Denise Day Spencer

March 26, 2006

Like the night my house was burning (part three)

Filed under: Personal reflections — denisedayspencer @ 6:49 pm

If you've read my first two posts under this title, then you know about my initial phases of fear: first a fear of dying, then of dealing with cancer, then of losing a breast. You know that I got a good report from my evaluation at the Comprehensive Breast Care Center: Everyone thinks it's a benign, harmless fibroadenoma, but only a biopsy can tell us for sure.

O.K. This is where it starts to get weird.

After a couple of days of thinking, "Sure, I'm having outpatient surgery Friday. No big deal," I suddenly developed an absolutely irrational phobia of the procedure in general and anesthesia in particular. I would sleep four hours a night and then wake up, my mind racing. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that God was still trying to work with me on these control issues, and I saw surgery as the ultimate loss of control.

It didn't help any that we know a retired anesthesiologist. I remember Michael talking about how this guy used to say that if his patients had any idea how close to death they were while under his care, they would never again go near another operating room. Great.

I did everything I could think to do. I talked to Michael about it, and shared my fear with a couple of close friends. I prayed. I practiced positive visualization/relaxation exercises. I prayed. When the pre-op nurse called to confirm my surgery time, I asked her every question I could think of. Oh, and did I mention that I prayed?

And still I woke. I lay in bed in the darkness, trying to imagine what it would be like. (Will I be put completely to sleep? If not, how awake will I be? What will they do with my right arm? Will they tie me down? Will that hurt?") I planned everything down to the most minute detail. (I want to keep my glasses until the last minute. Then I wonder if they'll let Michael keep them for me? I'd better put my name on the case so they won't get lost…) I finally realized that these obsessive thoughts were simply an attempt to control whatever little pieces of the experience I thought I possibly could.

By Wednesday I finally felt better, calmer. Finally, maybe my relaxation techniques had been working. That night before I went to bed, I sat down at the computer to watch an interactive video presentation on anesthesia that the pre-op nurse had said they wanted me to see. It covered various types of anesthesia, and stopped at points while the narrator asked, "Do you want to learn more?" about a particular topic. It discussed the kind of anesthesia I had learned I was going to have, and I felt much better about what I heard.

Then came the segment on "adverse effects." The perky, professional voice continued, "Some people have severe adverse reactions to anesthesia, including death. Would you like to learn more?" I stabbed at the mouse button, frantically clicking. No, no! I would not like to learn more about how I might DIE! Another sleepless night.

By Thursday I was a wreck. Exhausted from lack of sleep, nerves on edge, yet adrenaline still coursing through my veins. All of my attempts at controlling my thoughts and emotions were a complete failure. Not only could I not control my fears, but I had no control even over my responses to my fears. At last I cried out. "God! I can't do this on my own! I can't even do this with Your help! If I'm going to calm down enough to get through this, You're going to have to do it all, because I have nothing."

I have nothing. Maybe now we were getting somewhere.

That day a friend sent me an e-mail that included Joshua 1:9: "…Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go." She said, "God is with you wherever you go–even into the operating room." That helped me somehow. But would I remember that tomorrow?

As we drove to Lexington that evening, I asked Michael what he thought about my phobia. I told him I was ashamed because I knew it was so crazy; it made me feel almost as if I were losing my mind. "Don't be ashamed," he said, explaining that he saw it as "a very primal fear" tied closely to the basic will to survive. As we talked, I realized that my dread of surgery/anesthesia was most likely a ruse my mind was using to distract me from the real, underlying terror: cancer.

Tucked into my motel bed that night, I again slept little. But that was O.K. It was all I expected any more.

We rose at 5:00 to be at the hospital by 6:00. The admitting person was nice. The pre-op nurses were wonderful, treating me as if I were "Queen for a Day." The surgical nurses came by to meet me beforehand and introduce themselves. The Good Surgeon popped in just to say hello. Wow. This was rather amazing.

And the anesthesiologist came to call.

So this was what the Grim Reaper looked like. His clean-cut good looks couldn't make up for the fact that this guy was young. Too young. He was accompanied by a somewhat older, "attending anesthesiologist," but it became obvious real quick that Young Doctor was going to be the one putting me under. Oh, well. I still had my mature, wise, way-more-experienced Good Surgeon. Maybe somehow, in the grand scheme of things, they would balance each other out.

