Say Cheese

My vagina now has its own smile. A little misplaced, it sits on the edge of my pubic bone where the soft pudginess of my belly ends. I saw it for the first time yesterday when the surgeon removed the bandage. The sheer size of it surprised me. What did I expect considering its intended purpose? Staring at my naked belly with its huge scar, I am reminded of my vet’s words describing Cracker in his geriatric years, “slightly misshapen and deformed.”

So I now resemble my dog (RIP, Cracker).

The journey to this place I now find myself was long and rather tedious. Almost two years ago I ended up in the ER with the most excruciating pain I have ever felt. It took me a while to get there, but after ten hours, I decided I could be in real danger of something twisting, dying, or exploding, and off we went. The experience at the ER of this major hospital in DC was so bad, that after waiting curled up on the floor several hours with no help whatsoever, I considered leaving, and going elsewhere. It was the antithesis of care. The sad part, as far as I could tell, is that it just seemed like the nurses were overworked and understaffed. No one had a shred of courtesy or care left to spare. When I finally did see a doctor, it was the intern who really saved the day and bridged the gap for the entire experience. I left diagnosed with uterine fibroids and ovarian cysts and handed a couple of ibuprofen on my way out the door. Needless to say, I dug my heels in for something stronger because I knew I didn’t have it in me to withstand that level of pain again. They were generous enough to give me 48-hours worth of pain meds.

My first stop was to my gynecologist so I could try and understand what the hell happened and what I could do about it. For middle-aged women everywhere, if you’re reading this, I suggest you take notes. The encounter went something like this:

Me: This terrible thing happened and I ended up in the ER. I have never experienced that much pain, ever, in my life.

Dr: Are we doing an annual today, or is an emergency appointment?

Me: Quiet for a moment, thinking. Umm…well, can’t it be both? This seems the logical answer to me, considering I’m having a serious problem.

Dr: Wearing her professional poker face. Well, due to insurance purposes, I have to code the visit as either one or the other. So which is it?

Me: Flabbergasted at the utter ridiculousness of this answer and starting to fume. Well…I guess it’s going to have to be an emergency visit because I need to figure out what’s going on. Like, duh. And you’re the doctor?!

Dr: Lots of women go through this. Your findings aren’t really abnormal. You’ll feel better soon. Just give it some time.

Me: My voice starts to betray my cool exterior. I’m pissed. Well, it’s already been two weeks, and I am still in pain, not to mention the level of pain I experienced recently was absolutely excruciating. I just can’t believe this is normal. Now my voice is crescendoing (yes, I just made up a word. I’m chalking this up to poetic license), as it does when some idiot, in this case, my doctor, decides to poke the bear. In fact, I know a lot of women and I don’t know a single one that has experienced this. For dramatic effect: Like not even close.

Dr: Still pokerfaced. Well, I can tell you that your cysts and fibroids aren’t large enough for any insurance company to approve surgery on you. What you have is very common.

Me: Incredulous and sure by this time my face is contorted into that of a crazy person. So I should just live with that level of pain?

Dr: Still wearing the same fucking poker face. If you’re in pain, you should go to the ER.

That was her well-rehearsed answer for the remainder of my questions.

I won’t bore you with what the second doctor said when I sought a second opinion. Just see above. And yes, because so many people have asked me, they were both women.

So I did what they told me to do. I sucked it up. I have a couple more acute episodes that leave me rocking on my elbows and knees, cradling my head, on the bathroom floor, chewing up oxycodone at almost twice the recommended dosage, with close to no effect. It bears saying it again. Close. To. No. Effect.

It took six months to return to “my” normal. Six months to go from sharp pain stepping off a curb to running a slow three miles; six months for my protruding ovaries to nestle back where they belong so I could zip my pants up all of the way; six months to stop pretending that ibuprofen was my daily vitamin, “Vitamin I” as they call it in the military.

But I never really felt “normal.” I felt that I settled for a “new normal” that maybe comes with middle age. I rationalized that this was it. This is as good as it gets. Life goes on.

Six weeks ago I find myself writhing on the floor. I know the drill. I know what it is and I do as I’m told. I suck it up. But when the veil finally lifts, I decide, again, this can’t possibly be normal and, in fact, something is very, very wrong. I pick a practice in DC at random and make an appointment with the first gynecologist that is available.

