The Aftermath of Surgery: Post-Op Thyroidectomy Experience

"All this happened, more or less." --Vonnegut

Waking Up After My Total Thyroidectomy

I awoke in the recovery room. My eyes would not open for several minutes, struggling against the anesthesia. Voices and faces moved in and out like dreams. Then there was pain. Someone had set fire to my neck and chest. The flesh was peeling away to the sides, crackling from the inferno that was consuming me, eating away nerves, muscle, life. But no one was reacting and I could do nothing but scrunch my face. If I made a sound, I couldn’t hear it.

I guess the change on my face was enough, because a nurse came and shot cold liquid up my arm. Still, I began to panic. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t sit up. I was trapped in a broken, worthless body. There were bright lights and strangers and this horrible soul-devouring fire and nothing else. I don’t know how long this lasted, but I do remember the moment I saw my mom and Noah walk into the recovery room. I was still in pain, but I was going to live. These were people who loved me and they were smiling and as helpless as I was, they would protect me.

I don’t remember very much of that first day. The first room I was moved to was shared with someone who either liked watching TV or who was too weak to turn it off. All I remember about this room was the way the sound picked a my brain like a knitting needle and that I kept thinking I was in the hospice facility where I said my final goodbyes to my grandfather. At some point I was mercifully moved to a private room, for which I am eternally indebted to my mother-in-law, the doctor. If you are going to have surgery, try to get a doctor in the family first.

About every four hours the powers that be gave me pain meds and I thanked God for creating the person who invented them. Morphine gave me a terrible headache, so I switched to Percocet. There was an ice pack (which I didn’t feel) and a thick white bandage around my throat, much like a neck brace. It felt as if this bandage were the only thing keeping my head attached.

I had to sit at a 45-degree angle for the next two nights. I knew, vaguely, that I had visitors and felt a kind of desperate happiness to have people I knew and loved with me. For the first day I was intensely afraid of being alone. The feeling was very animalistic. I was wounded and fragile and sure to fall apart at any second. I could not speak at all, but wrote as many notes as I could.

Going to the bathroom became a huge ordeal. I had to call for a nurse, wait for them to unhook me from the wall, hold on to them as they pushed my IV stand into the bathroom (which some idiot designed with a speed bump) and wait for them to slide the door closed. When I was done, I had to pull a red cord next to the toilet and wait for them to return for me. All while not entirely conscious and still attempting to hold the flaps of my hospital gown together. As soon as I had any strength, I put on pants and began practicing bathroom independence. These were my first small steps towards feeling human again.

I did not eat the day of the surgery. I drank maybe a cup of juice. To swallow, even to breath deeply felt like suffocation. I have read descriptions of the aftermath of an endotracheal intubation as a “sore throat.” Not only is it sore, but it feels like it is constantly on the verge of collapse. Instead of a trachea, they left me with a plastic flexi-straw, and every tug of air is another crease in the plastic closer to not being able to breathe again. Two weeks later, this feeling has not yet completely disappeared. I can lay down, but in doing so the weight in my neck sinks and though I am no longer suffocating, air is thin. My heart reverberates more loudly than before. It pulses its way up my chest and into my throat. My scar hugs my neck tightly, like a warm hand that is always there. Whether it is threatening to choke me or holding me together varies with each day.

The second day I ate jell-o and drank juice and a little broth. By the third day I progressed to cream-of-wheat. The liquid diet lasted about a week, at the end of which I was ravenous.

I spent two nights in the hospital. The first night was terrible. Nurses came in every two hours to check on me, no matter the time. And by check on, I mean call my name loudly and tap me awake, then squeeze my arm in a blood pressure cuff or draw blood. Not things even I can sleep through. Plus I was still forced to sit upright and wear the boiler-room compression sleeves on my legs. If I got much sleep, I didn’t feel its effects.

By the second day, I did recover my voice. My surgeon stopped by to check on me and removed the bandage. I was loath to let it go. I felt exposed, vulnerable, and when I got the nerve to glance at a mirror, ugly. Here is a photo from the day after surgery:

However, I was still groggy and more preoccupied with pain than looks, so my scar was not yet an issue.

The surgeon asked me to “eep” to make sure my vocal chords had not been damaged. After I succeeded, I was instructed to try to talk with more frequency. Within a few hours I could make myself understood, albeit in a froggy and incomplete voice.

I began to feel so normal that I made a mistake. I decided I did not need the pain medication. Nurses would ask so casually and there was a pain button available to me at all times and I started thinking about pill-pushing and addiction and how I was feeling fine and then suddenly the pain was back and spreading through my whole body. The burning and straining in my throat, and now a throbbing in my head and an aching in my back and shoulders and a gnawing in my stomach. When the doctors returned to find me in a fetal position, rocking, they (rightly) acted like I was a moron. Do not be brave! Take your meds!!!! I ended up being on pain medication for a total of eight days.

On the third day, they released me. Again, it may sound dramatic, especially since I had a nice private room with a view, but it truly felt like leaving a prison. Hospitals have no privacy. No freedom. The food is hardly an incentive to stay. Getting the IV taken out of my arm was the click of handcuffs coming off and my first opportunity to put on a shirt. Finally, I was wheeled out of the hospital in a chair (a legal precaution) and handed my walking papers (instructions on how to care for myself over the next few weeks).

Unbeknownst to me, this candid was taken of me during my hospital visit. The look on my face says everything:

I am home again, in my dark little apartment, and it has never felt more like home.

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