I had to be at the hospital at 6am. I was first up on the operating table which was great as it meant less time to be waiting around feeling nervous. But it also meant we had to leave home at 4am to ensure we were at the hospital in time.
The last time I was up and on the road this early I was heading to Brisbane for the Big Brother audition.
While for the audition I had spent hours straightening my hair, doing my make-up and generally ensuring I looked my best, this time I pretty much rolled out of bed into the car. I am extremely self-conscious about my skin and never leave the house without make-up so rocking up to the hospital with a bare face was nerve wracking in itself.
I was handed a gown and paper undies and told to strip off and say goodbye to my parents.
I sat on a bed in the pre-op ward and looked at a magazine. It was a year old but it wouldn’t have mattered, I could barely concentrate on the words and pictures in front of my face. I just tried to keep my breathing in check.
One of the nurses came to examine my stump and asked me if I normally shaved or waxed it. I looked at her puzzled, it had never occurred to me to do either. The hairs are very fine like the ones on my arms and no one ever saw it as it was always hidden away inside my leg. I guess this will be something to think about now after this operation.
To prep the area for surgery they had to shave and it took all my will power to stay still. The area is incredibly sensitive and ticklish and I thought the nurses wouldn’t take too kindly to me suddenly bursting into pearls of laughter.
As the guy wheeled my bed into the operating prep room I tried to make casual banter about his weekend and jokingly chat. Keep it light, keep the nerves at bay I thought to myself like a mantra.
The anesthetist’s assistant Lisa was warm and friendly, the sort of person that instantly puts you at ease. She wrapped me in a bear hug blanket which was a plastic blanket that was pumped with hot air. I would happily trade in my electric blanket for one of these. It was delicious and warm and comforting.
AJ the anesthetist was a wide grinning outgoing guy full of smiles and jokes. He asked me if I experienced much phantom pain (where you still feel sensation and pain in the leg that has been amputated and is no longer there.) Since I was amputated so young I have really had any problems with this apart from a period when I was ten where I experienced some pain, but we’re still not certain if it was actually phantom pain or not.
AJ nodded as I told him this. He said he wanted to try a sort of test he had developed for candidates having this surgery. He asked me to close my eyes and touch my nose, my ears, my left leg, left foot and then right foot. I was confused, I didn’t have a right foot.
He told me to reach out and grab where I think it would be then open my eyes.
My eyes widened as I saw that despite not having had a right foot for 24 years my hands were placed exactly where my foot would have been.
AJ explained that the brain still keeps these pathways despite them never being used. They may become old and dingy like forgotten roads but they always remain. The reason for phantom pain is the brain keeps trying to use these pathways but like an electrical wire that has been cut, they keep coming to a dead end and bouncing back. The brain keeps trying and this is what causes the pain.
I was surprised to discover my pathways were still somewhat active.
I had read that one of the guys who had recently had the operation had just had a spinal block and not a general anesthetic and I stressed to AJ that I did not want to be awake at all during the operation.
“I will be knocked out won’t I?” I said seeking reassurance.
He looked at me with concern.
“Actually no for this operation I don’t like to use a general,” he said.
My heart sunk and immediately started beating like kid given a drum for the first time.
“If we keep the brain awake then it will help stop those pathways and help eliminate phantom pain,” he explained.
He told me about a paper he was presenting at an osseointegration conference on the weekend called Crosswords Aren’t Just For Anesthetists which explored his new technique of keeping the brain alert during surgery so the patient can straight after coming out of the operating theatre do a crossword puzzle.
Ever since I saw one of those medicine shows as a kid where a lady had woken up during an operation I have been terrified of this happening to me and now my fear was about to come true. To make it worse the thought of a needle in my spine filled me with fear.
Despite the bear hug blanket my body started involuntarily shaking and my teeth were chattering so severely I was concerned they would snap off.
AJ put his hand on my arm and said it would all be ok. He assured me that while I will be awake I won’t be really aware of anything going on and I will still be pretty out of it as the others had been.
Dr Al Muderis enters the room smiling and I can’t help but think of Dr McDreamy from Grey’s Anatomy and his trademark statement of “It’s a beautiful day to save lives.”
He tells me the part they custom made for me ended up costing a little more than they had anticipated. The piece of metal about to be inserted into my leg is worth $87,000. My leg will be worth more than everything I own combined. I wonder if I should insure it like Kim Kardashian has insured her butt.
He tests my leg and then I hear him chatting and joking with AJ about their weekend. He tells AJ he went to a motor show and was thinking about getting a Porsche. He turns to me and says “don’t mind us where just talking about boys toys.”
I don’t know if it’s the friendly casual banter or the injection of drugs but I feel strangely calm and safe.
As they wheel me into the operating room I am aware of Matchbox 20’s She’s So Mean playing and I wonder if they will turn the music off.
Turns out my operation had a soundtrack of Matchbox 20, Simple Plan and the Living End.
