Part 3: The longest night

My eyes opened up, and I awakened into a state of semiconsciousness. I was quite groggy from pain, and very nauseous to boot…but the one sensation I remember more than any other was that my mouth and throat were utterly, hellishly dry. Not long thereafter, a nurse came around. The conversation, as I recall, went something like:

Nurse: “Ahh…Michael. You’re in the recovery room now. Your parents are outside. Would you like for me to go and get them?”

Mike: “Yeah. Can I have water?”

N: “I’m sorry…we aren’t allowed to give you any water. It could make you sick to your stomach.”
M: “Can I spit? My mouth is dry.”

N: “Sorry…I wish I could. I can get you some shots for your pain and your nausea if you would like…”

M: “Sure. What time is it?”

N: “It’s five o’clock in the morning. You were in surgery for eight hours. We removed your uvula and reattached it to your forehead. It really looks cool.”
M: “Good. Can I please have water?”
N: “Sorry, no. I’ll give you your shots and then get your parents.”

Okay…maybe she didn’t say anything about my uvula. The rest, though, is at the very least a fair approximation of our conversation.

I cannot really recount for you my parents’ reaction when they walked in and saw me; I do remember, though, that I sensed something I had never sensed before, and – to be honest – I am not sure that I would want to remember what it was that I sensed. Nor do I really remember anything of what was said between us at that point. Not only were the medications starting to kick in; my guess is that my parents might have been pretty much at a loss for words. You see, at that point all I knew was that 1) I felt like hell, and 2) I still could not beg so much as a sip of water to swish around my mouth. What I did not realize at that point was that my face was horrifically swollen and (along with my neck) had been carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey. (WARNING: The next paragraph is extremely graphic; if surgical details disturb you at all, you will likely want to skip to the paragraph following.)

The through-the-palate procedure was never attempted; circumstances forced the doctors to go through my face instead. The incision started at the top of my nose, followed around the left side of my nose down to the base, then across and through the center of the lip, then doubling back across the top of my gum. Essentially, they peeled back the left side of my face and attacked the tumor from there. It was a horrendously messy job – to the point where they had to make incisions down both sides of my neck so as to tie off some blood vessels in hopes of reducing the loss of blood. As it was, I was told later that I needed over a dozen units of blood to get me through surgery. I variously recall hearing thirteen or eighteen – but, either way, the number ended in “teen”…and when you get to that particular suffix within this context, it really doesn’t matter. Inasmuch as one unit equals one pint, though, I will leave you to do the math and convert it to larger units of measure as you see fit.

So not only did I look like hell, with two hundred stitches holding my face together, and fifty feet of string packed into my sinuses. Those of you who read through the last paragraph may have surmised (and for those of you who did not, I will tell you here): I very nearly died in surgery. And that is no exaggeration or hyperbole; by what is apparently in my records and what I heard later on, I was that close. I am not sure at what point that might have been revealed to my parents, although I have a hunch they had possibly been told as much at some point before they entered the recovery room. I will also tell you that I do not recall this being directly discussed with me by anybody – doctors, parents, staff, or anybody else – until a year or so later later when my great-uncle Jack, in his own inimitable way, told me “I heard you almost died”. There may have possibly been some “connect-the-dots” verbal cues from the doctors after the operation, and I had heard it mentioned when I overheard fragments of conversation after I had left the hospital…but I do not recall it being presented to me in so many words by any medical staff until decades later when another doctor was reading through my medical history. With all of that said, the key word here is “almost”; I experienced none of the phenomena associated with those who claim to have died and then come back to life. No floating, no light, no tunnel, no vision of any kind. Fade from the operating table to the recovery room, with nothing intervening.

But the first and biggest step had been taken. Soon enough, I was moved from recovery to ICU and then – hours? a day or two? – later, to a regular room. There were a lot more steps ahead on the road to recovery, however. A hell of a lot more, to be honest.

(Tomorrow: The conclusion)

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