Advice to Doctors

As if I’m qualified……

Photo by Sasun Bughdaryan on Unsplash

This may seem counterintuitive, but it is a message I’d really like to send to every doctor/surgeon/med student in the world.

You guys have read this already, but I have developed a benign tumor on my right acoustic nerve. It is called an “Acoustic neuroma” or a “Schwannoma”. Either way doesn’t that sound wicked scary?????

Well, it did to me. I have lost some hearing in one ear. I am off balance and walking like a drunken sailor even when I am neither. My lower lip is numb on the right side and my tongue tip is itchy and numb. I have a TUMOR on my freakin’ BRAIN.

I have not been the epitome of grace and acceptance. No. I have been the epitome of “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?”

Now, I will be honest. It isn’t that I am thinking “why me?” Not at all. I am the luckiest human being that I have ever even heard of. Literally everything has gone my way. For my entire life. I have no right and no reason to ask “Why me?”

But I have been asking, “What horrible tortures are going to happen to me?” I have done the unthinkable and checked Google for “Acoustic Neuromas”. I even joined a FB group of “Acoustic Neuroma Survivors”.

Bad ideas. Bad, bad ideas. All full of “I am worse now than I was before surgery!” and “My surgery lasted 15 hours and I was in the hospital for 2 weeks!”

I got scared.

I got really scared. I am not a sick person. I do not do the hospital/surgery/recovery thing.

I’m NONNI, dammit! I play with kids! I cook! I do finger painting and cookie baking and block building and bike riding! I am NONNI!


We drove into Boston this morning to meet the neurosurgeon who works with my chosen ENT surgeon. We parked in the garage. We noted where our car was parked (3D!). We followed the sign that said “EXIT”. We came to a wall. We went back up. We followed another sign that said “EXIT”. We came to a door marked “Emergency Exit ONLY!” We looked at each other. We went back up the stairs. We searched. We looked around.

At last, at last, we found our way out of the parking garage and onto a HUGE city street. Filled with cars and trucks and people and noise and stuff.

It took us almost a half hour to meander our way to the correct corridor in the correct building of the correct Boston hospital. We checked in and filled out papers and tried to relax.

And this is where my advice to doctors comes in.

After short wait, we were taken in to meet with my neurosurgeon. That man who would, theoretically, be drilling into my skull in the next few weeks.

He was kind, friendly, accessible, and open. All good. He ran through my various options, from “Let’s just wait and see” to a non-invasive gamma knife treatment, to the plain old “slice up your skull and dig out the tumor” scalpel surgery.

I already knew that I preferred the surgery, and when our conversation was finished, it was very clear that he agreed. As my ENT surgeon had agreed earlier.

I left the office feeling much calmer and more reassured than I’d been in many weeks. And you want to know why?

It wasn’t because he agreed on surgery. It wasn’t because he was very thorough, and spent as much time as I needed to review my MRI and CT scans. It wasn’t even because he’s the chief of Head and Neck Surgery at one of the best hospitals in the country.


It was because he was remarkably unimpressed with my situation. It was almost a big yawn for him. It was unremarkable and unimpressive and I am certain that tonight when his wife asks about his day, I will not come to mind for a second.

So that is my advice to young medical professionals today. Be unimpressed. Be ever so slightly bored with your patient’s scary crisis.

For me, at least, this was the most reassuring message I could have possibly received.

Trying to be thankful

Dentist with PatientI recently read an article in a woman’s magazine about fostering a more positive attitude.  I was sitting in a clammy waiting room before a  doctor’s appointment when I found the magazine, so I needed the little boost of positivity.  I’m pretty sure that I was gritting my teeth and tapping my foot by the time I turned to the story.

Anyway, the writer talked about having an “attitude of gratitude” and how you should really make it a point to write down three things, every single day, that made you feel grateful. It could be anything, she wrote, anything from a delicious sandwich for lunch to a negative cancer test.  The point was just to open yourself up to the little things in life for which we really should feel grateful, instead of always focusing on the negative.

It struck a chord with me, for sure! Lately I have found myself becoming somewhat mired in the world of negativity, and it seemed like a relatively easy way to pull myself back up into a happier mindset.

So I started a little journal.  Some days are really easy: “The sunrise was absolutely spectacular this morning as I headed into work.  A glorious column of gold and orange rising into the slate blue of the morning sky.”  (I was feeling very literary that particular day).  Or something more prosaic, like this: “Both boys sent me messages today to tell me that they love me.”  Yeah.  Easy!

But yesterday I had a root canal. The whole gratitude thing wasn’t quite so easy yesterday.

First of all, I had a bad reaction to the local anesthesia given before the procedure, so the whole thing took almost 4 hours.  (And this was only visit number one out of three.)

I wasn’t sure I would be able to find my gratitude when I finally got home.

The thing is, I knew before I went in to the office that I have a history of bad reactions to too much novocaine.  The nice endodontist explained to me that local anesthesia contains a high percentage of epinephrine, which no doubt explains my racing heart, sweaty hands and shaking muscles after only one shot.  For a root canal, I had to have four shots in my jaw.  I was shaking so badly after that last one that I looked like a marrionette.  My cell phone rang at one point, while I was waiting for the last shot to take effect; I pulled it out, but my hands were shaking so violently that I couldn’t manage to complete a text message. All I got was ‘blblkkkk’ before I finally gave up and put it back in my pocket. Man, was I ever reacting!!

