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But the Puzzle's Not Finished!

I was set to enter Mt. Sinai on November 16, 1981. Surgery was scheduled for the 18th. It felt strange to be back there - I spent 8 days in the Children's section when I was 10; undergoing a variety of (unrelated) tests not worth discussing here. Impressively enough, the Admissions Office could access my old file, different name and all!

I was admitted late Monday evening and placed in a tiny room in the Guggenheim Pavilion. I was examined by one of the residents - a petite woman with an iron grip - who assured me I'd be moved the next day to "our place."

That turned out to be the Hausman Pavilion; which seemed to be "home" to Ear, Nose & Throat patients - many of them Dr. Biller's, I soon learned. Hausman was quite a primitive place. You needed a nurse? Just ring the bell - the tiny old-fashioned variety tied to the bed! (The more familiar buzzers were in the process of being installed during my stay.) I was placed in a room with 5 other beds; two of them occupied by patients with throat or vocal chord problems.

I was given a hearing test that first morning. The afternoon featured a parade of doctors all offering their personal versions of what was going to happen to me the next day - the nerve specialist, the anesthesist, etc. Nothing made much of an impact until Dr. Ross came over. Dr. Ross, a chief resident, was a young man with no bedside manner. He proceeded to go over the gory details of the next day - and I mean gory! At that point, it finally dawned upon us (Ken and my mother had arrived by then) that I would lose an ear. Ken broke down, and I was numb - heck, what was I going to do about it now? The words just waved over us.

Finally, visiting hours were over, and Ken and Mom left me alone. About a half-hour later, I had surprise visitors - Pete & Kathy LaMaster from our square dance club! Seems they had driven a friend to the hospital and managed to figure out where I was. (Hausman's sole virtue was that it had no security whatsoever - no one stopped anyone from coming in.) We had a pleasant visit, then they all left and it was just me and the tiny bedside TV.

Around 10 p.m. the nurse came over, and asked that now infamous question, "Do you know what's going to happen tomorrow?" Yes - I've only heard about it from at least a dozen people by now! "But you haven't heard from a nurse yet," she insisted. I asked for a sleeping pill.

The gang began to assemble for The Main Event early the next morning. Ken took my glasses and jewelry, the medical staff came in to do their things. Of course, shortly after I got that shot designed to begin making one drowsy, I was handed "one more" consent form to sign! My signature must've looked interesting by then - especially since I had to hold the paper close to my nose in order to see the signature line.

And then I was wheeled along those seemingly endless underground hospital corridors to the Operating Room (OR). I slid onto the table and felt the blood pressure cuff and EKG probes being attached. I began to drift off - and there I stayed for the next 6-and-a-half hours.

What did they do to me during all that time? As I understand it... (Remember, I'm not a doctor!)

  • They removed the tumor, of course. It had settled on the nerve that controls the movement along the right side of my face. The 7th facial nerve was cut and a piece of a nearby nerve was grafted onto it. I was told this grafting was something fairly new.
  • They removed my right ear and closed up its ear canal. The ear was "replaced" by a chunk of skin from my right shoulder blade that was grafted on. The skin below the shoulder blade was "stretched" over the section that was taken away - a novel means of replacement, I suppose.
  • Since they happened to be in the neighborhood, my right parotid gland and mastoid bone were also "evicted." Among the "technical" terms used to summarize this operation were "parotidectomy" and "mastoidectomy."

While all this was taking place, our families had taken over the lounge back at Hausman - Ken, my mother, brother and sister, and Ken's parents. Fortunately, they had something else (besides the obvious!) to keep them occupied - a jigsaw puzzle. Several months earlier, Ken had received a large puzzle from his sister as a birthday present. It was titled "Decisions, Decisions" and pictured every sinful dessert you could imagine - cream puffs, eclairs, etc. I used to refer to it as "Dieter's Delight." When this operation was scheduled, we agreed that this would be the ideal time to work on the puzzle.

It seems that everyone in the lounge managed to get at least a few pieces assembled during the course of the surgery. Of course, there was no shortage of trepidation along the way - especially since no one ever did hear from Dr. Sullivan. (He later apologized; noting that it was all he could do to find the OR, let alone Hausman.) The time dragged on, trips to the bathroom were delayed (That would surely be the moment when The Word would come that surgery was completed!) - so work on the puzzle continued.

Finally, the call everyone awaited came - and Ken's first reaction was, "But the puzzle's not finished!" He estimated that another 30 minutes worth of effort would've completed the picture. Human nature is wonderful, isn't it?

