Being on hand for the run-up, execution and aftermath of my husband’s shoulder replacement surgery heralds one of those moments he fears. I can only imagine how the spouses of writers who blog or write about daily life have a nagging undercurrent in the backs of their heads – “What will prompt the love of my life to include me in something she writes? Will our private life ever be completely private?”
Fate gives me no choice. I have to write about it.
It started with an injury at work — the kind of physical feat a guy in his 50s thinks is perfectly okay because men (unlike women) don’t really notice how their bodies have changed past a certain age. He threw a fire engine hose to another fireman before his shoulder and brain were prepared for it.
After his doctors found no alternative to making his shoulder bionic, my analytical (yes, he loves the reality show How Things are Made…) firefighter husband engaged in much study, anticipation and curiosity during the months preceding the replacement of one of his most flexible and complex joints. Once he was put off-duty and the lengthy process of getting approvals from all the entities whose bureaucracies define the words “red tape” began, there was plenty of (too much) time to Google himself blue on the topic of shoulder replacements. This included finding YouTube videos of the operation being performed by the very surgeon who would be doing his. One peek into his home office during these viewings was enough to ruin my appetite, so I learned to stay away.
Scheduled to happen at a huge San Francisco hospital only a few days before Christmas, the surgery date forced us to get a lot done ahead of time. Anything we did was strategically planned in anticipation of both of us being activity-limited for a good chunk of time. Decorations went up earlier than usual. Gifts were efficiently purchased, wrapped and shipped before our lives were to change. And what didn’t get done went by the wayside for the first time in our lives. As December 19th approached, we basked in doing a number of “lasts” – the last movie theater visit for awhile; the last dinner out for awhile; the last time we’d be able to hold each other very close in our king-sized bed – and the list went on and on.
Of course, it wasn’t the surgery itself that had me spooked. It was fear of the unknown when any loved one goes “under” to get surgery performed. It took me decades of life-experience and revelations to find my soul mate and the terror of something unexpected happening gripped me constantly.
The night before the surgery we took a hospital-close hotel room in Japan Town in order to permit ourselves some sleep before a 6 am hospital check-in and to enable me to use a convenient hospital shuttle service during the two days he was to be there. Needless to say, slumber did not befall us during a restless night of anticipation, but it did give me a place to leave all my personal effects for a few days.
By 6 am the next morning we are doing protocols at the hospital’s ambulatory care unit and half an hour later, a close friend of ours arrives to keep us company and to see the big guy off as he gets wheeled into surgery. I should re-classify her at this point. She is now permanent family. No one but a hospital employee, spouse, parent or sibling crosses the Golden Gate Bridge that early in the morning for this purpose.
Shedding his civvies and donning the garb that would find him having to cover his behind for the next few days, my husband bravely waves goodbye surrounded by nurses and loved ones. We make our way down to the huge hospital lobby to wait out the three hours it would take to knock him out, replace the inner workings of his shoulder with metal and plastic and see him out of recovery. I am given a pager and am told the surgeon would find me once the ordeal is finished.
In the meantime, I am on my game. Aside from my demand to be able to spend the first night in his hospital room, we had received pledges from an inordinate number of family and friends (including half his firehouse) that he would be graced with visitors. So it’s now time to earnestly make my case for a private room. Having phoned the “bed control” guy at the hospital the night before, I make it plain to the intake department personnel in the lobby that since he is a public employee there on a job-related injury, my husband is unlikely to qualify for a room by himself. So please-please-pretty-please could they find it in their hearts to place one of San Francisco’s finest in a room that might NOT get a second occupant for a night? They smiled and said they would put it on the nurses’ agenda.
And so the waiting began. Armed with a decent cup of coffee, my sister-in-arms and I take up residence in the corner of the waiting room without a blaring TV screen, produce iPads from our lady-like bags and begin answering emails, chatting about life in between tapping screens. Soon another good friend appears – a salt-of-the-earth fireman who adores my husband and who now works in the department’s stress unit. His calm, reassuring voice and his engaging stories of my hero warm my heart and bring my blood pressure down.
By about two hours into the wait, the assisting orthopedic surgeon finds me in the lobby to say that all went well. As surgeons usually do, he boasts of the doctors’ combined prowess, dubbing the surgery “textbook.” I am thrilled, relieved, prayerful and brain-dead by then, aside from having been sleep-deprived. Now we must wait until the patient is out of recovery and being rolled into a hospital room, which happens about an hour later.
With his hospital room number in my hot little hand, I hightail it up to the fifth floor, following signs and practically tripping over hallway-parked gurneys. And there, in a corner room with a magnificent view of San Francisco, is my life’s partner, hooked up to tubes with bottles hanging overhead, in a perfectly private room, grinning broadly.
The rest of his hospital stay is nothing short of magnificent. Although my rollaway bed is less than hotel-like and my sleep is shallow, nurses enter the room stealthily that night, flashlights in hand, trying to make little disturbance while giving the patient his meds around the clock. By the next morning my sister-in-law arrives, giving me leave to head to the hotel room, where I close the light-blocking shoji screens across the window and fall face down on the bed, no doubt drooling onto the clean sheets as a druggy sleep overtakes me.
We have been home for about ten days now and my guy is an amazingly good patient. As he adjusts daily to the regimen of medications to stay ahead of any discomfort, he is mindful of the sling-free passive exercises he is required to do five times per day, careful not to engage any shoulder muscles as they heal around foreign parts. Apart from pharmacy runs, take out food and receiving visitors, we are realistic about what a one-armed man can do. We joke constantly about how I have to help him get dressed, pulling his sweat bottoms so high he looks like a character out of an old sit-com; how, despite prune juice and a number of medicinal remedies, because of all the drugs he is taking he can’t remember when he last had a successful visit to the porcelain throne, and how wonderful it will be to start doing all the things his injured shoulder prevented him from doing for so long.
Laughter is nearly always the order of the day around here as we deal with slings, healing naps, therapy, meds, old TV shows and streaming video. I can only hope that when illness or injury befalls me, I am as good-natured about it as he is, and that I am surrounded by as much love and encouragement.
But most of all, because life is so fragile, capable of changing on a dime, I am thankful I can write this at this moment with a smile on my face. Our gifts for 2013 include a new body part and, of course, one another.