The Big Day: Getting Cleared For Take-Off

Laura Zigman Health Guide
  • With Breast Cancer Comics by Dash Shaw


    Laura Zigman prepares for her mastectomy


    For some reason I'd assumed that I'd be going in for surgery the night before the surgery -- like flying into a city and staying in a hotel the night before a big meeting. I had this assumption, now that I think of it, because back when I was nineteen I had breast reduction surgery (I'll allow a moment here for the irony of that statement to pass) and that's what I did: I checked into the hospital the night before with a little suitcase, had a "room service" dinner, got a sleeping pill, and woke up the next morning ready to be wheeled down to surgery. Doctors and med students checked on me the night before, nurses tucked me in, and the whole procedure of hospital admission and pre-op preparations seemed seamless. Tickets, passports, paperwork, meals, gratuities -- everything was included.


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    But that was 1981. In 2006, airlines no longer serve free food or guarantee your seat, and traveling to surgery is a strange and miserably uncomfortable journey.You're told to have someone drop you off at the hospital, curbside, at the crack of dawn (assuming your surgery is scheduled for the morning, which mine was).


    If you have the urge to bring a little overnight bag of personal belongings you are told, several days before your surgery during your hospital pre-admission appointment, not to. No carry-on luggage allowed.


    But won't I need any....stuff?


    Not yet. Not until you're out of surgery and are assigned a room. Then your family can bring your bag because then there will be a place to put it.


    Before Laura's breast surgery


    And so that's what my husband and son did -- they dropped me off in front of the Faulkner Hospital just before 7 a.m., in the cold gray darkness of a Thursday morning in mid-November. I kissed them goodbye, got out of the car without any luggage, watched them drive away and waved until the tail-lights of the car had disappeared and it was time to go inside and start the check-in process. It felt surreal: more like getting dumped off alone at an airport for an early morning flight and nothing like arriving at a hospital for major surgery.


    Once I was admitted, not to a room but to the surgical department -- I was walked over to the Sagoff Breast Centre next door for an injection of dye into my left breast. I was a little surprised, since I'd forgotten or not understood that Dr. Duggan was going to check the sentinel node to make sure there were no cancer cells in the lymph nodes, and it seemed like adding insult to injury when I saw the radiologist with the needle coming toward me.


    Couldn't they do this when I was asleep?! I wondered, feeling like a big baby. But the injection wasn't as bad as I thought, and just as it was over another radiologist appeared -- the one who had read my routine mammogram nine months earlier and suggested I eventually have a breast MRI or ultrasound because of my dense breast tissue and family history.


    It was a strange thing to run into her like that, just before my surgery -- surgery I wouldn't have been having had it not been for her sage and prescient advice -- but it was somehow fitting: the day already felt incredibly surreal, and I was grateful to have gotten the unexpected chance to thank her.


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    After the injection, I was brought back to the main hospital and given a gown to change into. It was after eight a.m. and it seemed like we were finally at the gate and almost ready to board. My plastic surgeon -- Dr. Chun -- was there, and we had a brief visit in an examination room where she made some final markings on my abdomen and chest for the surgery.


    Dr. Margaret Duggan, breast surgeon, arrives


    Once that was finished, I was prepped for surgery -- I got on a gurney, an IV was started, the anesthesiologist introduced herself, and then Dr. Duggan appeared. I had already been given something that made me slurry and less anxious, but I was awake enough despite the pre-flight cocktail to understand that they were going to try to minimize the lengthy surgery (estimated to take at least 8 hours) by having multiple surgeons working at the same time: that is, Dr. Duggan and another breast surgeon would do the bilateral mastectomies and Dr. Chun would overlap to get started on the TRAM flap.


    I don't remember much more than that once we were cleared for take-off and I was wheeled toward the operating room, just looking up at Dr. Duggan's adorably hip but not-annoyingly hip black rectangular glasses and hearing her tell me in a reassuring pilot-voice that everything was going to be okay. And, just like I do when I'm taxiing down a runway finally and there's no turning back, I closed my eyes, suspended my disbelief and believed her.



    Dr. Margaret Duggan  


Published On: November 30, 2007