Young Doctor explained everything that would happen to me and how it would feel. He told me that I'd be sedated, but awake during the procedure. He would be asking me from time to time how I was doing. If I ever began to feel uncomfortable, I could tell him and he'd give me more of the local anesthetic or more sedation. He would be monitoring my every heartbeat, each fluctuation in my blood pressure, even the oxygenation of my blood. Then he said, "I'll be right there with you the whole time." This person I had feared most was fast becoming the one I would depend on to see me through this. Don't you just love God's little sense of humor?

Young Doctor came by twice more just to check on me. Then he returned with the surgery nurses. "Can you walk to the operating room?" one nurse asked. Handing over my glasses to Michael, I said, "Sure! But I'm blind without my glasses, so point me in the right direction." They laughed, and the two nurses linked arms with me while Young Doctor held my IV bag aloft. Off we trooped like an awkward little parade, while I tried to hold my gown closed because the tie was torn off. (Why can't I ever get a gown that fastens right?)

Minutes later I was lying on the operating room bed, arms outstretched in a crucifixion pose. My breast was scrubbed, draped and ready to be cut into. The IV was flowing so I could be properly drugged into a semi-conscious state. Weights at my wrists and waist ensured that I wouldn't move in any direction.

Talk about your lack of control.

And it was O.K. Throughout the whole thing, it was O.K. When the voices of the Good Surgeon and the nurses sounded like indecipherable noise, I could clearly hear Young Doctor asking me if I was all right. Though I couldn't talk to anyone else, I could respond to his voice. I knew that as long as he was watching over me, I would be safe. While it seemed that the others were on the far side of the room, I was acutely aware of Young Doctor steady at his post, just behind my left shoulder.

Right there with me the whole time, just as he promised. "Do not be terrified…for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go."

I have no idea whether or not Young Doctor is a Christian. But God used him that day. He was my anchor, and Jesus was there in him. (to be continued…)



  1. Boy do I hear you. Two times in life when I readily admit I am not in control – going under anaesthesia and getting on an airplane….the rest of the time I try really hard to not admit I am not in control. A few months ago I walked out of the doctor’s office with a req for an ultrasound to rule out ovarian cancer and the need for a follow up mammogram after the first one detected something abnormal. Both turned out okay but my God it felt like forever between that appointment and the results. And anytime anyone tried to console me with anything positive I wanted to hit them. I am trusting it all turned out okay for you….am sitting on pins and needles waiting to hear the rest of the story.

    Comment by Hope — March 26, 2006 @ 8:01 pm | Reply

  2. […] Part 1 Like The Night My House Was Burning Part 2 Like The Night My House Was Burning Part 3 Link to this entry| […]

    Pingback by » Blog Archive » Like The Night My House Was Burning by Denise Day Spencer — March 26, 2006 @ 11:19 pm | Reply

  3. Echoes… my first surgery was about a year and a half ago, and I went through the exact same cycle of worry and sleeplessness. I even went as far as to make sure my will was in order because we all know that fat people die under anasthesia.

    Good stuff, Denise.

    Comment by Scott W. — March 27, 2006 @ 3:55 pm | Reply

  4. I enjoy your writings. These three pieces put a certain fear in me that only truth can inspire. I have “You touched me not” posted in my classroom. Frustrating to be so far away when I’d like to be so close in other’s sufferings.It’s the trip immediate members must take. Please take comfort in knowing that if I were closer I’d try to comfort too. Thankyou for sharing these pieces!

    Comment by scott self — March 27, 2006 @ 6:37 pm | Reply

  5. Denise, you have no idea the number of people you must be touching with this story. I sit at my desk in South Australia, about to start the day’s tasks, reading this, and I am deeply moved at how God’s presence can take us through any circumstance. Thank you.

    Comment by Roger — March 27, 2006 @ 10:25 pm | Reply

  6. Thank you for the good information funny I was thinking the same things you were I lay in bed at night thinking the same thing are they going to tie me down,am I going to feel anything, am I going to be so nervous that my whole body is going to shake and they won’t be able to perform. I am a nervous wreck haven’t even been to work in 3 days I don’t want to leave the house.

    Comment by Dawn — May 4, 2006 @ 2:22 pm | Reply

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