Major lessons from minor surgery

Operation - Major lessons from minor surgery

Christmas 2015 was memorable for me, but, alas, not for its merriment. On December 22, I had elective “minor” surgery to remove a lipoma near my right jaw. (A lipoma is a fatty deposit, basically a benign tumour, usually located between the skin and the underlying muscle.) While the lipoma wasn’t painful and not even really visible, it had grown to a diameter of two centimeters. So after monitoring it for several years with multiple ultrasounds and a biopsy, I decided to finally have it removed. Below is my experience: a.k.a. major lessons from “minor” surgery.

 A li- what?

I discovered the lipoma about 10 years ago, when I felt a doughy spot near my right jaw. My family doctor sent me for an ultrasound, with the initial suspicion it was a swollen lymph node. Numerous ultrasounds and a couple of specialists later, and the diagnosis changed to a lipoma.

I’ve since learned that these growths usually show up in middle age and can run in families. Lipomas aren’t usually cancerous, and only cause problems if they grow too large, become painful or contain multiple blood vessels. (If a new lump appears and you’re unsure of the cause, don’t self-diagnose, go to the doctor.)

Lesson 1: “Minor” surgery can have major complications

The initial surgery went off without a hitch. As the lipoma was located in a delicate area, my ear, nose and throat specialist removed it in hospital under general anesthesia. The procedure involved cutting a small flap around my right ear in order to extract the deposit.

Unfortunately, about an hour into recovery, the right side of my face started to swell. Concerned, my doctor decided to admit me and applied a very tight pressure bandage around my head. The look was a cross between a cartoon mummy and the old-school bandage treatment for toothaches. I was disheartened to be hospitalized two nights before Christmas, but my doc was confident I’d be released the next day.

Lesson 2: Beware of mixing meds even when dispensed by hospital staff

While I wasn’t in severe pain, I was nervous about that changing when the anesthesia completely wore off. So I accepted a dose of morphine offered by a nurse. And a couple of hours later when a pounding headache set in, I asked for a pain reliever and received a Tylenol 3 with codeine. Shortly after, I began vomiting severely. I don’t know if that was caused by anesthesia or being unaccustomed to taking strong meds. What I do know is the results sure weren’t pretty.

The next morning I had the beginning of a black eye, bruising along my right chin and on my neck. Plus, my right cheek had started to swell and form a small bump, which my doctor had warned earlier could mean a blood clot. I asked the day nurse about it, but she didn’t think it was a concern, and I was released.

My husband then drove me to my specialist’s office for a post-surgery checkup. Walking into the clinic with gauze encircling my head, a black eye and accelerating bruising and swelling, I wanted to be invisible. The doctor had no absolute answer why I looked the way I did. (We both now think the vomiting had torn the stitches, causing the bleeding).

He also said the bruising would continue to increase as the blood travelled around my face and down my neck. The doctor then sent me home and told me to come back at end of day when he would decide if I needed another surgery to stop the swelling.

Lesson 3: A small insight into what people who look “different” experience

As I walked out of the office, a little girl heading in had to be comforted by her mom as she stared at my bandaged and swollen face. I can now check off “scaring children” from my bucket list.

Later that day, I started to bleed through the bandage around my right ear. So it was no surprise that when I returned to the doctor’s office, he advised I’d be having emergency surgery that night.

When we got to the ER, I felt a lot of eyes on me. I can’t blame the people in the waiting room. I looked rough. But I wasn’t prepared for the looks of suspicion from some of the hospital staff. Instead of empathy, the nurse who did my initial intake asked in a confrontational tone: “What happened?!” I’m sure she thought I’d either been mugged or was a victim of domestic abuse. Although her attitude changed as soon as I advised I’d had surgery there the previous day, I wonder how many crime and abuse victims receive judgment instead of caring.

Lesson 4: I’m both stronger and more vulnerable than I thought

At 11:30 p.m. I was finally rolled into the operating room. Due to the bad reaction I’d had after the first surgery, this second operation was done under a local. (I was numb but completely awake, and let’s just say it wasn’t pleasant.)

Thankfully, that surgery went well, and was finished about 1 a.m. on Christmas Eve. I had my stitches removed the week before last, and now have only a still-healing scar around my ear, a small bruise under my right eye and the last remnants of a large bruise on my lower chest.

The fact I didn’t do very well after the first surgery left me feeling vulnerable. I’m accustomed to being fit and active. And I was also used to being a caregiver for my late mother, so it was odd to be dependent for several days on my husband. On the other hand, having his support, as well as concern from family and friends, gave me a profound feeling of gratitude and strength. I’m also convinced that my healthy lifestyle and fitness helped me heal quickly. The experience also magnified my empathy for people going through really serious health issues, considering how traumatic this “minor” procedure turned out to be.

We had to postpone the family dinner we had planned for the 25th. But I guess these major lessons from minor surgery were memorable Christmas “gifts.” Although next year I think I’d prefer jewellery.



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