Within a month of getting my cancer diagnosis, I was scheduled for surgery – a “left thyroid lobe and isthmus hemithyroidectomy”. The thinking was to only remove the parts of the thyroid where cancer was found with the ultrasound, and preserve whatever could remain of my own thyroid function.
During the preparatory call and consult with my surgeon, she was exceptionally thorough and explained the whole procedure and what I could expect, and I came armed with my questions. I recorded the call and had a friend listen in as well, as I was still kind of a “deer in headlights” in this situation. That was a good tip from a friend – have somebody with you to take notes as you’re not going to remember much of anything!
I spoke to my endocrinologist about what to do about my diabetes during surgery, and what that might look like as I’m pretty insulin sensitive but had no idea how my body was going to react to the stress of surgery or what could potentially happen while I was unconscious. It would be up to me to create an understanding with the anaesthesiologist and make sure he was armed with as much information as I could give him about my insulin dosing ratios and my insulin pump. The surgery itself would only be a couple of hours, but naturally I was still nervous because that’s a layer of complexity a “normal person” (with a functioning pancreas) doesn’t have to deal with.
Keeping my levels in range post-surgery would be key to ensure proper healing, and thankfully during and post-surgery (the first one, anyway!), there were no issues at all. The resident anaesthesiologist that came to speak to me before heading into the operating room was fabulous. I was allowed to keep my Dexcom sensor on and showed him how to check the continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) display on my t:slim X2 insulin pump, so I kept the pump connected and everything went according to plan from a diabetes point of view.
The morning of January 7th, it felt like I was the only patient there – just me and a bunch of other empty beds so it was pretty peaceful. I lay there with a little zipped bag with good luck charms, dextrose tabs in case of low blood sugars, my phone, and my glasses. Holding my little angel while I was waiting helped to keep me calm and I was grateful for Wifi to be able to communicate with my pals and get their last-minute texts of good luck. You aren’t allowed to wear any makeup, nail polish, jewelry, or anything – so it’s about as naked and exposed as one can feel – adding to the vulnerability as you’re about to put your life in other people’s hands. There is no vanity to hide behind, only bravado to hide your fear as you face the unknown.
I can’t say enough good things about everyone on staff that day as they were all super-nice, exceptionally kind, and did everything in their power to make sure I felt confident in what was to come. I have to say now in hindsight that that was an idyllic scenario and I was so very lucky to have things go so smoothly that day.
One part I vividly remember was meeting my surgeon for the first time. We had only ever spoken on the phone, so I was surprised by how young she looked but could see that she commanded respect in the hospital and the staff spoke highly of her. I asked if she had brought her “A” game with her, and she laughed and we bonded instantly. The part I appreciated the most were her final words to me: “Don’t worry. I’ll take good care of you.” That was all I needed to hear.
The Operating Room (OR)
Then it was time to get wheeled on the stretcher into the operating room – all bright lights and a hive of bustling activity with about 8 people in there getting the room ready and me trying not to freak out. Humour is how I cope with everything so I said, “Hey everybody, is this my dream team?!” That definitely set the tone and every single person was as kind and compassionate as you could ever hope for. I remember commenting on the main nurse’s colourful patterned scrub cap and she was sensational in keeping me calm and distracted while other things were going on.
The anaesthesiology team (a resident along with a doctor) was having one heckuva time trying to get the IV in – they used freezing solution and a guided ultrasound to try and get into a vein, but I was still awake to hear them discussing the issues they were having so I asked if someone could put some music on as the whole situation was really unnerving. BEST DECISION EVER! Much to my surprise, one of the nurses pulled out her phone and asked for my music requests – so I had them start off with ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”, followed by the Rocky theme “Gonna Fly Now”, and finally “Thunderstruck” by ACDC. It was hilarious to have the surgical staff humming along as preparations were happening, but it kept the mood light and worked wonders to calm me down until the anaesthetic took effect and I was out.
The Recovery Room
When I woke up, I remember feeling groggy – and in a MASSIVE amount of pain. The neck is an especially sensitive area and it’s particularly frightening to have surgery so close to your windpipe and your esophagus. Pain swallowing is normal, but without any frame of reference for what the swelling and skin are supposed to look/feel like, it’s a bit of a horror show. They kept asking me where my pain level was at from 1-10, so eventually I went from a 9 to a 4 and we were able to level out there thanks to some heavy-duty pain medication. I have no idea what they gave me, but it also made me nauseated so they added in Gravol as well.
They keep you in the initial recovery room for a couple of hours until your pain can be stabilized, and then another couple of hours in another recovery area to make sure that you don’t “bleed out” before you leave the hospital. The imagination just runs wild when they tell you that, but the risk is real. Apparently the biggest bleeding risk is within the first 4 hours after surgery, and then they send you home with a prescription for Tylenol 3’s and a series of post-op instructions.
My brother-in-law came to pick me up and I was lucky enough to be able to stay at my sister’s house with them and their 2 little doggies to assist with my recovery. I pretty much slept through the first few days, sucking back ice chips and painkillers. I didn’t experience any major issues – only the weird feeling of itchiness in the area around my wound as the skin and surrounding tissue started to heal.
My sister made green smoothies and my Mom brought over homemade chicken soup & bone broth. Sleep was my highest priority, along with keeping up my sense of humour and cuddling with the dogs. As someone who lives alone, being in a place surrounded by love and not having to be responsible for anything was like miraculous medicine. I will be forever grateful to my family for dropping everything in their own lives to take care of me. I look forward to the time when we’re on the other side of this and a new chapter can begin.
I was able to return home to my apartment after a week’s time to continue my recovery. I was still off from work, but REALLY, REALLY tired. You really don’t appreciate the role of the thyroid until your hormones get out of whack, and you aren’t even recognizable to yourself. I had to wait for the follow-up meeting with my surgeon before any changes could be made or additional tests done – which felt unbearable – but it is what it is.
And so the waiting game began to do new blood work, adjust thyroid medication, and to determine the path forward.