Cancer Surgery In Times of Covid-19
Updated: Mar 8
I couldn’t have chosen a worse time, but for the third time in 20 years I needed a major abdominal surgery to right-size my disease. My wonderful oncologist could no longer tackle with job with pills and maintenance chemotherapy alone.
With inpatient COVID-19 volumes rising, the hospital made a policy decision to ban visitors, including family, so it was just me and my crack medical team for a week following a stem to stern incision. They planned a thorough examination of the peritoneum, excision of any visible disease, and this time the bonus treatment of a cis-platinum wash and rinse.
Of course I would have preferred avoiding the entire thing, but I’m at the sweet spot between when the disease has become visible, but before it has spread too far. That’s what the chemo wash handles.
Lucky me, with scheduled surgery at a time when hospitals were staring down pandemic of historic proportion. Plus, having it through the height of the holiday season when I couldn’t enjoy the direct support of family at my bedside.
My husband dropped me off by the ER the evening before so I could get a final COVID test. It was negative, so I was granted access to the interior chambers of the hospital where medical wonders would occur. While I sat in the empty hallway feeling a bit like a mouse in the baseboard, waiting for my test, I wondered how much disease was floating in the cubic air I breathed.
My mind drifted to this passage from the novel I’m working about New York at the turn of the last century, written months before anyone foresaw the impending pandemic: “Tiny droplets, containing the tuberculosis infection had reached a critical level in the unventilated tenements. The ubiquitous, microscopic droplets of disease entered unwitting bodies as they talked, teased, kissed, ate and cuddled their families – coughing all the while. Passing through the mouth into the lungs, the bacteria burrowed deep into the sweet, nutrient rich lining, feasting with unabated delight. Little did we know it was the beginning of a horrific tuberculosis epidemic – one that would forever change our lives.”
My red, rolling carry on contained numerous pajama bottoms, a bathrobe, toiletry bag and pair of slippers – pretty much all the clothing I needed for a week in the hospital. My second bag (no extra charge) contained electronics, an assortment of “I’s” – I-pad, I-phone etc.
While so many of my friends have struggled with the isolation of the pandemic, my body has cared little about its psychological influence. I spend every minute of the day battling a disease with no cure and have found a way to barely think about it. Diagnosed 12 years ago and given a 25% 10 year survival, I’m in no man’s land. Surprisingly, aside for my treatment fatigue (or is it age?) and famous napping, I feel great. I brag I’ve never had a cancer symptom. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had plenty of symptoms – from the treatments themselves. More about that another time, perhaps.
Finally settled in my inpatient room, I Face-Timed my husband and blew him a kiss. After bidding farewell, I lay back thinking about two things. First, how I was going to hang onto all my personal things as I transitioned unconsciously from room to room over the next few days, and second, if I’d forgotten anything. Curious I chose to ruminate about things over which I had no control. I should have known better.
My assigned nurse was lovely as she started IV lines, gave instructions about the pre-surgical prep, shared life stories – what a pro. I knew I couldn’t ask her to kiss me goodnight, but rest assured, I wanted to. The next morning came too quickly. I woke to the words, “The OR is ready for you.” Was I ready for them?
I called my husband again. He sounded relaxed and sleepy, how dare him. I was jealous as he reasurred me, “see you on the other side”.
Which other side?
Seconds flashed by and I was inside the OR, a room jammed with high tech machines, screens and gleaming instruments. Everyone marveled at the efficiency – patient ready for an on-time start. Lucky them.
My handsome surgeon, a year younger than my eldest, flashed his twinkling blue eyes and asked if I had any further questions. I had no medical ones remaining, but my mind was full of existential ones, was he really old enough to use a knife at the table, where’d the time go, did he get enough sleep, do any drinking the evening before, have his breakfast, use the men’s room and was he happy in his marriage – anything that might distract him while he held knives and cauterizers in my belly.
Minutes, hours, days later I awoke. Trying to shake off the filmy, heavy feeling in my body, I realized I was in fact, on the other side. My sturdy body was reduced to a freeway system of tubes, often times tangled. It was impossible to move without setting off alarms.
The alarms were the acid test of my resilience, ability to keep my cool and be woken from blissful sleep for no apparent reason. I was weepy and missed my family, but was not in pain. And I stayed like that for days, crying at Christmas commercials, longing for ice chips, amazed at the warmth and empathy of most staff and missing my grandchildren. I was able to enjoy the Christmas morning videos and watched many over and over again. Texts and emails from friends and family always came at the nick of time, just when I needed a lift.
I made it, able to return home in record time – five days. I’ve been resting and inching my way back to life before with a big smile on my face. Like my friends, I eagerly await my vaccine and a gradual transition to whatever our next version of normal may be.
I love my life.