Speed will never be my drug of choice…..

The doc finally realized that he would have to use a different local anesthetic around the tooth whose canal was being rooted, telling me somewhat curtly that “it might wear off before we are done.”

Say, WHAT? The anesthesia might WEAR OFF?

The fear that followed that comment only added to my tremors, and by the time he was ready to begin the big dig, I was vibrating like a guitar string.

He put my chair back to get me in the proper position.  And by “back”, I mean that my feet were in the air, my head was two inches above the floor, and my hands were engaged in a death grip on the arm rests. Where they shook and vibrated at about 1000 cycles a second.  Sort of in time with the drill that was boring a hole in my skull.  I closed my eyes and tried to breathe deep as my thighs and calves shook and shivered.  What a weird sensation!  I couldn’t tell if I was freezing, scared to death or having a drug reaction.  Or all of the above.

If you have ever had a root canal, you will no doubt be familiar with the “rubber dam”.  This is a device that is designed to isolate the tooth being treated, to make it easier on the doctor who is drilling within a centimeter of your brain.  (For obvious reasons, you don’t want to complain about anything while this drilling is going on.)

In my case, the rubber dam was somewhat disconcerting.  It smelled like a latex balloon, and it stretched so tightly over my entire mouth that I felt like I couldn’t take in a good breath.  This is because….well….because there was a big old piece of rubber over my airway. I actually couldn’t take in a good breath. To make matters worse, that little spit sucking hook thingy was wedged in the corner of my mouth, right under the rubber. I had to concentrate to keep my tongue from being sucked right out into oblivion.

I tried hard to relax, really. I did!  I began to engage in a series of mental exercises designed to distract myself from the shakes, the freezing, the upside down position, the rubber dam covering my entire mouth and the drill digging into my cranium.  I pictured my students, one by one, seeing each sweet face in my mind’s eye. I thought about the births of my babies (OK, now THAT was pain, right? This is nothing!).  I tried to envision my best beach day ever.  I counted backwards from a thousand. I dreamed up new recipes including vodka and limes.

It was all going great for the first couple of hours. Especially if by “great” you mean that I didn’t actually shiver my way out of the dentist chair and onto the floor on my head.  I didn’t feel too much discomfort other than the sensation that my jaw was being dislocated and my right eye was bulging out of its socket.  I kept telling myself, “You’re fine!  This is nothing!  You’re fine….!”

And I was more or less fine.  Until for some reason the doctor decided to readjust the rubber dam.  I don’t know what he actually did because I couldn’t focus on the green piece of latex that was pulled like a drum skin over my lips, which were mashed beyond recognition against my teeth.  I just know that I felt a little stretch and then heard a deep, resonating “twang”! and the rubber was pulled even more tightly over my open mouth.

“OK.  No worries”, I told myself. “It’s cool”.

Then I swallowed.

Instantly, something inside my mouth, some structure or other (tongue? palate? tonsils? what the HELL?) was sucked up to the roof of my mouth where it started to helplessly flap up and down a mile a minute.  I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t stop the suction.

“Brrrrlllllppp!” I pulled with every tongue muscle I possessed, and I managed to unglue whatever the hell it was.  Oh, sweet sassy molassy, I can breathe again!!

The next hour was spent like this: “Don’t swallow, don’t swallow…oh, crap, I feel tooth chips in my throat, I gotta swallow….Brrrrlllllppppp!!”  And I’d wrench whatever it was back down and the whole process would start again.

Breathe.  Swallow. Brrrrlllllpppppp!!!

Breathe.  Swallow. Brrrrlllllpppppp!!!

After the fourth or fifth time it happened, I just couldn’t help myself. I started to laugh.  Head down, mouth open, shaking like a freakin’ leaf, I just started to laugh.  Which made my stomach lurch. Which made the doctor jump a mile and ask, “Are you going to be sick?!” with absolute horror in his voice.

Which made me laugh some more. Brrrllllllpppppp!!!

“Guh, nuh, huhuhuhuh!”  That was me trying to explain my hysteria through a rubber dam, with a spit sucking hook in my mouth.  The more I tried to restrain myself, the more I wanted to laugh. And the more I tried to hold in that laughter, the more my legs shook. Which, of course, made me laugh.

Luckily for me, the doctor in question has an amazing sense of focus. He never wavered as he bored holes in my jaw bone, dug out the canals and jammed a bunch of packing peanuts into the empty spaces. I managed to keep on breathing and to restrain the giggles and the swallows long enough for him to finish the job.

Unfortunately, the procedure lasted a bit longer than the anesthesia, so the last twenty minutes were way less fun than eating a frosted brownie, but what the hell.

At least on the way home I found my three reasons to be grateful.

1) I didn’t inhale the rubber dam and block my lungs forever

2) I managed to dig my nails into the arm rests, so I didn’t slide out of that damn chair

3) You just have to be grateful for a good belly laugh, no matter how inconveniently timed.