Going Under the Knife

This is when things really started to happen, and if I thought I had been through some hoops before, I was sadly mistaken. The next few weeks and even couple of months would challenge me in ways I could never imagine. As I sit writing this now, I can look back at the surgery and recovery phases and find some things to laugh about, but I would be lying if I said I found humour in anything at the time. I could really laugh out loud while having the crap of my life after drinking Colyte, but laying in a hospital bed bleeding or rolling around in agony on my living room floor has no such fond memories. But damn it, everyone tells me my blog is funny so I’m feeling a little pressure here…

When I woke from my surgery I said, “Now I’m a semi-colon!” Ba da bum bum. I got a million of ’em. Try the veal. I’ll be here all week. Unless I die.

It was an early start on Tuesday, June 8, 2010, with a 6:30am check-in to the surgery unit at Trillium Mississauga. I was miserable because I hadn’t eaten any solid food since the previous Saturday and we walked past the in-hospital Tim Horton’s on the way to check in. The smell of the baked goods and coffee made my knees weak and my mouth water, and I wanted to stuff a dozen doughnuts right down my throat. My surgery was at 8:30 and it was a weird, sort of floaty out of body feeling watching the second hand sweep ever so slowly around the clock. Lots of people coming and going, and family members lingering at the bedsides of their loved ones. Of course, Dale brought me to the hospital, but once she got me checked in, a kiss and a long look from the big brown eyes, and she was off to race back home to take Maddy to school. Nurses hustling around. Someone answer that goddamn phone please. I was left with my own thoughts, and not even a crappy magazine; I’d have settled for Cosmo Girl at that point. I remember thinking about how much the world has changed in my lifetime, but feeling as though it was still 1965 in that waiting area. Those same floor tiles in that beige colour with the pebbly bits in them (how do they make those anyway?), and the horrible non-colour of paint on the walls. Is it green, blue or beige, or some sort of wretched combination of all three? I guess it’s too expensive to give the hospital a little makeover every five years, but hopefully they had upgraded all the important things.

The anesthetist came to see me. For hygiene reasons the OR staff have to wear something to contain their hair, and many of the doctors wear what look like doo-rags. Oh great, ‘Lil Wayne is my anesthetist. He had a big wad of paper – let’s get these people some iPads or something – and I signed a bunch of papers absolving him of responsibility if I died. I jest, but that’s really the upshot of those waivers isn’t it?

I was wheeled into the OR and there were no soothing words or a calming hand on my back this time. Fuck, I was nervous.

For about the tenth time that morning I was asked for my date of birth and what procedure I was having done, all part of the redundancy checks they do at the hospital. Good, good. Can’t have me getting a leg amputated or something. I don’t remember much else – the big operating room lights, machines hissing and beeping, the measured tones of the doctors and nurses as they spoke. And what the hell is that smell?

Grossness alert – graphic description of surgery to follow.

Over the next couple of hours I was sliced open from my navel down about six or seven inches, my guts pulled out like a magician’s scarf (this would be an important point later), and the diseased section of my colon cut out plus a few inches on either side (what they call the margins), and the remaining ends stapled together. They would also take out a bunch oflymph nodes, because cancer is known to spread through your body via the limbic system. Stuff it all back in and staple me up. Lovely.

I awoke at about noon in the recovery area in the worst pain I had ever experienced, to that point, but that was quickly taken care of by the nursing staff. Zing! Can I get this stuff in a six pack? Kidding. I would be no fan of morphine within a day or two. I think I went right back to sleep and don’t remember too much more about the recovery room. There are some vague memories of getting transferred into my bed in my room in the surgery ward, and Dale says she stayed with me in my room for a couple of hours but I don’t remember. She and Madeline visited that evening but I don’t remember too much about that either. There was a bright spot of news on this awful day: Dale’s oldest sister had called her to announce she had gotten engaged over the weekend.

