Editor’s note: This is one in a series of columns by former Journal columnist David Rooks, who recently had a successful surgery to remove a tumor from his esophagus.
During WWII, at dawn, on a troop ship in the South Pacific, and on a day scheduled for a beach assault, the mood was sullen and surly in the crowded mess hall. My Dad broke the thick silence with a quote: “The condemned man ate a hearty breakfast.”
This was not well received; glares came from every direction. Of course, said Dad, it was a joke. A week before last Tuesday, at 4:30 a.m., I thought of this on the ride to surgery at Regional Hospital. I chuckled at Pop’s temerity 75 years ago.
The pre-surgery drill was brisk and professional. Before dawn, I was on my back on a gurney, hospital gown inviting cool air through every cavernous hole. Though I don’t drink, I might have welcomed a shot of whiskey. But, the “condemned man” was NPO (nil per os), which literally means: “nothing by mouth.
No “hearty breakfast” for me — not even a sip of water from the prior evening on. Standard for surgery, of course. Sandi was with me. However crisp their actions, every nurse and doctor was friendly and positive. Remarkable for that hour, I thought. How does our country produce such fine people?
Wheeled into the operating room, the overhead lights had an interrogatory intensity. They amplified every pore. These moments were like approaching a waterfall: the roar of the unknown neared in my head; the quick queries of the masked and gowned folks surrounding me became muted and distant. I thought of my Sherpa; then, I disappeared.
I awoke heavily to loud voices that seemed to think it was very important I open my eyes and show signs of life. Confusedly, I tried to oblige. Then, for an unknown period, I drifted in and out, vaguely aware I’d been moved more than once. Then came the awful: I dreamed I was suffocating, drowning. After several moments of this, I accepted I was going to die. Then, just as suddenly, I could breathe again — and drifted off to sleep
The drowning terrified. I learned later this nightmare likely came when I was having the intubated breathing tube removed from my throat. Turns out, it is very important — if you can — to breathe on your own. More vertigo came from a confusion with time. I’d been told my surgery would take about 6 to 8 hours. I went into the operating room at 7 a.m. When foggily coherent, I thought it early to mid-afternoon; instead, it was 9 at night. The operation took 12 and a half hours.
News of the length of surgery gave a vague panic. “Had something gone wrong?” “Would I be strong enough to recover?” Then poured in the pain. While still underneath the surgical painkillers and anesthetics, I had a blissful bonhomie; I was friends with the world. When I was reduced to mere morphine and Toradol, wolves gathered at the tree line.
My surgery, I’m told, was pretty high tech, compliments of state-of-the-art robotics; seven small incisions around my chest and stomach total, a chest tube for drainage out my right side and a smaller reduction to the length of my esophagus than previously thought necessary. But throat damage caused by the removal of the breathing tube, along with irritation caused by a nasal gastric (NG) tube that ran through my nostrils and down into my esophagus — and just the general outrage to a body that a 12-hour surgery necessitates — and I was hurting badly.
I whimpered more in a day and a half in the ICU than in all my 62 years prior. My strategy was to persevere, moment by moment, and to ask the nurses regularly for an increase to my pain drugs. I became a clock watcher, meticulous to the minute when I could receive my next dose.
The quick move from the ICU to a ninth-floor surgical recovery room seemed fast. And it was. My stay, too, on the surgical recovery ward was shortened as well. After three days, Sandi pulled up in front of the hospital and I was wheeled out to her car after being discharged that early Saturday evening. It seemed remarkable, and it was. Dr. Fromm, my surgeon, and my oncologists, Drs. Petereit and Schroeder, after seeing my pathology report, and noting my ability to ambulate in the presence of my physical therapist, were extremely pleased.
For the time-being, I am cancer free; technically speaking, I am in remission.
Now begins the period — the remainder of my life — when I must be vigilant. Cancer has a nasty habit of coming back. There will be blood test and endoscopies and scans periodically on and on into the misty future. But, save for the complications of surgery — my esophagus is no longer entirely an esophagus now, part of it, a big part, is now stomach tissue — I am healthy. A long recovery and return to ordinary strength looms ahead.
But I am cancer free.
All due respect and praise to medical science and the skill and artful and loving patience of the dozens of providers I have been blessed to come to know over the past six months. But mostly, on my knees, with outstretched arms my heart sings hosannas to God.
“Praised be Jesus, praised be His holy name,
praised be the Son of God who died on the cross
to free all men from sin;
All glory and honor be unto Him
crucified on the cross
to become Eucharist for us.
Praised be His holy name.”
Next week: What’s next?