November 7, 2016
I’m listening to the steady rhythmic beeps of a myriad of medical machines, the scuffing of feet through the hallway behind the curtain, the chatter of nurses. My body is laid out on the hospital bed, just a gown and sweaty palms beneath the sheets. I am trying to relax, I’m breathing deeply and calmly but my clammy hands are an easy tell that my nervous system knows what’s coming. The IV in my left hand and the permanent marker pen on my right shoulder are all the clues you need to realise shoulder surgery is almost upon me – an arthroscopic Bankart repair, if we’re being precise.
I hear a familiar male voice, he’s telling nurses all about a recent trip to New Orleans. I’m enjoying listening, feeling like I’m almost eavesdropping even though the participants in the conversation all know they have patients (moving through different stages of anesthetic haze) within just a few feet. The voice is genial, smooth, kind. I realise it’s the voice of my surgeon, Dr Jonathan Bravman, and the click-click of his shoes is now heading in my direction. I eye the clock: 11.02am. My surgery is scheduled for 11:15am.
The curtain is pulled back. Bravman is there in his scrubs and cap, eyes bright and excited, as he extends his right hand to shake mine. I remove it from under the covers and offer him a firm but clammy handshake.
“How are you? All set? he asks me. I have seen him twice in the past 10 days and, as a cyclist himself, he understood the surgery option wasn’t a straightforward one for me, but after three dislocations in the past three years the decision ultimately made itself.
“Doing well, ready to do this,” I reply.
We go through a few questions, there are forms to sign, boxes to tick. Bravman introduces me to another doctor, a heavy-framed middle-aged man who I soon learn is the anesthetist. We decide I’ll be having a nerve block prior to the surgery, which means I’ll wake up without any pain, but also without any feeling at all from my shoulder down to my fingers for a day or so. It all sounds a little scary to me, but at this stage I don’t have time to research it so I trust his opinion. And off we go.
There is something so helpless, so prostrate, about being wheeled on a hospital bed towards a destination you know little about and which you will never know anything about. As we reach the O.R., I feel as though my eyes are like saucers, trying to take in as much information as possible before my body finally succumbs to the anesthesia. There are nurses talking, beeps, hums, whirrs – it is a sea of busyness and I’m the only one not moving, not involved in the action. There’s soft rock music playing and I’m trying to decipher who it is. I begin to wonder whether each surgeon has a playlist which gets them “in the zone”, much like an athlete before a race. I’m moved from one bed to another with what seems like no effort from me. I’m still trying to place that rock music and then…
…I wake up to see a male nurse, offering me a kind smile and a cup of water with a straw poking out of it. I tentatively take it and sip. Body working, brain still catching up.
“How you doing?” he asks.
“OK, I think,” still gathering all the facts and figuring out what’s going on. I realise I’m in the recovery room and surgery is complete.
He offers me a cracker. Taking a bite of it seems like an epic effort and one that is not handsomely rewarded. I have zero appetite and it’s not tasting great. This is not dissimiliar to being in the med tent post-Ironman, I think. My sense of humour is still intact.
“Would you like me to bring your friend through? he says.
“Yes, thank you,” I say, wondering what on earth Dede is going to make of what she sees.
Dede Griesbauer is an Ironman champion triathlete who I’ve had the good fortune of getting to know these past few months since moving to Boulder and becoming part of Julie Dibens’ crew. We have shared laughs and tears through what has been a challenging season for us in our own respective ways and so I’m heartened to see her familiar smile as she walks into my cubicle.
We had been joking that she’d record some video footage of me fresh out of the O.R.
“Not to put on social media or anything,” she’d kindly said, “but just, y’know, for you to watch and giggle at later.”
Much to Dede’s dismay, I am relatively with it.
In what seems like no time at all, we are making our way to the hospital exit, me in a wheelchair pushed by a nurse and Dede alongside me. It’s all done, I’m leaving. The door is thrown open and the sunshine on this bright autumnal Boulder day prompts me to screw my eyes shut. I feel like a mole just popping up to the surface of the earth for the first time in months.
“Anything you fancy? You should probably eat something,” says Dede as she gently rolls the car out of the parking lot.
I hesitate, I think.
“A pumpkin latte,” I say. A bizarre choice, I know, but it’s just about the only thing I can think of.
Soon we are meandering our way around Whole Foods. I am not on Planet Earth, but then neither are most people in Boulder Whole Foods. As we stand in the line for coffee, I realise Dede has been talking to me and has her hand placed gently on my right hand, but because of the block I cannot feel a thing. It’s spooky, I don’t like it.
A cup of bone broth and a pumpkin latte later we are back in the car, heading towards Julie’s place in Gunbarrel where I’ll be staying for a few days with her and her husband Mike and dog Lucky.
“She’s doing pretty well, she’s with it,” Dede tells Mike as we approach the front door. Mike eyes the sizeable sling which goes from my wrist beyond my elbow and wraps around my back, neck and waist. It hasn’t really dawned on me yet, but this thing is going to be on me almost 24/7 for the next six weeks. I’m moving cautiously but smoothly and, once inside, head straight for the couch. Lucky Dog joins me. Dede and Mike are talking about my drugs, making plans for picking up prescriptions, discussing all sorts of things that I’m no longer really following. Things are getting a bit hazy. I realise I’m relinquishing control.
Ever since moving to the US on my own in January 2013 I have been a one-woman operation. The buck starts and stops with me. I look after myself, I am on my own. Rightly or wrongly, I let few people “in”. But given the fact it’s going to require help to get dressed, wash my hair and open so much as a can of beans for several weeks I realise from this point forward I’m going to have to get better at asking for help and accepting it.
This becomes abundantly clear at 2am the next morning when I’m trying to tiptoe around the Dibens’ kitchen to find my drugs. Since 1am I’ve been awake enough to know I’m in pain, but foolish enough to think I don’t need more pain meds yet. By the time I make it to the kitchen where Dede has left my drugs, numbered and with instructions, I really need those freaking things. Now! I’m holding my iPhone in my left hand, using the flashlight to figure out which meds I can take. Like an addict in need of her next hit, I’m desperately trying to pop the childproof/foolproof lid when Julie walks in.
“Hey, you OK?” she says.
“Yep, just need some drugs,” I reply.
“Sit down, here you go,” she says, passing me two little white pills. “You should really eat something with these. I’ll get you some peanut butter on toast.”
I sit at the table like an expectant child at dinner time as Dibs waits for the toaster to pop. Although she has since retired from racing and is now my coach, I still vividly remember racing her when I was a newbie pro and she was an absolute machine. There are times when she’s very much my coach and there are times when I look at her and see just that marvellous athlete. That marvellous athlete is now heading my way in her PJs across the kitchen with a generous helping of peanut butter on toast.
We chit chat as I eat. I can feel my eyelids starting to get heavy and I know her alarm is going off at 5am to coach swim practice, so we say our goodnights and I return to bed, letting a drug-induced sleep knock me out and take me to who-knows-where in my dreams. Surgery is over and day one is done. The path forwards might not always be an easy one, but I have great people around me and a deep faith that, ultimately, all will be well.
* Addendum: I absolutely have to mention Cait Snow (aka SNOWBALL!) in this post. She has been a total rockstar during these early post-op days. She has changed my dressings (ugh), washed my hair (not allowed to shower yet), taken me grocery shopping, got my lunch, made me laugh, driven me to the gym, tied my shoe laces (yes, it is like being five again) and generally just been an all-around superstar. The world needs more Snowballs – thank you!