Give Me Back My Spleen and Other Adventures from Surgery

I know it sounds like an exaggeration, but I’ve had over 50 surgeries in my life.  By “surgeries” I mean any procedure in which medical cutting was done on my body.  Some of these were small (cataract surgeries in both eyes) or lasik surgery, for example, but others were major (most obviously the heart transplant in 2009).  The first happened when I was in second grade and had my tonsils removed, and the most recent was last week when I had a cyst removed from my pancreas.  I ruptured my appendix in 1978 and this led to my belly being sliced open six times in major surgeries; for the blog post on point see Then, before the heart transplant, there occurred much slicing open of my upper chest to take in and pull out a defibrillator (it kept malfunctioning).  At one point I had major problems with my nose which led to my turbinates being cut away by lasers.  And in 2013 I had a total knee replacement.  A blog clot in my leg required stents being inserted/removed in my body four times, and there have been a number of surgeries related to problems with my heart including one in which a dual electrical system had to be cut out of my new heart!

Heart biopsies have led to most of the surgeries of the 50+ count in the list.  In this interesting medical procedure (it checks for rejection of the heart and takes about 45 minutes), the cardiologist inserts a tube into my neck, threads it down into the heart (which, trust me, does not approve of this invasion) and harvests four tiny snips for analysis, pulling the pieces back up the tube.  Sounds like fun, right?  A couple of months before the transplant I had the first of these procedures. The next one was the day of the transplant itself (Nov. 23, 2009), and periodically thereafter.  In recent years they’ve tapered off and may be over. There have been, I believe, 26 of these biopsies.

Since 2011 I’ve been aware I had a cyst on my pancreas which, ominously “must be watched,” and this year a doctor whose expertise is the pancreas explained that pancreatic cancer is very fatal—even if only one cancerous cell gets in the mix.  That scared me so I agreed with the doctors it was time to take it out. 

My husband David and I went on vacation to Oregon on August 17th, and the very night we arrived home on Sunday, the 20th at midnight, we immediately prepared for surgery at six a.m. that Monday at the Ohio State University Hospitals here in Columbus.  The surgery went off smoothly and my surgeon told me that the cyst contained no cancerous cells and my pancreas, now devoid of an atrophied section, was doing fine. 

Prior to the operation (#53 as I calculate the number) my surgeon had casually mentioned that he would also be removing my spleen.  What!  My SPLEEN!  I was surprised—shocked even. Frankly, I’m not real sure what a spleen does, but the offhand comment that mine would be a casualty in all this was somehow disconcerting.  What had my poor little spleen done to deserve such treatment?  I did a mock protest and learned a lot about the spleen.

The Spleen

It turns out it had a primary function, particularly early in life, of boosting the immune system, and that function gets fainter as we age.  In my case I take major medications to thwart my immune system so that it won’t reject my heart, so removing my spleen from the picture is a good idea.

The portion of the OSU system I recuperated in is the lovely new James Cancer Hospital, which just opened in late 2014, and it is spectacular.  The design of the building, the rooms, the very friendly staff, doctors, nurses, all of it is magnificent.  I have spent a lot of time in hospital rooms at Ohio State in the last forty years, and the James is the best of them all.  I am thankful to everyone for the care I received in so warm and friendly a fashion.

Having said that, the hospital stay there is the same old torture for the patient that it has always been at whatever hospital I’ve stayed in across the country.  If you’re a former patient you doubtless know what I mean: you get no rest.  All day long, all night long the patient is interrupted by person after person coming into the room with his/her own agenda: time to take “vitals,” time to take medicine, time to clean the room, what would you like for your meals today?, here is the meal you ordered, time for your shots, the doctors are making rounds, time to clean the wound, time to try walking, and the list goes on and on.  The longest period of sleep I could maintain without a visit at night was three hours, and this at a time when my aching body begged me for sleep, needed sleep.

The bed itself was like a joke.  It certainly was not designed for comfort for the patient.  The controls are hard to reach and frequently attached to a cord that slips all too easily to the floor.  Whatever the patient does, he/she slides to the bottom of the bed and is scrunched up there until rescued and temporarily pulled back into a position where supine sleep is theoretically possible.  Whoever designed this bed should be forced—by law—to sleep in it for the rest of his/her life.  On top of this, various items in the room beep and buzz, and even ear plugs won’t keep out these irritants.

The James has a new idea on how to prevent bed sores (which occur when the patient fails to move around enough in bed).  It is now routine to attach large balloons around the ankle/thigh area, and these inflate and deflate all during the night, moving the patient’s legs as pressure is applied here and there.  Want to try and sleep through that?

Actually I didn’t mind it at all, but I’m an unusual case.  I sleep with cats, and during the night they frequently cuddle up to my feet for warmth.  When the balloons started inflating, half drugged as I was, I thought it was my cat Mama, who has spent almost every night for the last six years snuggling against my legs, and her mysterious presence made me happy.  How had Mama snuck into the hospital and found my room?  Great cat.

My Cats Mama and Abby on the Bottom of the Bed

However, as the drugs decreased I noticed that the balloon machine emitted an intermittent buzz and some clicks, and those made sleeping difficult.  I finally told the nurse to turn it all off.  She said that most patients really dislike the whole balloon idea, which was no surprise to me.

And in the bathroom the toilet had no solid surface to relax back upon when one was sitting there.  Instead there was an upright fixture for washing the toilet that consisted of a nozzle at the end of a pipe that swiveled down to clean the toilet when the patient was gone.  Since I was wearing the ever-attractive and functional hospital gown that was, of course, open in the back, it was a surprise in the middle of the night to sit on the toilet, lean back into this icy cold fixture, and yelp in protest.  They heard me two rooms away.  Whoever dreamed up this idea should come over to my house and we’ll have a good long talk.  Whoever approved its use and decided to install it in the James can come along too.

I was very pleased when my splendid doctor announced I could go home on Friday, and I am here to tell you now that one of the most sublime pleasures of my life was climbing into my very own bed that Friday afternoon, surrounded by husband, cats, love, and comfort.  As I fell into a long sleep, Mama Cat climbed onto my feet, purring, settling down to sleep herself.  She didn’t seem to care that I was spleenless.

Related Posts:

A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013;

"About That Heart Transplant," January 24, 2010;

“The First Time I Nearly Died,” August 3, 2010;

“Ten Startling Sentences I Can Stop a Conversation With,”  October 1, 2014;  


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