What a week! One I know I will remember all the rest of my life. My first hospital stay, first surgery, and the first time cancer finally grabbed and commanded my full attention and respect.
When choosing a Chicago hospital and care team back in April, I decided to go with Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital (CDH) in west suburban Chicago.
They were near my sister’s house where I’d be staying, and they were the area’s highest ranked in gynecology. They also had created a gynecological oncology center a few years ago and recruited a top doc from Northwestern University downtown, Dr. Barbara Buttin, who specializes in da Vinci robot-assisted minimally invasive surgery.
A month ago, when I first met with Dr. Buttin’s team, her nurse said “she’s like a little angel” and, indeed, she was. A petite, gentile, soft-spoken, upbeat, super-smart physician. Everything one would want in a surgeon preparing to wrangle cancerous female parts out of my body with the least amount of pain!
My sister Holley and I arrived to CDH around noon on Monday for the big event. I’d never spent much time in this hospital and was amazed at how beautiful the public areas were and how much of the outside could be seen from the inside. There was nothing to make you think you were in a hospital until you crossed the double doors leading to the surgical pre-op area.
A great veteran nurse took care of me during pre-op. She had just had a da Vinci hysterectomy a few months earlier and said it was a piece of cake. I was amazed at how calm and unafraid I remained on this day—it all just seemed like a fun new “life experience!”
Of course, the old project manager in me had done hours of research to set my mind at ease—like reading the HysterSisters web site for tips on what to buy and prepare ahead of time to ease recovery, and even watching a full 2-hour YouTube video of a da Vinci hysterectomy (it really was fascinating and really quite helpful!).
The nurse said my young, female anesthesiologist was one of their best and I’d be in very good hands. Maybe she says that to all her patients, but I was, indeed, grateful for an anesthesiologist who I could easily understand and communicate with. A few minutes later, Dr. Buttin came out to greet me and make sure I was ready to roll, and by 2:00pm it was time for “Margaritaville” as the anesthesiologist slipped a tranquilizer into my IV line and rolled me down to OR 1.
I think I saw the OR room for all of about 15 seconds. I got a quick glance at the big da Vinci robot surrounded by a half dozen nurses, but then a clear mask came over my nose and it was “lights out” after that. I found this image from the internet from when CDH got their da Vinci robot back in 2008, so it’s roughly what the room looked like.
The next thing I remember was waking up in recovery about 7:00pm. Soon after, I was rolling into my hospital room and felt my first bit of pain when being transferred from the gurney to the hospital bed, but that was soon alleviated with pillows (lots of pillows!) and learning how to adjust the bed myself.
I don’t remember much about Monday night except that I never seemed to sleep more than about 30 minutes at a time. They made me sit up and stand at around 3:00am, did a blood draw at 4:00am, and took my bladder catheter out at 5:00am.
Tuesday would be a whole different ballgame. Pain meds and peeing were no longer being taken care of for me! I’d now have to press my call button generously for assistance!
After my first walk at 6:00am, I remember thinking how easy a recovery this was going to be. But a few hours later, I realized that was still the anesthesia talking. Once it wore off, the day got harder. The pain was never excruciating, but it was certainly there at times until I remembered to call and ask for more meds.
A barrage of nurses, techs, and doctors visited making their daily rounds. None more important than Dr. Buttin, who came to discuss the surgery and see how I was doing. She had mentioned the night before to my family that the cancer was more widespread, but that things still went pretty much according to plan. At today’s visit, I finally got the exact details.
The cancer was more widespread in the uterus, but fortunately, had not yet spread above or below it. So there, it was still considered a Stage 1A cancer. But… Dr. Buttin also found a few “angry looking” abnormal lymph nodes and had to remove a number of them to have them checked by pathology. If they came back cancerous, I’d now be looking at Stage 3c cancer, chemo, and a much lower rate of survivability. Nothing to do but sit and wait for the report to come back in a few days.
That news literally took my breath away. I had never had the slightest thought that such an easily-survivable, low-grade uterine cancer could jump so quickly to a more deadly disease, but as lymph nodes carry the disease throughout the entire body, indeed, it could be be a game-changer if cancer somehow had made its way there.
I’d never gotten too emotional about my diagnosis before, but that news, combined with my post-op abdominal gas pain now getting a bit out of control, put me into full-on “meltdown” mode Tuesday afternoon. I was a crying mess!
Fortunately, a sweet young nurse, Cheryl, did a great job at getting my pain (and emotions) back under control again.
And, my goofy brother-in-law did his part to send me some comic relief when I needed it most. While I was having my pity-party, he was texting me a selfie of himself preparing to get a root canal! Yeah, I guess I was still doing a whole lot better than THAT!
By Tuesday evening, they had transitioned me off of IV meds onto pills, and started having me eat soft foods. By Wednesday morning, I had definitely turned the corner, was tolerating the new meds just fine, and was now ready to be released.
I was able to walk around my room and snap a few parting shots. The view from my room was quite nice!
All the patient rooms at CDH are private and quite large. Mine had a recliner, desk, large TV, and a sofa that pulled out into a bed.
Even the bathroom was swanky. With backlit mirrors, glass shower doors, and fancy tiling, it felt like a 5-star hotel!
The ride home from the hospital was a bit rough. Despite taking pain meds before the trip, I felt every little bump, bounce, and pothole! As I described what my hollowed-out swollen belly was feeling, my sister said “oh, so your remaining organs are sort of like little piñatas being batted around.” Yes, that’s it exactly!
Once home to my sister’s house, I was finally able to get some good sleep. The guest room has been ultra comfortable, surrounded by flowers, cards, and this cute little Lab puppy all helping me heal. Thank you to all the friends and family who have shared so much love and support with me this week—it’s helped me more than you can imagine!
On Thursday afternoon, the nurse practitioner called with the results of the dreaded pathology report. “Are you sitting down?” she asked.
Of the dozens of samples of each lymph node they looked at, every last one of them had come back free and clear of cancer. Even the abnormal ones! No doubt, there had been some angels working hard on my behalf. This news was nothing short of a miracle! I’m back to being Stage 1A!
I still will likely need some preventative radiation treatments in July just to catch any cancerous cells that might have been left behind during surgery. I’ll know more once Dr. Buttin does a full review and care plan in the coming days.
But for now, even though I’m sleeping more hours than I’m awake, and body is scared and swollen (with more bruises than Mayweather gave Pacquiao), I’ve survived the week remarkably free of any nausea or complications. I’m already walking over a mile per day, and each day is getting better than the last. I can do this!
Thanks to all my angels for winning me Round 1!