Let me start off by stating what the more polite among us would dub ‘the bleeding obvious’: 2017 did not start well.
And although the horrific state of politics in both the United States and my resident country of Britain would be more than enough reason for me to make this claim, my reasons are also a little more personal.
When the clock struck midnight on New Years’ Day, I was sitting in the A&E ward of a local hospital, clutching my ailing right side. After a week and several other visits to hospitals and doctor’s offices, it was finally discovered that I had a 20cm cyst attached to my right ovary. This cyst had managed to twist itself inside me four times over, causing enormous amounts of inflammation. Two days later I was wheeled into the operating theatre and fed a healthy dose of general anaesthetic. The next thing I knew, I was waking up in a recovery ward with a long scar right down the centre of my tummy.
The surgery I had was called a laparotomy, which is a fancy medical term for ‘open surgery from the abdomen’. After opening me up, seeing the twisted mass of cyst and ovary present there, and loudly proclaiming ‘well NO WONDER she’s been in so much pain!’ (at least, that’s what my mother reckons must have happened), the surgeons removed the cyst, the attached ovary, the attached fallopian tube, my appendix, some fluid and some fat. By my calculations, about 4kg worth of tissue and organs was removed altogether.
In short, this was a big operation.
I had my surgery just over a month ago, and I have been recovering ever since. As my body heals and my mind adjusts to the idea that I am now a person who has had major surgery, I find myself noticing things about the healing human body (or at least, MY healing human body) that had never properly entered my radar before.
Here are five such discoveries that have struck me:
1. My body needs time to recover.
This might seem obvious, but the truth behind these words of wisdom only fully hit me after my surgery.
I think part of me thought I would wake up immediately after the operation feeling fit and pain-free. Instead I woke up to see that I was connected to several machines designed to distribute potent painkillers, and it did not take long for me to realise that those painkillers were extremely necessary.
When the machines were gradually removed and I became more mobile, I was surprised to discover how short a time it took for me to exhaust myself. A five-minute walk around the ward was tiring. Getting dressed on the day I was discharged required a 20-minute rest afterwards. Packing up my room took over an hour because I had to stop and sit down three times. I had not experienced such low levels of energy for such long periods of time before. It was at around this point that the doctors and nurses told me my recovery would be a slow, gradual process.
The words of the medical professionals have continued to ring true in the subsequent weeks, as my strength and energy have slowly returned. I have had to learn to be patient, as well as keep reminding myself that the best thing I can do right now is give my body the time it needs to heal completely. As difficult as it can be, I know now how important it is not to rush this.
2. It feels weird whenever I think about what happened.
A couple of days after the surgery, I decided that I would write a series of blog posts about my whole acute illness story, from when the pain started to the surgery and afterwards.
It turned out that those blog posts were astoundingly difficult to write, because whenever I thought back through those weeks of pain, confusion, and fear, I found myself getting weirded out (for lack of a more scholarly term). It almost felt like my illness had happened to somebody else, and the fact that it had happened to me was too much for my brain to process.
Weirdest of all is coming to terms with having only one ovary, one fallopian tube, and no appendix. After spending years in Health classes learning about these organs and their function, knowing that they are now not there feels strange, to say the least.
I imagine that it is going to continue to feel strange for a long while yet.
3. My modesty has taken a back seat.
I consider myself to be a fairly modest person. As a teenager my modesty came from body hatred, and when I became body positive it was more the result of general shyness, ingrained habits (eg. getting dressed in the bathroom instead of doing the naked walk to my bedroom) and a preference for less revealing clothing options (eg. one-piece swimming costumes rather than bikinis). In short, I have never been one to show off large amounts of my bare flesh to anybody.
While I was in hospital, necessity dictated that I let my modesty go. It is impossible to be assessed by doctors or cleaned up by nurses if you are worried about them being horrified at the extent of your nakedness. Also, it is difficult to be worried about anybody seeing you au natural when you are in the sort of pain I was in.
I continue to be less modest as I recover at home, lifting up my shirt to show my new scar to my friends and family without a second thought. In a strange way, my scar (which, as I said, runs right down the centre of my abdomen), feels like a body positivity shield that says ‘I have officially been through something big, and my body is now impervious to your judgement’.
I hope this reduced modesty continues. It is rather freeing.
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4. Small achievements feel massive (because they are massive).
I never thought I would see the day where having a shower and washing my hair would be a genuine cause for celebration, but that day came about a week after the surgery.
On that day, not only was I finally able to remove the last dressing on my scar, but I also had the strength to stand in the shower, rub shampoo and conditioner into my hair, comb out the knots, dry myself, dress myself, and walk back to my bedroom, all in one go. Let me tell you, my hair looked amazing that day.
Before my surgery, a shower was just one of those pain-in-the-arse jobs that had to be done so that the public did not complain about the visible stink-lines radiating off me wherever I went. But the shower I had that day was a big accomplishment, and I was proud of myself.
I have since made a point to celebrate similar accomplishments. They remind me that I am making encouraging progress.
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5. My body can cope with more than I gave it credit for.
As surprised as I was to discover how little energy I had those first post-surgery days, I soon rationalised that my tiredness was to be expected, considering what my body had been through. And the more I thought about it, the more I realised how extraordinarily well my body has coped with it all.
As well as being cut open and having 4kg of stuff suddenly removed from it, my body also went through copious amounts of pain, inflammation, nausea, vomiting, and food deprivation, multiple scans and blood tests, and being in a near-constant fight or flight state with all the anxious worrying I was doing. And still it chugged along like the trooper that it is.
From where I am sitting now, that amount of fortitude strikes me as nothing short of remarkable.
In short, my surgery (and the illness that came before it) was not an experience that I would wish on anybody. However, I feel oddly grateful that I have had this chance to find out things about myself, and my body, that I might not have otherwise known.
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[Feature Image: A person with long dark hair is laying in a hospital bed. Next to the person is a table and a lamp. Source: Lwp Kommunikáció]