Thad McIlroy undergoes a hernia operation—and with Neil Diamond and the right kind of drugs, it might only take ten minutes.
I’m awake. Lights on.
There’s a way of waking that happens in hospitals, the juncture of surprise and dread, magnified by lack of sleep.
A short, dark woman is standing near the foot of my bed, glaring. She holds a small white pail in one hand and a disposable plastic razor in the other.
“I’m going to shave you for the operation.”
Shave me. Down there. For the operation.
“They might not operate today,” I mumble.
“It says nine o’clock.”
“They don’t know if I have a hernia. They have it on my left side but it’s really on my right side but yesterday the doctor said that he can’t find it there either so they don’t know if they’re operating but they said to stay here last night anyway. I’m waiting for the surgeon.”
“I’ll come back.”
She turns to my roommate in the bed closer to the door.
“You had your operation,” she says, with the hint of a question.
“Yeah, I’m going home today.”
“Good.” She looks over her shoulder and gives me a brief scowl as she exits the room, turning off the overhead lights.
Two weeks may have passed when the lights come on again. Through the double curtains I can see that it’s nearly light outside. A serious and solid grey-haired man stands near the end of my bed, arms folded.
“What seems to be the problem?”
I look at him, shielding my eyes. “They had the wrong side for my operation and then the doctor yesterday said he couldn’t find the hernia on my right side.”
“Get out of bed, please. We’ll have a look.”
A moment later he’s squeezing and I’m squirming.
“You the surgeon?” I say.
More pokes. Some prods.
“There it is,” the surgeon proclaims, a hollow-sounding triumph in his voice. “Yes there. Right side.”
“You’re sure?” I say. He looks straight at me. I don’t think people often ask him that. “I mean yesterday the doctor checked really thoroughly and had me cough a lot and he couldn’t find it. Three squeezes and you say it’s there.”
“It’s there. Here, you feel it.” He takes my right hand and pushes it against my groin. Then again. “Feel that?” he asks.
He moves my hand a little lower, then up and a little to the left. “There?”
“It’s there. They don’t always protrude. Sometimes they’re small.”
“You’re saying that even though the doctor yesterday spent about ten minutes checking and couldn’t find a hernia that you’re sure it’s there? I don’t want you slicing me open just for the hell of it.”
“It’s there. If you don’t want the operation, you can go away and come back when you’re ready.”
“No, no, I’m not saying that. You’re the surgeon and you say I need hernia surgery so I’m going to believe you.”
“Believe me. It’s there.”
“OK, let’s do it.”
“See you downstairs.”
Awake. Lights, bright. Not pain exactly, soreness, down there.
There’s pressure on my left hand. I turn my head slightly and see a young woman, smiling, one hand holding mine, the other on my left forearm.
“There you are,” she says. I say nothing. I don’t know where I am.
She wears a crisp blue uniform. Her face is kind but the outfit makes her seem formal. I start to say something but forget what I want to say before I can make a sound.
Down there. A cross between a cramp and a tickle. I look down, moving my head slightly. There’s a partition blocking a direct view but beyond it I can clearly see two men, one on the left side of my bed, the other on the right. They’re ignoring me, staring intently at something way down there. No, they’re doing something to my body. It kind of tickles. Or hurts. I can’t tell for sure.
I hear myself say “ouch.” Then “ouch. Stop that.” I feel a tight squeeze on my left hand and hear a voice. “Does it hurt?” The woman’s voice.
“What?” I ask.
“Give him another shot of. . .” Lidocaine? Prilocaine? Something. I can’t see the nurse’s reaction.
I’ve figured out that she must be a nurse. It’s the only explanation.
Which makes the man on the right a doctor. So who’s the guy on the left? He looks up at me and smiles. “How’re you doing?” he asks. A sidekick. “OK,” I reply, overwhelmed by the seeming crowd gathered around me.
“Got it?” he asks the nurse. “Got it,” she replies.
The two men return to what they were doing. I see heads bobbing and elbows making brief appearances above the divider. They’re talking quietly to one another. I can’t make out what they’re saying, but it doesn’t sound like the way doctors talk on TV. There’s no alarm in their voices, no call to arms. They could be reliving a recent golf match.
Music. Music playing. Where’s that coming from? I’m listening, but can’t connect. The voice is distantly familiar, something from AM radio, but from a long time ago. The words aren’t connecting.
A hum. Down there. Then a voice singing. Maybe that’s what I’m hearing. The doctor, singing.
No, he’s singing along to the music. Kentucky woman. Where the heck is the music coming from? She get to know you. This can’t be the kind of place where people listen to music. Goin’ to own you.
There’s a vintage ghetto blaster on a bookshelf at the back of the operating room. Two small speakers provide a tin can sound.
“Is that Neil Diamond?” I say.
“Yeah. Great, eh?”
“He sounds good. I haven’t listened to him for years.”
“This is a recent CD. Revisiting his big hits.”
“Sorry. You want another shot?”
“No, I’m good.”
