Although I’ve been trying alternative treatments to correct an ongoing medical problem for the past three years, they were unsuccessful; so I knew I could not push off major surgery much longer (thankfully for something that was not life-threatening and was benign). Just what surgical method would be used was up for debate, and required getting 2nd and 3rd opinions until I felt comfortable that I was not only doing the right thing, but with the right doctor. Each time I wanted to try a different doctor, I had to wait a month or more to get an appointment as a “new patient”; I waited further weeks for tests and lost or unreported test results; still more time wasted waiting for lots of unreturned phone calls – – all delaying the inevitable even further (at the time I did not know that the findings would be benign; I hate to think how much precious time would have been lost if the results had not been good).
Out of desperation I called Dr. B., a well-regarded doctor in my home town who, free of charge, runs an informal medical referral service. (Similar to Rofeh International in Boston and ECHO (718) 859-9800 and (845) 425-9750 in New York, which work without compensation and no ulterior motives to recommend the best possible doctors for specific conditions and situations requiring medical attention.) When I told Dr. B. my problem he consulted with a colleague, and got back to me within an hour: he had never personally worked with Dr. F or even met her, but his colleague said Dr. F was at the forefront of innovation, research, and treatment, plus she was an excellent surgeon. I was impressed that Dr. F’s secretary was able to fit me in quickly, and within minutes of my visit I knew I had found the right person: besides her expertise, Dr. F was mentschlich. She also confided that if we were to have a long-term professional relationship, that she would soon be leaving her current position and moving to another local hospital. As it turns out, Dr. F had just been appointed head of an entire surgical department at Johns Hopkins Hospital – – so I felt I had made the right choice technically speaking as well; for me, that sealed the deal. As head of the department at Johns Hopkins, scheduling would be prolonged and her services would not be covered under my current insurance, so I felt fortunate to get her at her “old” hospital before she made the switch.
The three weeks before the surgery were a crash course in saintly living. I exercised daily, doing weight-bearing exercise, hiking, 4-mile walks, and even a little jogging (my dog was especially excited by all the opportunities for outdoor adventure). I continued to attend my Tai Chi class 2x a week. I stopped eating processed food and piled up on fresh produce and daily juicing of kale, beets, ginger, carrots, celery, peppers, cucumber, kiwi; I sautéed lots of Swiss chard, ate roasted sweet potatoes, steamed quinoa, and plain yogurt; I took my usual dose of Vitamin D3 and added Vitamin C. I cooked up soups, grilled lean chicken and turkey steaks, and prepared ethnically inspired vegetable dishes which I put in small ziplocks in portions sized for my husband and myself, labelled them and put them in the freezer. I shopped for more than a week’s worth of groceries; I did all the laundry and checked out DVDs and books from our local library. I bought all the post-op supplies I could think of including ginger tea for nausea, throat drops, a cozy new bathrobe (LL Bean outlet and on sale!) and a new pillow (with a moose on it, of course). I was ready! My husband would not be stuck with cooking or shopping and if I needed anything, it would be minimal.
The surgery itself (done in my hometown) was mostly uneventful. After all that pre-op running around, the best sleep I’d gotten in a week was that 2 hours under general anesthetic! I was able to discontinue narcotic pain meds within 5 hours of the surgery. And by the 2nd day I felt really terrific, physically and emotionally.
I remember when I awoke from the anesthetic, the nurse was looking at me and smiling. “You look just great!” she chirped. I realized something was funny when the next morning before discharge the nurse said, “Oh, you look just so much better today!” I was horrified when I finally looked in the mirror – – EGADS! I literally couldn’t believe that it was me. Due to the enormous amount of IV fluid pumped into me during the surgery as well as inflammation from surgical trauma, my entire body was completely puffy and bloated. My eyelids no longer existed – I had beady brown eyes that resembled a weasel. I looked like one of those animated M&M characters: a completely round, enormous body on legs. (When I weighed myself when I got home, and despite fasting the day before the operation, I had gained 9 lbs in 48 hours, so it was not my imagination!) The circles and bags under my eyes made me look like I had aged 20 years. If I looked like this now, I hate to think what I had looked like on Day 1, when according to Miss Chirpy Nurse Who Is A Pathological Liar, I looked “just great!”
The doctor told me that because the surgery was done laparoscopically rather than abdominally, recovery was about 2 weeks. That number – – two weeks – – kept playing in my brain like an annoying song you can’t get out of your head. So when complications set in, two weeks now sounded like a bad joke; I was not mentally prepared to handle setbacks.
A good friend recommended I check a website and recovery forum dedicated to women who had the same surgery that I did. This was a wonderful resource. I also learned that while the two weeks marker was valid for the external laparoscopic incisions to heal vs. six weeks for the abdominal version of the same surgery, that internally the trauma and repair was identical whether it was done laparoscopically or abdominally and it could take 6 months to a year before I finally felt like I was back to my old self (naturally the doctors don’t tell you this)!
While I was pretty much horrified by this news (will I be able to lift my kayak into my car once the ice on the lake melts 2 months from now? Will I be able to lift a log and put it into the woodstove?) I also realized that I simply needed to let it go. We all think we are in control, but certain things are just not in our hands! We must do our hishtadlus (make our best effort) – in my case by resting, eating healthfully, walking daily and praying – but the rest is up to HaShem.
