT IF I SOUND HOARSE FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE?!
I wanted to scream. But “OK” is all I could manage.
“Go home and you’ll be fit in a month.”
“When will my stitches come off?”
“In a week. But we’ll put a wash-proof dressing. So, you can shower normally.”
It was on Diwali day when I left the hospital on a wheelchair. Every staff member I met on the way out wished me. I was amazed at their warmth and constant cheerfulness. I knew they were trained, but weren’t they human too? How could anyone consistently sport a smile in such depressing environs?
I remembered asking one of the young nurses during my sleepless nights:
“Why did you choose this work? Of cleaning blood and wounds and waste?”
“Achha lagta hai… logon ke liye karna,” she said in broken Hindi. “Hamare Kerala mein nursing ka bahut shauk hai.”
“Is this your first job?”
“Why did you come to Mumbai?”
“Nursing school se idhar bheja.”
“Don’t you miss home?”
“Hamare aur bhi dost hai idhar.”
“In this hospital?”
“Haan, hum sab ek saath aaye.”
She smiled as she sponged me, dressed my wounds, changed my drips and gave me medicines. If there was any sliver of comfort in all my pain and wretchedness, it lay in that innocent, contented smile of hers.
When I came home, I cried. It was perhaps the most natural thing to do.
My mother, my pillar of strength, said to me, “You’re back home in five days. You did well.” And I cried even more. A part of me couldn’t bear to look at her weary face. And another part couldn’t believe that I was back within a week. I had imagined a lot worse. Hypochondriac!
I spent the next one month recovering at home. Doctors had warned me about post-operative depression, which is a common side effect of anaesthesia. Also, because I’d suffered from extreme pre-surgery anxiety, I had to be careful. But the unstinting love, care and good humour of family and friends helped me steer clear of depression. There were occasional moments of melancholy though. But books, music, movies, and green tea (ugh!) kept me company.
And a month since the procedure, I resumed work. Slowly yet surely, life was returning to normal.
It’s been six months. I’m better. But not ailment-free. There are some things I won’t do now — like lift a heavy object. There are some smells that haunt me still — like the room freshener at the hospital. There are some moments that give me nightmares even now — like that shock down my spine.
Doctors tell me that I have a condition that “isn’t curable, but manageable”. It occasionally makes me wonder if I should look at the glass half empty or half full. Or be nonchalant and take whatever comes my way.
And just remind myself of a popular Hindi film dialogue: “Pagal, yeh mat soch ki zindagi mein kitne pal hai … Yeh dekh ki har pal mein kitni zindagi hai.”
Guess the movie!