Notes From The Operating Table: On Waking Up During Surgery

The surgery left four scars on my knee, ragged remnants of stitches where the surgeon opened me up and moved around muscles and repositioned bones. It’s shaped like a rough “T;” it still has ugly black scabs which will eventually turn into scars lighter than my skin. I got new hardware: he drilled three screws into knee to keep my knee cap in the right track. I heard him ask for the drill and I heard it buzzing, but I didn’t feel anything.

I remember that because I woke up two hours into my surgery with three hours more to go. I remember feeling pretty disappointed because I was expecting to wake up in the recovery room with the surgery behind me. The anesthesiologist asked me what I dreamt about. He had a warm smile. I didn’t want to tell him I dreamt vividly about Egypt, so I told him I didn’t have any dreams. I was never good with small talk. He began playing on his phone.

I looked around at the operating room. One thing that surprised me was the big, round, operating room light positioned right above the table. Having only seen it in horror movies before, I expected the light to be uniform yellow, but it had purple, yellow, green and white bulbs. I don’t know why that detail stuck with me. It was pretty, and the Egypt in my dreams pulsed with the same bright colors. I wondered briefly about how many people had died on this very same table I was lying on.

It was a slow three hours, and my arms were cramped and stiff from being tied to the bed in a position similar to Jesus on his cross. After a while, I managed to untie my left hand. An OR nurse noticed that I was trying to remove the dark green curtain covering my line of sight, so he tied my arm down again. He explained that I needed to say like that for a while, and he tried to adjust the position of my arms to make me more comfortable. That’s when I noticed that I was freezing. My teeth were chattering, and I thought my shoulders would dislocate because I was shaking so hard. They told me it was a side effect of the anesthesia, and I took that to mean that they couldn’t do anything about it.

After a few minutes, I untied my hand again because my nose had begun to itch. That’s when I noticed I had a thin, plastic tube around my face and tucked into my ears like wayward hair. There were also two hard plastic nubs attached to the tube and going into my nostrils. I asked the anesthesiologist what it was.

“That’s your oxygen.”

I decided I liked it. It made me feel clear headed even though it was cold and it made my nose runny. I tried not to sneeze because there were about eight people in the operation room and they weren’t making any noise. The only sounds were the surgeon’s occasional requests for tools and the steady beep of the machine monitoring my vital signs. I didn’t want to break the silence, but I sneezed about four times anyway. I pretended it wasn’t me.

I noticed that some of the people in the room were standing off to the side and they were taking notes as my surgeon explained what he was doing. He also had someone beside him, and he would occasionally ask her what should be done next. She would answer, and he would correct her sometimes. I was pretty sure he wasn’t allowing her to practice on me, but it was still unsettling.

I adjusted my pillow which looked like a small, black, leather doughnut. It was actually comfy despite having a hole in the middle. Then the beeping stopped, and I saw the monitor go blank. A nurse explained that we were going on over time, and that the hospital usually switched off some of the power at around 5pm.

“Tell them there’s an operation going on down here!”

It was the first time I heard my surgeon raise his voice. An assistant ran out, and after a few minutes, the machine turned on again and continued displaying my heart rate and blood pressure on the screen.

I was running out of things to think about and look at, so I decided to do some Kegel exercises, but I felt nothing below my waist. I couldn’t even feel my ass. That must be how Barbie feels like. It was a strange sensation, like half of my body didn’t exist anymore. I was fascinated and terrified.

Then the surgeon called my name and told me, “Don’t worry, we’re almost finished here.” I looked at the door. Its bottom half was clear aluminum and it reflected the room well. I saw the surgeon hand over pieces of cloth to his assistant, and they were all stained red. He said they needed to cauterize. I wish I didn’t know what cauterize meant. I sneezed again and adjusted my oxygen.

The clock read 6:48 pm, and they finally removed the drapes blocking my view of the rest of my body. I saw the surgeon lift my leg up and brace it against his chest before securing it in the knee immobilizer. It looked like somebody else’s leg. The skin was yellow-brown from the iodine they used as disinfectant, and it reminded me of a butcher handling a hunk of ham. I looked away.

The sounded cheerful as wiped his face and told his assistant to fetch the next patient. He laughed as he told the anesthesiologist that were his last surgeries before he took some time off for Christmas break. Then he called me and said, “We’re done now. There you are.” He adjusted the screen beside him so I could better see the x-ray slide. My bone was pale white against a black background, and there were three thick lines across my knee that weren’t there before. The outlines of the screws were distinct. I wondered if it would be able to set off metal detectors. That would be fun.

I thanked my surgeon, and he grinned at me. I also thanked the anesthesiologist who looked my way and said, “You’re welcome, dear,” before going back to checking his phone.

The operating room nurses cleared the machines and materials around me, and one of them slid a patient transfer pad underneath my body. Someone counted to three, and they lifted and slid me onto a stretcher. Their movements were smooth, coordinated, and felt like they’ve done it a thousand times before. It made me feel safe. While they were wheeling me down the hallway, a nurse noticed that I was still shivering from the cold. She rubbed my arms gently.

They transferred me to a new nurse when I arrived at the recovery room. He poked my feet with a pen and asked me if I felt it. I said I felt nothing, and he told me that I needed to stay in the recovery room for a few hours until I could move my toes. Then he pulled up a chair, sat beside my bed, and started to read a pamphlet. The only sound was the steady hum of the air conditioner.

After awhile, he got up and informed me that I needed more pain killers, and he injected a syringe full of clear liquid into my IV. I started to get drowsy, and I heard him telling me that I will see my family soon. I managed to smile and thank him before I drifted off to dream. TC Mark

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