Dr Al Muderis asks me if I would like to watch.
God no, I think with horror. It’s bad enough that I am awake, I don’t need to see that.
“No thanks,” I tell him and he seems a little disappointed.
The operation was like having Sunday nap on the couch where you drift in and out of consciousness. I was aware of what was going on and what was being said around me but would drift off into strange little dreams.
AJ spoke to me throughout, taking photos of me for which I tried my best to smile and chatting about how things were going.
At one point AJ asks me if I have a song request, I ask for Carly Rae Jepsen but I don’t think that appeared on the soundtrack.
It was the weirdest sensation. Below the waist I couldn’t feel a think, but above it was business as usual. I kept feeling like my left leg was bent up rather than lying flat but they reassured me it wasn’t.
I could hear the saw as they chopped through my bone and I heard the hammer as they inserted the implant into my femur. While I couldn’t feel any pain I could feel the vibrations of the hammer up through the top of my body and hear it all happening. It was surreal and slightly unnerving.
Al Muderis kept me updated throughout the operation and at the end he seemed satisfied as he told me he had tided up my stump and given me a nicer scar.
Everything had gone smoothly until it came time to insert a cannula into my right arm in which to administer the drugs. I have always had tiny veins, AJ told me it was probably a result of my birth defect, but it means it’s always a struggle to take blood or insert cannulas, it would seem. He prodded and poked, stabbed and struggled but he couldn’t get it to work. They wheeled in an ultrasound machine to help find a better vein but it was so use. My right arm looked like a pin cushion.
Since I hadn’t been under a general anesthetic I wasn’t groggy in the slightest in post-op. I was riding high on a cocktail of adrenalin and drugs and as the nurses looked after me in the most op ward I was as bubbly and chatty as if I had a few glasses of bubbly. I was a stark contrast to the other patients who were groggily waking up and feeling pain. I couldn’t feel a thing, it was fabulous!
AJ came in and asked me to do a crossword. I was worried, despite being a journalist I’m terrible at most crosswords but luckily it was one in the back of Famous and being a celebrity junkie I knew all the answers.
I think my parents got quite a shock when they were led into my room to find me sitting up in bed, eyes alert and lively chatting.
Dad laughed and said I was high but Mum seemed to think I was just my usual self.
I couldn’t believe how good I felt. After feeling a little nervous about the operation and down about being away from my friends, I felt on top of the world and like I was back to my usual self. I felt upbeat, happy and positive.
As the spinal block starts to wear off I feel the most intense pins and needles in my leg and the room is spinning slightly and my eyes can’t really focus too much in the distance but all in all I feel great.
When Mum and Dad duck off to have some lunch I give each of my friends a call. I had texted Flatmate 1 earlier and he had let the office know I was ok. It felt nice to know he was so excited for me and cared so much.
Each of my friends had answered the phone almost with a tone of trepidation.
I think they got a shock to be hearing from me so soon and for me to be so talkative, awake and alert. I don’t blame them, I am too.
Every time the nurse comes in to check on me I am on the phone.
“I have never seen a patient so alert after surgery,” she says with a shake of her head.
I feel so energetic, despite the fact I have to hold my phone practically to my face and squint a little to focus on the keys when texting.
I take a peek under the sheet and warm blanket of relief washes over me. My stump doesn’t look scary at all. It is still bandaged but it doesn’t look that different at all.
Dr Al Muderis stops by to check up on me and shows my x-rays of my new cybrog leg to my parents along with some gruesome pictures from the surgery. I ask for a look.
“You didn’t want to see before,” he says slightly hurt before relenting and letting me take a peek.
I can see the piece of knee they removed and I feel slightly squeamish. I think I made the right call not watching the actual surgery.
There is a bush outside my room that looks like a Transformer and I remember thinking I might need to keep an eye on him but so far no hallucinations, no bad acid trips.
It’s slightly different when I close my eyes. It’s like I can’t think my own thoughts. Visions, images and almost mini movies flash in front of my eyes.
It’s like a mini film festival.
Each image is really tactical and close up. I can clearly see each participle of moss on a tree, each stitch in a beautiful full skirted 20’s dress and each hair on glorious red fox.
Each scene plays out before me and transitions into something new. It’s like a film clip set in the woods with leather squirrels which morphs into a Boardwalk Empire style gangster bar scene with women in beautiful dresses. Then it’s a grandmother showering her granddaughter and it pans up to a wooden heart on the wall and I am flooded with emotion of the woman’s back story. Her husband had recently died and she was trying to keep it together for her family. My iPad becomes a plush book which opens up like a bag before I slide into a room that looks like something out of Fantastic Mr Fox. It is so tactical, so beautiful, so cinematic.
I long to be able to transfer these images and movies to a USB and show someone else. Oh drugs you magnificent beasts.
I later find out I am the 26th person in Australia to have this operation. I am the 26th cybrog. I am number 26.