At this point I was still waiting for the phone in my room to be switched on and for the fabulous six inch TV to be activated. I believe it was made in Soviet Russia from old tractor parts and vodka bottles and was coal powered. I tried reading a few of the magazines I had brought but was exhausted after a single paragraph. I noticed the quadricep in my right leg was completely numb but didn’t think anything of it at the time.

I’ve had a few surgeries over the years, and one thing in common with them all is that the day of the surgery usually isn’t too bad in terms of dealing with pain. I guess you still have a lot of anesthetic in you or something – I don’t know – but the worst pain and discomfort starts the day after. I was kind of feeling that way as I settled in to my room. Gee, this isn’t too bad. Thankfully, Dale’s benefit plan paid for a semi-private room, and we splurged for the upgrade to a private room. King of the cancerous castle. I got acquainted with the pain pump button you use to dose yourself with morphine if you start hurting, and tried to relax.

Of course I had all kinds of tubes connected to me at this time, including one for my IV, which would deliver not only the morphine but also antibiotics and WD40 (kidding, it’s D5W) which was important because I wasn’t eating anything. The IV was connected to a little box that had a pump in it. Gone are the days of the IV gravity feed/drip and I guess the pump does a better job of controlling the flow. It’s a little machine that plugs into the wall, and aside from it being a nuisance to have to get up and unplug it before I could go anywhere, it also made this annoying little noise every sixty seconds or so, about the time it would take me to drift off to sleep. I’d be awakened by it’s little ‘squee!’ sound. I hated that fucking thing within a few hours. Did you see the movie Office Space? Remember that scene where they took the printer out into a field and beat the snot out of it with a baseball bat? Word. It also had an alarm built into it so that if it ran out of medication or it stopped pumping or something, the nurses could take action. Here was a classic case of the unintended consequences of technology. The darn thing would stop pumping all the time if I rolled over and pinched the tube or something, or sometimes the alarm went off for no reason at all. Result: the nursing staff ignore the alarms. They tune them out, and at any given time there are dozens of little alarms going off throughout the ward. Are we having fun yet? After a while I learned how to reset the little bitch myself.

The other thing connected to me was a catheter, which kind of surprised me when I first realized it was there. But if you think about it, I was in no condition to get up and go for a pee. I wouldn’t have thought it possible for me to despise an inanimate object so much, but I am truly lost for words to describe my hatred for it. Aside from having this tube shoved into my John Thomas and up to my bladder, they had taped the lead to my hairy leg, to keep it from tugging I guess. This is not a good combination. Thankfully I only had it in for a couple days, by which point I was sure the tube had a covering of tree bark with vinegar as a lubricant. The only thing that was remotely amusing about the experience was the reaction of the nurses upon seeing that I was dutifully filling up the urine bag, as though I was a puppy who had peed on the newspaper for the first time. Who’s a good boy? This would turn out to be the beginning of a very long trend in my recovery: genuine excitement about the most basic bodily functions. Over the next few days and weeks, every fart and tiny little turd would be reverently received like manna from heaven. I imagined my farts in little football jerseys getting hoisted onto people’s shoulders while a marching band played, or turds in business suits parading down Fifth Avenue in a ticker tape parade, waving to the adoring crowds.

A complication of this very invasive surgery on my digestive system is that once the organ is manhandled (in this case my lower intestine), it basically shuts down, and getting the system started back up again is a very delicate and slow process. At that point in time, that meant I couldn’t even have a drink of water, but got to suck on a tiny little sponge when my mouth was dry. In a few days I could have an ice cube!

So, with a grotesquely swollen belly with staples and a huge bandage on it, my wee sponges, chapstick, and a final ‘squee!’, I drifted off to sleep.

EAT, POO, LOVE is a comedy based on Paul Clement’s journey through colon cancer, from diagnosis to recovery. With a balance of humour and humility, it explores the fears, complexities and realities of dealing with cancer. Our patient surrenders his dignity with grace and insight, facing his doctors, his family, his own mortality, and even his tumour and all it represents. For Ticket and Fringe Festival information visit www.eatpoolove.com