Familiarity breeds… Boredom? Anxiety? Disdain? How about night terrors?
A shadowy figure broke into my house, into my room, into my dreams. In that way dreams have of telling us what’s going on I knew he was a burglar but he didn’t seem interested in burgling anything. All he did was cut me. Over and over he cut me: slices to my ears, stabs on my face, cuts to my arms and hands… painful small cuts, the kind that, added up to 10,000, cause death. Oh, those cuts. They hurt. I screamed.
The scream woke me up. I shuddered, shook my head at the horror of the nightmare and fell back into sleep – and back into the dream.
The cutting man was still there. Not a gloater, he was nothing like Hollywood Evil. Just a man with a grim task to do. His knife looked like a scalpel, blood ran from my cuts. Why was he doing this? Why didn’t I fight back? If he was the thief the dream insisted he was, why didn’t he just take something and go?
I woke up so quickly at my second scream the sound was still in my room. I was sweating, my heart raced. The cuts burned but I couldn’t see the blood in the dark. My sleep was as deep rooted as the dream inside me and again I fell back into both.
The third time I screamed myself out from under his knife I forced myself out of bed, went to the the bathroom, walked the rooms in my apartment until I was sure I would not again fall prey to the grim shadowy man wielding his scalpel. It took a while to work and there was little sleep left when I finally went back to bed.
Three hours later my alarm went off. I got up, dressed, and headed to the medical center to repeat an ultrasound of my liver I’d had two weeks earlier.
The first ultrasound was routine, a periodic check for tumors in case the cancer that was the cause of my liver transplant had resurfaced. The scenario was unlikely – I’d had many tests before and they showed nothing. Statistically the odds of recurrence were low. I sailed in and out that morning thinking about where to go for breakfast after the tech wiped the goo from my belly.
A few days later the report showed no sign of tumors and hooray for that. But a footnote noted something… what exactly? They weren’t sure. Something to do with the bile duct? My bilirubin (bile levels) had been elevated lately. Was the duct bent? Was it keeping bile from flowing out of the liver? The doc ordered a second ultrasound.
A bit of liver transplant plumbing: When surgeons install a new liver they hook up all the arteries and veins and other connectors on the new organ to the same pipes and fittings the old liver used. If they didn’t, well that would be like installing a new carburetor in an auto engine without hooking it up to the fuel line and manifold. Neither human nor car would go anywhere.
Most of these re-connects are of reasonable size and capable of manipulation, at least by a surgeon. But the bile duct, a small tube that drains the toxins the liver pulls out of blood and dumps them into your intestine for disposal, is a narrow thin-walled straw. Stitching the two halves together is by all accounts one of the harder parts of the surgery. Even well attached the duct remains a weak point. Think of a bent drinking straw straightened out: if a leak occurs it’ll be at the bent point.
A kinked bile duct means a) your liver fills up with bile; b) your body fills up with bile, c) you turn a ghoulish yellow-green, d) you feel really miserable and e) you wind up in surgery, stat.
And that is why I approached ultrasound test 2 with such fear. All I could see was myself back on the icy metal slab in the OR, waiting for then recovering from surgery. Seems I’ve run out of tolerance for that kind of thing.
Truth is, the idea of another body-slicing fills me with night terrors like that anonymous body cutter visiting in the night. I know too much, not just about surgery but myself. I know that if surgery is called for, I’ll probably acquiesce. In for a penny, in for a pound goes the cliché. I spent that pound a long time ago.
Everybody is afraid of surgery. The thought of having someone muck about in our really private parts, the ones even we don’t get to see, having our innards fiddled with by strangers wielding knifes and forceps while we are gassed into oblivion is not something we choose to think about until we have to.
For those who’ve never experienced surgery, it is the ultimate personal definition of the fear of the unknown. It certainly was for me five years ago.
My experience having my skin cut and my intestines moved about, having parts removed and replaced, followed by the surreal, almost unspeakable strangeness of recovery that follows seems to have ushered me on to a new level of fear: terror of the familiar.
It isn’t pain that frightens. It isn’t another scar. Recovery is weird and wearying but manageable, even revelatory in a sick way. The hospital stay – well, I’ve developed an acute allergic reaction to the enforced confinement; only severe illness or heavy medication keeps me inside my head.
It is the fast rise and slow fade of anesthesia that is true test of endurance and recovery. Anesthesia plagues me more than any physical complication. Compared often – and poorly – to a deep sleep, researchers recently developed a more accurate analogy: to anesthetize is to place the body in an induced coma.
I have an even simpler analogy: Anesthesia is artificial death. I feel the disconnect from life each time I’m put under and the slow, confusing reconnect after the sedation is withdrawn. I have experienced death quite enough for one lifetime in other circumstances, right down to the apocryphal walk down the long hall to the light. Twice. Returning to this world after surgery leaves me with a profound loss and something unexpected found, neither of which I want.
That slasher with his scalpel, the dozens of cuts he inflicted that wounded me but did not kill or show, my acquiescence in his brutality… this is one dream I don’t have to pay a psychiatrist to interpret.