Learning From Surprises

In the wee hours of December 1, 2009, I took myself to the emergency room doubled over in abdominal pain: gallstones. I was scheduled to have my gall bladder removed the next day. The laparoscopic surgery would be minimally invasive, just two tiny, camera-guided incisions, one in my belly button and one in my lower abdomen. No problem.

I could feel that something was very wrong when I woke up after surgery. I pushed down the sheet and began pulling off bandages, uncovering a scene from a slasher film.

My upper abdomen was sliced open nearly from sternum to right hip. 30 staples closed the uneven nine-inch incision that stretched, taut and grotesque, over a hard, baseball-sized, blood-crusted hematoma at the end. Sixty tiny, ugly pink puncture wounds dotted either side of the gash like some horrible Frankenstein homage. Four more staples decorated the sickening smile cut into my navel. Two drainage tubes hung out of my side, shuttling red and brown fluids to collection bulbs strapped to my leg. The vivid, multi-colored bruising that wrapped around me from front to back — mostly the color of old blood — made it look like I’d been violently assaulted. I sobbed and gasped for air and comprehension.

As I unraveled, my mother stood at the foot of the hospital bed with teary-eyed concern and soothing explanations. Complications made laparoscopic removal of the gall bladder impossible, the bile duct was blocked, the camera couldn’t get a picture, the gall bladder was 5 times normal size, and I was getting “dead sicker by the minute.” “So they attacked me with a butcher knife?!,” I thought.

My brain felt broken. I’d never experienced something so shockingly, instantly destructive to my sense of self.

In that moment, in the process of ending my first marriage, I was no longer single, healthy, and reasonably attractive. Now I was alone, sick, and grossly disfigured. Until then I had no idea how vain and emotionally fragile I really was. It felt like my self-esteem was irrevocably damaged.

It wasn’t. In hindsight, I bounced back quickly. The horror show improved rapidly as it healed under my clothes, safely hidden from sight and psyche. With both drainage tubes and half of the staples still in place, I took Mom to Vegas for the Brian Setzer Orchestra Christmas show. I started dating. Eight weeks after the surgery, I allowed a man to see me naked. He told me the scar would be beautiful when it was healed, and I believed him.

After a couple years, the hematoma dissolved completely. Today, most of the feeling has returned to that part of my abdomen. Though still the major feature of my middle, the scar has faded from angry red to waxy pink. I thought about covering it with a tattoo, but the man who told me it would be beautiful was right. My scar doesn’t need to be covered, it’s a part of my life experience.

One that I never, ever want to experience again.

So thanks, I guess, for the nasty surprise. From it, I learned that bad, BAD shit happens, and will happen in future. I carry that knowledge with me so it doesn’t blindside me next time. And so I can be grateful for every day that doesn’t involve nasty surprises.

I’m a Li-Fraumeni Syndrome genetic mutant, which means I’m susceptible to developing many different types of cancers. I dig photography and (mostly old) music.

I’m a Li-Fraumeni Syndrome genetic mutant, which means I’m susceptible to developing many different types of cancers. I dig photography and (mostly old) music.