Friday, April 22, 2011

Six Years as the Bionic Woman


::Original post: December 17th, 2010::

Six years ago today I was on an operating table having my pacemaker put in. Pacemaker surgeries are fairly straightforward and usually take no more than two hours. However, due to my anatomy (my heart sits in the center of my chest, favoring the right side) and my surgical history (I had a Senning surgery when I was two years old and this blocked the upper left area of my chest where the traditional placement of a pacemaker is) my surgeon was forced to turn a traditionally simple procedure into a serious open heart surgery.

My pacemaker was put in because my heart pauses, usually when I'm asleep. Yes, that means it stops. My heart has stopped more times than I care to know. It is the pausing but that triggers arrhythmia and palpitations, dangerous ones that I have managed to live through, especially as a child. I have been aware that a pacemaker may be in my future since they initially wanted to stick one in me back in 1991.
I fought it until it was unavoidable.
When, in fall of 2004, I was told by the man who not only would become my electro-physiologist but who also operates the non-profit organization I began to volunteer with that same year that it was time, I did not protest.

I'm wary of all surgeons; they're an odd bunch. They make the big bucks and perform medical miracles by defying nature with science and bring life into someone once again. Second chances. That's what surgeons specialize in. I kept my distance from mine; he was friendly enough but I didn't need to tell him I loathed the idea of going under anesthesia and that there might be a chance I would have to have a full open heart procedure. I told him to do his best to avoid that.

I won't lie, I was scared. It had been fifteen years since I had last gone into heart surgery. Medicine and quick fixes had kept me off the operating table until then. I couldn't remember the healing process all that well. I couldn't remember the pain of healing. I only remembered wanting to get up and get the fuck out of bed and into the playroom where there was a free Pac-Man standing arcade game waiting for me.

I went to UCLA medical center so early it was still dark. I think my surgery was schedule for around 9:00am, so I had to be there around 5:00am for paperwork and prep. That was another thing. The paperwork. It was mine to fill out now. Who do they contact in an emergency? Who gives the final call on my life should I be rendered unable to make my own decisions? Who gets my Sailormoon collection?

I was smart and went in my pajamas, fuchsia pink scrubs with Hibiscus flowers on them from a company I briefly worked for earlier that year. I had my rabbit, Boo-Boo, with me. She was tired looking and sagged a bit more than she did fourteen years ago, but she had been my companion then and I'd be damned if I'd go into the OR without her.
Or so I thought.

When it was time to say goodbye to my mom I confessed my nerves to the attending nurses that stuck close to my gurney. In the OR, while waiting for the anesthesia to be prepared, a young nurse looked down on my worried face and gave me a reassuring smile. She looked identical to my friend Jen, who I had been in Sydney, Australia with just a year earlier. I told the nurse this and felt myself relax. Having a friend in the OR, even her doppelganger, put me at ease.

I told them how much I hated anesthesia; it was the necessary evil of surgery. Don't get me wrong, I said to everyone who would listen, I appreciate anesthesia and of course, I want to wake up. But when you do wake up? It's like realizing you'd been hit not by a truck but by a convoy.

Going under is fun, though. I have to admit it. It's a twisted little game to play in the OR, between myself and the anesthesia.
"All right. I want you to count from ten backwards. Ready?"
Aloud, I'd say: ""

I'm out.

We won't get into the recovery from this surgery. Least to say, it was a bitch. I'd never been in so much physical pain, nor cried so much over seemingly nothing in all of my life. I never once before nor after thought OH GOD I AM GOING TO STOP BREATHING AND DIE. I could not laugh and I could not cry. No, really. If I did my chest would constrict and I'd be unable to breathe. Hurt like hell. I did it without drugs, too. They loaded me up with a bottle of Vicodin but I never took a single pill. They make me puke. The point is, I recovered.

The pacemaker has been great, though its presence in my body has had its moments of annoyance. Particularly, metal detectors. I won't go through them if I don't have to, though I hate to inconvenience people for a pat down. I've only ever come across one or two harassed looking security personnel, and one doubtful stink eye (Thanks, Sunset Gower Studios Security Guard. You were a dick.)

I have monthly check-ins with a machine that dials in my pacemaker's monthly recordings via magnet and phone line. It sounds cooler than it is. It's a fussy, fickle bitch of a machine that is more trouble than helpful (on my end.) My pacemaker is in a pretty obvious spot, but the magnet doesn't seem to think so and I have to tinker with unique positions, twisting and turning until all five lights decide to light up. It's a pain in the ass. I much prefer my in-house calls with my doctor who has more high tech machinery. That appointment is in January.

My pacemaker is also on a timer. It paces me heart at a slower rate during "down" hours ie. night time when my heart rate is supposed to be lower for sleep. You can imagine some of the low-energy problems I ran into while being eight hours ahead in Ireland for two weeks. I had forgotten all about the timer portion of my pacemaker, as did TEAM RACHAEL! We had a good laugh about it a couple months later, when I realized.

So, what do I have to say about my pacemaker after six years of sporting a piece of machinery in my left upper abdominal? I'm glad it's there. I don't think ill of it one bit; it's made my life more manageable in the long run. Medical technology does not walk swiftly or even run; it leaps and bounds from milestone to milestone. It rarely bothers me that a hunk of metal is helping me stay alive. I'm just too happy to be here, with all of you.

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