Hernia operations usually last about three-quarters of an hour. With Neil Diamond and the right kind of drugs, maybe ten minutes.
Shouldice prides itself on making patients walk to their wheelchair following surgery, part of the au naturel mystique. I sail to my wheelchair, a doctor in place under each arm.
After three nights of R&R I’m home. Lickety-split; nothing to it.
Healing progressed easily in the late Toronto fall. I pushed myself to walk several miles every day along Broadview toward Danforth, the sun sloping over the Don River valley.
A week after the operation I felt a dull pain in the area of the wound. You’re still easily spooked at that point, and unsure what’s post-traumatic type stress and what’s a real problem.
Three days later the pain in my groin was joined by another sharper pain in my right ankle. My stroll became a limp, and then a full stop. I took the Carlton streetcar downtown toward Yonge. I limped into a large Shoppers Drug Mart and bought an elastic ankle support. As I struggled to pull it on, the pain on my right side got worse. But the support felt good when I rose and paid the cashier at the front of the store.
When I stepped outside, the walk signal was flashing at the intersection. Lots of time to cross. I took a step and tumbled, landing half on the curb and half on Yonge Street. Several people stopped, with looks of surprise or concern on their faces. Someone tugged on my arm, pulling me up.
“Are you all right, sir?” asked a young man in a ski jacket and a Blue Jays baseball cap. He looked worried.
“I think so,” I said. I pulled myself upright with his support. “Yes, I’m fine,” I said.
He was off immediately. “Thank you,” I called out. The other people resumed walking their separate ways. I felt old, foolish and in pain.
I kept going that afternoon, stopping to buy some vegetables in the grocery store beneath College Park, then walking a few more blocks south toward Dundas. I called it quits as darkness fell and I boarded the streetcar home.
Then I got fever. My appetite disappeared and I slept sixteen hours straight. Two days later, on a Monday, I got an underemployed friend to drive me back up to Shouldice.
A very old gentleman in the waiting room seemed upset.
“I go home,” he said, “and the first time I use the toilet, you know, sit down on the toilet, I reach behind me to flush and boom, my intestines are in the bowl.”
“That sounds painful,” I say.
“I was scared,” he said. “I don’t know what to do. My wife drives me back here. Now I’m waiting two hours.”
“I got an infection,” I told him.
“Oh I’m so sorry,” he said.
“It’s nothing… I’m sure they can fix me up.”
“I hope so for you. Good luck to you.”
“No, good luck to you.”
My name was called. A nurse directed me to the anteroom, where I waited ten minutes. There were four of us in five chairs. Then a tall, dark-haired man in a doctor’s smock appeared, staring intently at a clipboard. “Thaddeus McIlroy?” I was in.
The doctor introduced himself and ushered me into a small office.
He looked directly into my eyes. “What seems to be the problem?” he said.
I was about to answer when a voice interrupted me. “Your call is very important to us. Please stay on the line and your call will be answered in the order in which it was received.” I looked over at the doctor’s desk. The speakerphone on the far side of it was on.
“You’re waiting for an operator?” I said.
“That’s OK,” he said. “I’ll be on hold for ages.”
The voice broke in again. “Thank you for continuing to hold. Your call is very important to us. Please stay on the line and your call will be answered in the order in which it was received.” Halfway through, the doctor reached over and turned down the sound a bit.
“I can wait outside,” I said. “I don’t mind.”
“It’s OK. What seems to be the problem?”
“If you don’t mind, I’d rather have your full attention.”
“You’ve got my full attention.”
“Hello. This is Julie. How can I help you?”
The doctor grabbed the handset. “Hello?” he said. I got up and returned to the anteroom. The very old gentleman was sitting on the far side.
“Not good,” he said. “I waiting too long.”
“Yes,” I said.
A few minutes later another doctor, older, compact, grey hair, appeared and called my name. I followed him to another office at the end of the corridor.
“So you’ve got a fever,” he said.
I told him about the pain and the fever, and he scribbled a few notes. He did a quick exam and took some more notes.
Then he leaned back and began to speak. “Yes, it could be an infection. That’s possible. We could find out, but it’s more trouble to find out than it is to just assume that it is an infection. If it is an infection I would prescribe an antibiotic. So that’s what I’m going to do.”
“Oh good,” said I.
“I’m not saying it is an infection,” he said, now looking straight at me. “I’m saying it could be an infection. Do you understand the difference?”
“Yes. You aren’t sure that I’ve got an infection but you’re going to give me an antibiotic in case I do have an infection.”
“Exactly. The antibiotic is a prophylactic only, in case you’ve got an infection. You may not have an infection. I’m not saying that you do.”
“That’s OK, I’m not blaming anyone. I just want it fixed.”
“There’s no one to blame.”
I returned to the waiting room and gathered my driver friend and my overcoat. As we left, we passed the old gentleman standing near the exit. He looked somehow lighter.
“Everything OK?” I asked.
“Oh yea, is good. They gonna fix my problem, no sweat,” he said.