As I have mentioned once or twice since my pancreatic cancer diagnosis, I have always said I never wanted to become a professional patient. Nevertheless, here I am doing just that and there is a surprise: some aspects are quite pleasurable.
One of those is visits to the hospital.
On Tuesday, in preparation for my upcoming six months of chemotherapy, I underwent a short, minor surgical procedure to implant a port, sometimes called a port-a-cath, under the skin of my upper chest through which the chemo medications will be administered.
(It's hard to tell in this photograph, but the port raises the skin about a quarter of an inch. I have no idea what that bruised area on my neck is although it is related to the placement of the port.)
The surgeon who performed my Whipple procedure in June was there on Tuesday to lead the team and I was glad to see him; I feel safe in his hands.
In addition, even though the nurses, CNAs, two anesthesiologists and other caregivers who looked after me were not the same people who did so in June, they were equally patient, kind, caring, knowledgeable and expert at their jobs.
Each one carefully explained the parts of the procedure that were in their bailiwick, answered all my questions in layman's language I could understand and in a situation where just about any patient would be apprehensive, even frightened, their manner made it seem almost like we were just having a friendly visit. As it was the day after the eclipse, we shared our stories about that in between the medical information.
Given the ambience they created, if it hadn't been 6AM I might have expected drinks to be served.
With this diagnosis, I entered a world almost as different from my life's experience as landing on another planet would be. It is fascinating, if you pay attention, in a way that is similar to reading Studs Terkel's book, Working, from years ago for which he interviewed many dozens of people about what their jobs were like.
A hospital is a self-contained universe expressly designed to give aid and comfort to people whose bodies have betrayed them in some manner. The people who work in that domain have their own language, their own tools, rules, rituals, practices, customs, protocols and codes of conduct.
And when you – the patient – are lucid enough, you get an intriguing peak into this alien environment. Safety is, as you would imagine, paramount. About nine or ten people came to talk with me in the curtained pre-op room on Tuesday. Every one of them first asked me to repeat my full name and birth date which they checked against my computer record.
Undoubtedly that is to ensure they don't amputate the wrong leg, as it were.
I am impressed that although my legal name, listed on all my records and documents is Veronica, they had taken the time to determine that I prefer to be called Ronni – also in my records – and not one ever missed that nicety.
Each one, too, is careful never to overstate the bounds of his or her area of expertise. When I asked an RN if it would be possible to insert the port on the left side of my chest, she deferred to the surgeon – it was his call, not hers.
When a couple of physicians were explaining the release I needed to sign, a group of nurses just outside my room were having a coffee klatch and getting quite loud. The doctors stopped our discussion, went out to quiet the nurses and when they returned, started from the top to be sure I knew what I was signing.
Some hospital personnel apparently have prodigious memories. As I was wheeled toward the operating room, the woman at the desk where I had checked in an hour earlier waved and said with a big smile, “See you when you get back here, Ronni.”
How many people had she checked in that morning? And she remembered my name?
All this accommodation is to the good and is a result of the relatively new doctrine of “patient-centered care”, a concept physicians' offices, clinics and hospitals have been developing over the last decade or so. Quite successfully as far as “my hospital” is concerned.
So if I must become a professional patient, I'm having a fine ol' time investigating hospital culture.
In that regard, here's a nugget of information worth knowing: at this hospital, operating rooms are numbered 1 through 25 but there is no number 13. Even in a place where cutting edge medicine is practiced every day, superstition remains.