Routine surgery led to long days of fear, waiting

The Baltimore Sun

My mother went into the hospital in March for a hysterectomy after a test showed signs of ovarian cancer.

For a month before the surgery we worried about what cancer could mean to our family. What life for my three sisters and I would be like without our momma. How I, a single 33-year-old and the oldest, could get custody of my 15-year-old sister and suddenly be thrust into parenthood.

It turned out cancer would be the least of our worries.

Something went horribly wrong during my mother's surgery and she nearly bled to death. She ended up attached to a ventilator in the intensive care trauma unit at a hospital in Fairfax, Va. It was the place I always thought was reserved for gunshot and near-fatal car accident victims. Not for a 50-year-old getting a surgery that doctors perform every day with no complications.

But as I would learn in the most horrific week of my life, no surgery is routine. The possibility for complications always exists. I just never thought that would be the case for my mother.

She went in for her three-hour surgery at 8 a.m. March 6. By 11, doctors said she was in recovery and would be moved to a hospital room in 90 minutes or so.

I started to get antsy at 3 because I was tired of sitting around. I never suspected things weren't right until I saw her doctor walking quickly toward me with a troubled look on his face.

Your mother's blood pressure was very low, he told me. We had to take her back into the operating room. There was a lot of bleeding.

His words were a jumble to me. I heard what he was saying, but didn't want to believe it. I was too numb to say anything.

"I'm sorry this happened," were the last words I remember him saying to me.

My parents divorced when I was 10 and, from then on, my mother saw that her sole purpose in life was to raise her three daughters, and later a fourth, right. She was strict mainly because she was a teenage mother and didn't want us to repeat her mistakes.

She was also strongly devoted to us, working part-time jobs so we could have a good Christmas or overtime so I could have a nice dress for the homecoming dance.

The thought of something happening to her was almost more than I could handle.

My mother would be in surgery for three more hours before the doctor finally came back and said that everything would be OK. It was a grueling wait. I tried to stay positive, but my mind kept drifting to horrible thoughts of my mother dying on the operating table.

The doctor said the second surgery had gone fine. They had to bring in a trauma doctor to help suture a nicked vein and stop the bleeding. They had transfused 12 units of blood throughout the surgery.

But things didn't seem fine when I finally saw my mother. Her body was swollen because of the transfusions and the fluids they were giving her for nourishment.

She was so drugged with painkillers that she didn't recognize me or know where she was. My normally feisty, strong-willed, sarcastic and quick-tempered mother looked helpless and sick.

She would stay in that state for two days. I sat by her bedside for hours each day, not wanting her to regain consciousness without someone she loved nearby. The intensive care unit was a depressing place with people attached to beeping machines. I wondered how anybody could recover there.

But soon bits of my mother's personality started to return as she began to recover. She couldn't talk because of the ventilator but her eyes would show signs of recognition when she heard my voice. She laughed when a nurse joked she was going to hang herself after getting tangled up in all the cords and IV connections attached to machines monitoring my mother. When they began to wean her from the ventilator she became agitated at the feel of breathing on her own. The nurses and respiratory specialist couldn't calm her, but she piped down when I rubbed her shoulders and told her everything would be OK.

Finally, four days after my mother's surgery, her doctor called to tell me she would be moved to the regular hospital ward. The worst was over. Or so I thought.

When I arrived that afternoon, I was told that one of my mother's lungs had partially collapsed. She was still in intensive care, though one that was a step below that for trauma patients. I finally broke down and cried. It seemed as if my mother was never going to get better.

My mother's resilience won in the end. Oxygen treatments helped build her lungs. She became stronger and began to talk. Finally one day she asked me, "What happened to me in there?"

I told her about the blood loss, the days on a ventilator and nights where she didn't recognize anyone. My mother, normally a stubborn woman not afraid to speak her mind, was stunned into silence.

My mother is good-natured about what happened to her now. She doesn't remember most of the experience. The last thing she recalls is doctors frantically trying to figure out why her blood pressure had dropped.

"Am I dying?" She asked the doctor.

"No, you're not," he answered.

Technically my mother didn't die. But she now tells people she died and came back to life. Shortly after her ordeal, she began having nightmares of ghosts sitting in her room looking at her and screaming. She now jokes that maybe the dreams are a result of having so many other people's blood in her body.

The one good outcome from it all is that she doesn't have cancer. I still get anxious when I think back to that week. But I am thankful that God gave me the chance to spend more time with my mother.

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