Not even five minutes with her and she says, “It’s a common mistake to blame the pain you feel with the clinical findings you have. However, these types of abnormalities might cause you some discomfort for a couple of days, three days tops, and that’s it. Nothing like the kind of pain you are describing. I really feel there is something else going on and we need to probe further and find out what it is.”

I am scared shitless and relieved all at the same time.

I have an ultrasound, the same one that I had in the ER eighteen months prior, only this time it reveals the addition of a mass. Imagine what it’s like to receive that news.  We follow it up with an MRI a week later to get a clearer image of what we’re dealing with. Except the MRI doesn’t show a mass at all. The doctor, perplexed, invites me back to repeat the ultrasound.

The second ultrasound shows the same mass as the original ultrasound. After a lot of conferring and discussing with other doctors and radiologists, they deduce that what appears to be a mass on the ultrasound image is actually my intestines stuck to my uterus. Most likely, I have adhesions, where different organs stitch together with other organs. Usually this happens when there has been some kind of previous incident, or injury, to the area in question. Maybe a previous pregnancy, or miscarriage, or a previous surgery to the area, but I had none of those. The only way to be sure of what was happening was to open me up and look inside. My new gynecologist sends me to a specialist, an oncological gynecologist, who is also a surgeon. As it turns out, he will become my surgeon.

So here I am, now ten days post surgery. Normally (or so I was led to believe by my surgeon), this surgery, a hysterectomy, is done laparoscopically. What that means in laymen’s terms is they cut a small opening in your gut to stick a camera in to see what’s happening and work through that small space to deflate, in a plastic bag, whatever organ needs removing and they extract it from your body by way of your vagina. Sidebar: a friend of a friend just had this procedure done laparoscopically, but her insurance company labeled it experimental. She paid $15,000 out of pocket for her surgery. That’s America for you, folks!

The only problem was that my uterus was quite large, and thanks to never having children, my love canal….wasn’t. When my surgeon delivered that news, you better bet your sweet ass I went straight home and told Russ he was one lucky son of a bitch. NICE AND TIGHT!! Just remember that, my childless lady friends, when a mother asks you if you have children and you get that pitying expression with a side of “tsk tsk” when you say no. No throwing a hotdog down this hallway!

After my surgery, they suited me up in a “corset” while I was still on the table. I affectionately refer to it as my “cat suit.” It’s black and goes from the middle of my thighs to just under my boobs with over the shoulder straps that fasten together at the front to keep it from scrunching down. Even more alluring is the strategically placed pie wedge missing at the bottom so, you know, you don’t have to remove it in order to take care of business. I’m pretty sure Russ thinks we’re going to have fun with the “cat suit” later, maybe at Halloween, but I’m not so sure I can reconcile any attire I can wear when taking a shit into the same category as sexy. Right now, it’s just not jiving.

But I’m grateful for the cat suit. The first week it felt like it was holding everything together, like if I took it off, all of my insides might fall out. Now, coupled with a bra, it’s like the best Spanx ever, and I wear it if I leave the house for any reason. Just in case, because it all still feels a little precarious. I’m back to taking a lot of ibuprofen with a few pain pills thrown in there at night. Honestly, I broke the rules and had a beer last night and it did more for the pain than the hydromorphone I’ve been taking.

As it turns out, my uterus was attached to my colon, and in my surgeon’s words, I had a lot of scar tissue in my pelvic region. Again, with the questions trying to figure out the mystery. Again, I had no answers. I tried to blame twenty years of being a lawn dart, hitting the dirt, but he didn’t buy it. Sometimes you just have bad luck and that’s all there is to it.

I’ve learned a lot with experience. I’ve learned that insurance companies control everything, including the quality of your health to a large degree. I’ve learned that there are terrible health care providers and that there are ones that you’ve never met, but when you do, they will have your back 100%. I’ve learned that I do know my body better than anyone else, that I’m not crazy, or a wimp, and to persevere even when the experts don’t back you up.

My gut might be missing a few parts now, but it still knows what’s best.  I might not be able to touch my toes at the moment, but pretty soon I’ll be able to sport a bikini once again. Only this time, I’ll have more than one smile and that’s alright by me.

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