I really, really wanted to return to my home in Maine 2 weeks post-op. (Here’s what I’m missing: another blizzard this weekend that will bring 24 inches of snow and temps of -30 F with windchill). However disappointed I may be, it’s not going to happen. The thought of an 11-hour car ride is overwhelming. I can’t ask my husband to run to the supermarket on his lunch hour in rural Maine – to get there is 40 minutes each way. I can’t take advantage of outdoor exercise – I’m basically mostly lying around. More importantly, I don’t want to overdo it and relapse – I am instead focusing on what I need to do to be able to kayak, fish, hike, and entertain guests this summer – – and to achieve that goal means I must stay put. (At least we will save on Snow Plow Guy’s snowplowing our driveway, a service I called to cancel for the next few weeks.)
And now for my findings from the other side of the bed on the topic of Bikur Cholim (visiting the sick):
- Loved getting emails. Unlike phone calls or visits, I wasn’t compelled to be awake to receive them. When I had insomnia, I could read them and respond at unconventional times, like 4 a.m. It also showed that I hadn’t fallen off the face of the earth, and that you cared enough to be thinking of me.
- If you are going on an errand, call the sick person and say, “I’m going to “x” – do you want me to pick up anything for you as long as I’m going anyway?” That way the sick person doesn’t feel like s/he’s imposing. Also nice: “Can I do any errands for you that your husband might ordinarily do?” Being sick is also stressful for the primary (in my case, only) caregiver, who may be completely overwhelmed. They need a breath of fresh air once in a while, too!
- Don’t say, “Is there anything I can do for you?” if you can’t do it. Yes, I know people have busy lives that do not revolve around a person who is unwell. But if there are only specific favors that you are offering, then tell that person what they are, so both of you don’t feel bad when the sick person makes a request that you can’t or don’t want to fulfill.
- Try not to sound too relieved when, after you offer to help but realistically cannot possibly fulfill your offer, I decline your offer (and you sigh dramatically in relief and confess how grateful you are because you don’t know how you would have managed it). I know you’re busy, and you mean well, but instead you not only make me feel like a burden, your insincerity is upsetting. It’s better to be honest. I would much rather hear, “I feel really terrible that I cannot help you, but I’m completely overwhelmed at home with my own problems. But I am thinking of you and davening for you every day!”
- Do not feel insulted if someone says they don’t want visitors; respect their wish. Sometimes post-surgical effects are unpleasant and embarrassing. Despite your trying to do a mitzvah by visiting the sick, remember it’s not about YOU, it’s about the person who is ill and desperately wants to get well. But also check back – they might be up to visitors a week later.
- It’s important that the person who is ill not be overly demanding or ask for help too repeatedly. Which is why I sent an email to people who had offered to help, when my 2-week supply of food began to run low. “This is a one-time request: Is anyone going to Target, WalMart, BJ’s, Sams Club, Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods in the next 4 days?” Admittedly I am very picky (I eat lots of fresh organic produce), plus I wanted to buy some bulk items like toilet paper and paper towels. Not ONE person could help me! Yes, I have a husband who can help – but it forces me to rely on him for everything and then he has zero personal time, not to mention that at that point I really do become a burden – – to him.
- When someone is sick, their world shrinks dramatically, basically to the four walls to which they’re confined. So everything within that tiny space takes on gigantic proportions and exaggerated detail, because the wider world is not there to distract them. So if the sick person makes a big deal over what seems like nothing to you, realize that even if it’s not a big deal, it may seem like one to the sick person – – because sadly, that’s all they have to focus on in their line of sight. Be patient and tolerant – G-d willing this too shall pass. The sick person doesn’t mean, and doesn’t want, to be “difficult.”
- If you say to the sick person, “I’ll call you,” then do.
- If you have a sick child at home, then don’t bring the other kids to visit. Chances are that the other kids will get whatever virus the sick kid has, and pass it on to the person you are visiting who is unwell. People who are sick have very little immunity or resistance to disease. Even a child’s simple cold could be a big deal for a person who is unwell if they catch it, too.
- Before bringing the sick person or the sick person’s family a meal, first find out if they need it, want it, and/or have any dietary restrictions.
Before my surgery, I had taken care of everything I thought I’d need for a two-week recovery period, except for one thing I knew I wouldn’t be able to do: walking my very active, athletic dog. No, it’s not good enough to let him out in our fenced backyard . . . dogs need stimulation on a daily basis beyond the four walls of one’s house. I’m talking about 10 – 15 minutes per day, 1 – 2x a day. So I sent out an email response to anyone who asked “what can I do” saying no, I don’t need meals, but if anyone would offer to come by and walk the dog, that would be really helpful and a give me great peace of mind. The more people who would respond, the less commitment they’d need to make. Only ONE person responded: my 10-year-old grandson, Yehudah. He has been at it faithfully now for 2 weeks daily in all kinds of extreme weather. I recently sent him a thank-you note and enclosed $5 for his efforts. He called me back to say, “Honestly Savta, I didn’t expect you to pay me for this, I just wanted to help you!” Now that is nachas! And it definitely contributed to my refuah.
The next time I have a friend who is unwell, I hope I will remember how it felt from the other side of the bed to be the one who is sick, so I can fulfill the mitzva of Bikur Cholim in a positive way.