Becoming The Patient

On December 17th, I underwent a tonsillectomy for recurrent tonsillitis. This was my first surgery under general anesthesia, and I was incredibly nervous. I have learned all the possible reactions and complications that come with general anesthesia, and I thought maybe I would be the 1 in 100,000 who get malignant hyperthermia or something wild like that. (Medical student syndrome or hypochondriasis at its finest.) Thankfully, my husband was by my side in the pre-op and post-op areas, and my mom was eager to hear how things went and how I was feeling. I had the support I needed for a “routine” surgery, and I had been forewarned about the pain and difficulty of getting tonsils removed as an adult. I was ready. “Are you the husband? It’s time to give any hugs or kisses; she’s going back.”

Tonsillectomy by CoblationMy surgeon was calmly waiting for me as they wheeled my bed into the operating theater. He made some jokes about how he felt ready to operate since he watched the video once again, to which I replied, “I watched it too.” Everyone laughed, and I lied back and began breathing in cold, chemical air from a mask as the anesthesiologist instructed me to do. I felt a stinging sensation through my IV in my hand as the propofol was pushed; the burning climbed up my arm, and I was out.

When I woke, my throat felt the way it does when you get strep throat. I was coughing from the endotracheal tube being placed, and I happily accepted an offer of pain medications from my kind nurse who told me that I was “ok”. My husband arrived, and we filled my prescription for liquid tylenol with codeine and continued on our tired way back home.

The next 4 days were relatively uneventful as I struggled to stay hydrated with ice pops and water as my sole diet. On the afternoon of day 4, I was feeling a little better, when I tasted the same metal flavor in my mouth that I get when I get bloody noses. My surgical site was bleeding. I looked in the mirror, and it was pulsating out of my left throat, into the sink, filling the sink quickly. My husband rushed me to the emergency room of a hospital which we discovered didn’t have ENT surgeons in-house. We waited for an ENT surgeon to come in from the city as I gushed blood into extra-large sized styrofoam cups and attempted gargling with ice water. As I looked at my heart rate monitor, I thought, “Her heart rate is in the 140s and blood pressure is in the 150s systolic. This is clearly an emergency, and she needs treatment now. No time to talk with her, I need to tell the attending about this patient. Wait, this is me. And I’m helpless…” After about 45 minutes of bleeding and vomiting clots that collected in my esophagus, the supplies and surgeon were brought in, and I was wheeled back, once again. This time the pushed the propofol while I was sitting up, nauseated and vomiting into a cup. They must have caught my head from falling. I’m thankful.

I started from scratch again, with the pain, the difficulty staying hydrated, on top of being very anemic. I lost about 1.5L of blood. Within 5 days I lost 10 pounds. Despite all of this, I’m thankful that my tonsils are no longer a part of me, and I’m thankful for the support I received. I wasn’t sick very often as a child, so this was the first time I felt the patient’s experience. It was my first time knowing how it feels to be dependent on a medical team for my well-being, for my survival. It was the first time I felt like my body was doing me an injustice. I was so thankful for how the nurses cared for me, how the anesthesiologist walked me through what would happen step-by-step, and for the surgeon who fixed the part of my body that was doing the injustice. It is truly a humbling experience to be so helpless and dependent on others for my life, literally, and I know that as I treat my patients, I will not forget this. I promise I will one day be the physician who will work with a great team to fix injustices.