Then came the long-delayed mad dash to the bathroom. And returning to the lounge to discover that the puzzle had been taken apart and put away. (The two of us eventually completed the puzzle - one year later while watching Election Night returns on TV.) Then came the emotional release of tears. Someone asked a nurse standing nearby what the problem was. She responded, "Oh, his wife just came out of 6 hours of surgery."

A short time later, one of the more pleasant residents came over and asked Ken if he'd like to visit me. He offered some useful advice: "Imagine what you think she looks like - now think of it being 10 times worse," he said. "Now go see her."

And with that, Ken and my mother came to see me in Intensive Care. I had awakened in the fog normally associated with these sorts of things - and having no glasses simply made matters worse. But when the nurse said, "There's someone who'd like to see you - is that OK?" I knew exactly what she meant. (Whew - I was still in command of my mental faculties!) Ken came over and was very careful to stay on my left side. Since he hates the sight of blood, I knew he'd refrain from looking at the other side. So, to him, I looked perfectly fine. Later, my mother (who's had nurse's training), and my sister (who was in nursing school at the time) had the fun of seeing the results of the "work." I think they were impressed.

I remained in Intensive Care overnight; where I could moan and groan to my heart's content, I suppose. I was shipped back to Hausman the next day, and actually got to spend some time in a "real" chair. That evening, Ken decided to visit our Advanced square dance club on the way home to let folks know I had successfully made it through the surgery. He ended up dancing all night - and later admitted it was the best thing he could've done for himself.

By Saturday, enough tubes and drains had been removed to enable me to take my first short walk to the bathroom (with help from my sister). Although I was now forced to view my "new" face in the bathroom mirror, I tried not to think too much about what I looked like. Suffice it to say it wasn't pretty - my mouth was a 45-degree line across my face, and my "ear" was a lump of skin that resembled an elephant's ear. I also had a line of several dozen stitches from above my former ear, down the side of my head, ending somewhere above my collarbone. There was also a line of stitching across the right shoulder blade from which the graft was taken for my "elephant's ear."

Some basic functions were affected too: Because most of the right side of my face was paralyzed, eating and drinking became a little challenging. I drooled a lot. One of Ken's co-workers who experienced Bell's Palsy (which some people assume I have, at first glance, to this day) gave me valuable advice concerning the best way to accomplish this. Ken also marveled at another way the human body compensates itself: Since I couldn't close my eyes properly, the eyeball rolled up to create the same effect so I could sleep. On the other hand, my right eye teared uncontrollably (It sometimes still does). Because the skin graft taken from my shoulder blade affected the muscles in that area, I was given a basic exercise for my right arm, so I could regain full range of movement in the area: Standing at arm's length from a wall, get the fingers to "climb" up and down said wall.

Over the next week or so, there were pletny of things to aid my recovery. Lots of cards, plants and flowers arrived - including anthuriniums shipped via Fed Ex from my cousin in Hawaii (they lasted till 2/82!), and a tree that lasted over 10 years. I still have the artificial flowers from the Touche Ross Atlanta office! Ken kept me reasonably stocked with reading matter. (He also lost his fear of driving in New York City by driving to the hospital each day.) And the hospital staff kept giving me changes of scenery - a new room every few days. I didn't think that was intentional, but that's how it worked out.

I guess I must've recovered fairly quickly. Stitches were removed rapidly - no surprise to Ken or Dr. Sullivan (given my history of healing quickly from the earlier biopsies), but amazing to the Mt. Sinai staff. I began navigating the corridor with much more confidence. I even managed to impress Dr. Ross enough so he became more human. His final question to me before he left for Thanksgiving was intriguing: "Did you ever imagine you'd look this way?" Honestly, I didn't have an answer - simply because I never gave it much thought. Actually, I've gone through much of this experience "wearing blinders." This probably has both advantages and disadvantages...

Although I was given the opportunity to go home for Thanksgiving, I didn't feel comfortable with the idea of Ken driving into New York City and dealing with all the traffic that hectic Wednesday. So my discharge was arranged for the Sunday following the holiday.

I spent Thanksgiving in the hospital. I've since concluded that there are fewer circumstances more depressing than spending a holiday in the hospital, no matter how hard you try to get around it. The parents had sent food; and Ken, my mother, and I took over the lounge and had our holiday dinner that Thursday. The hospital's holiday tray proved to be my last edible meal until I was discharged. (My one visitor from work was "treated" to seeing me dining on an ice cream sandwich for dinner - the only thing Ken felt was worth smuggling out of the hospital cafeteria!)

Needless to say, I was more than a little hungry when I finally arrived home that Sunday afternoon! But after two weeks in the hospital, it was simply great to be home!

Modified 3/4/2000