I am no stranger to eye surgery. I’ve had so many of them you’d think it would be easier just to rip the thing out and replace it with wood puddy. I’m sure all eye cancer survivors are familiar with this feeling. But the last one was different. It could have been because I was at a different place. Or used a different surgeon. Or, quite possibly, it could have been the fact that I was awake the entire time.
It all happened in a blur – the doctors telling me that I had a cataract that simply must be removed, that my eye was dangerously close to exploding with excess pressure, that my retina would forever be damaged. The procedure had to be done sooner rather than later or face rather ugly consequences. But I was pregnant – over six months so – and I didn’t want to do it. But there I was, faced with the choice of having surgery while pregnant, IV drugs and anesthesia seeping into my son’s developing little brain, or waiting as each long day stretched on to see if my eye would blow up like a defective bomb. Did they think I’d risk anesthesia drugs when I wouldn’t even eat feta cheese for fear my unborn child might get botulism? That’s crazy talk.
So I asked the logical question. Can I do it without anesthesia? After all, Lidocaine would numb up the eye so I couldn’t feel any pain. Right? “Uh, I guess,” the doctor said. He said he had a heart patient once that couldn’t have anesthesia or his heart would stop, and that guy lived. This was his one eclectic example. Awesome.
But on the day of surgery, it wasn’t a joking matter. A much older nurse walked in and repeated that I was to have eye surgery with only a small amount of IV anesthesia. “You are mistaken,” I said loudly (how did I know she wasn’t actually hard of hearing?). “No anesthesia,” I said. “None at all.”
Another nurse came in to start an IV, which is apparently a requirement whether you have drugs or not, and we all listened with a fetal heart rate monitor to my little boy, kicking and spinning happily in my belly, oblivious to the word outside the womb. Finally, I saw the surgeon. But instead of assuring me that this would be fine and my decision to go IV-free was a noble one – he thought it might be wise to let me know that moving, even a slight bit, could have disastrous consequences. I didn’t find this little lecture particularly comforting. Does one tell an astronaut that one false move might mean he’s forever thrust into the abyss of space, never to return to the life and family he knew? Not helpful. But there he goes, telling me to be still. Like moving during awake surgery would be something I planned on doing. “Can’t you tape my head down with duct tape?” I asked. He snickered at that, which I thought was a perfectly reasonable request. “Won’t do any good,” he replied. “If you were going to move, no tape would hold you.”
Then, as my face turned to the color of copy paper, he told me that since my eye was full of oil (to hold up my tired and radiation-damaged retina), which is “not like normal folks,” it was also possible that his incision might cause the oil to come rushing out like slicing a hole in a water balloon, running into places it shouldn’t. “That would be a real emergency,” he said. He waits until now to tell me this? “Well let’s try to avoid that,” I said, seeing my husband out of the corner of my good eye kicking the floor.
Finally, I was wheeled to the OR. Along the way, I was lectured by the anesthesiologist that at any time he would start IV anesthesia if I couldn’t handle the pressure, or got too anxious. “I’ll be just fine,” I lied, thinking about oil oozing out of my eye and into my brain, laughing and dancing with freedom.
The temperature in the OR felt something like Alaska in the dead of winter, so they covered me with warm blankets. They began to strap probes to my chest and someone stuck a breathing tube in my nose. “What the heck’s that for?” I asked, but everyone was so busy they didn’t answer. Then, I realized why. After wiping half my head down with iodine, they stuck a piece of plastic down around my face with a hole in it in the center to expose the surgical field. The rest seemed to cling like saran wrap and came down on all sides. It now made perfect sense why all the nurses were asking me if I had claustrophobia. I think perhaps I do, just a bit, when my face is covered in plastic so that the only way I can breathe is to assume oxygen is coming in through the tube in my nose. Huh. Didn’t see that one coming.
So there I was, sucking down oxygen, my arms secured to my side with Velcro straps, waiting. Dear Lord. I just can’t do this on my own. Finally, after a few shots of a numbing agent, the surgeon went to work. I tried to imagine I was lying on the beach in Aruba the summer my husband passed his bar exam, the night we sat on the sand and watched the moon edge into the night sky. I used those tips they gave you in yoga and childbirthing classes, relaxing and breathing in deeply. I told God that this effort was for my unborn child, which should count for double, so maybe this thing could just hurry-on-up.
Then, I heard my surgeon ask the nurse for an instrument (I’m making up the words of the instruments since I don’t remember the exact medical terms).
“I need a 2.75 septical,” he ordered. Pause.
“We have a 2.8 septical, Dr. Walters,” she said clearly in response.
“I actually need the 2.75,” he replied. Suddenly I’m ripped from Aruba and I’m back in an operating room, feeling like I’m participating in my own nightmare. I wanted to yell at the nurse. “He wants a 2.75! Give him what he wants, damnit!” I was screaming on the inside. I thought I might be shaking. Suddenly, the nurse’s voice reappeared.
“Here it is, doctor,” she said, as she must have been attempting to hand it to him. Another pause.
“Actually,” he said, “I don’t trust your instruments. Can you rip open my emergency kit?” he asked someone in the distance. “That one there, right by the door? Reach in and grab by 2.75 septical.”
Of course, the emergency kit. During surgery where I can’t move or my eye oil will come oozing out and bad things will happen. And I’m freaking pregnant. Does any of this shock me? Of course not. That’s exactly my luck. But I am usually not awake to hear about it.
Annnnnd, he was in my eye again, doing something important. Suddenly, I was sweating. Why was I covered with so many blazing hot blankets? I couldn’t find the moon anymore. And my nose had a sudden itch that couldn’t be scratched. After what felt like an hour, I tried to speak. Being fearful that talking might make me somehow move, it sounded more like “whaddadon.”
“Well right here, I’ve got an instrument with diamond dust on the bottom,” he said, emphasizing the word diamond like it was supposed to be really impressive. “I’m just doing a little scrubbing. You’ve got lots of debris in here I’m trying to get rid of.”
“I sure like diamons,” I muttered through my clenched jaw. He snickered at that one.
Eventually, it was over. They ripped the plastic off my face, unhooked my arms, and let me breathe good ‘ol OR air without a breathing tube. As I was wheeled back to the post-op room, where my husband was waiting, I felt strangely normal. “Pretty easy,” I lied.
My son is two years old now, full of energy and strength. He is a wanderer, my boy. He likes to be outside, exploring and running and feeling the dirt in his hands. He is strong. He is healthy. He is perfect. I use my eye to wink at him, my precious son, as he runs around the back yard with disheveled hair. I have my hand on my hip, about to stir up a batch of brownies.
“Ya’ll be careful on that slide,” I’ll yell through the open window. My heart is filled with a surge of love as I see him.
Diamond, or no diamond, I am so incredibly rich. I am filled with so many blessings I feel like my soul might burst instead of mere oil. I am lucky to survive. I am lucky to be linked with such a strong, beautiful man. I am lucky to have two children who take my breath away on a daily basis.
But truth be told, it’s not really luck. I’d have run out by now given the comedies of my life. I think instead it’s grace, and a love greater than one I’ve ever known. God was there then. He is there now. Guiding and holding me still when my body is full of tremors and doubt and fear.
Sometimes that love is too overwhelming for me to take in, like a basket full of diamonds twinkling in the light of the afternoon sun. I sure like diamonds. They remind me of things that are pure, and unchanging. Things that last forever.