How My Chest was Cut Open or Why You Should Date Me

PART I

An awful sound shrugged me awake.

I checked my phone and wondered why I woke up so early. But the texts of well-wishes knocked over the smudged-up glass of memories in my mind, spilling reminders of the day and its significance all over, soaking my thoughts through and through. It left a stain so I uttered the only reasonable reaction available at 3:45am on a Monday morning. “Shit.”

Fifteen minutes later, I gathered a few last minute items, a.k.a. stalling.

“Come on, we gotta go. This isn’t one of those things you can be late for,” my dad said.

“Well they sure as hell aren’t going to start without me — are they?”

“You don’t know that. Either way, we gotta go.”

At 4am, I said, “Fine. Let’s go.”

My family piled into the car: my jokester father, my saintly-yet-sassy mother, my introverted brother, and me, of course, the (reluctant) star of the day, with a bag of clothes, books, and chargers slung over my shoulders and a teddy bear named Henry in my lap. We drove.

The forty-minute drive was familiar, and if there’s one thing that gives me comfort in life, it’s familiarity — even if it means passing a shop with a broken sign that now advertises STDs (which said “SIDS” at one point, but I’m sure the owners see the discretion as too funny to fix), and a motel that advertises four-hour renting blocks and mirrors on the ceiling. Apparently, the motel’s appealing to the same audience. Familiarity lost.

“Are you sure you know where you’re going, Dad?”

“Yeah, 95th.”

We passed 97th, the 98th, but then at 99th — “Sure, Dad?”

“Just takin’ the scenic route, babe. They can’t start without you anyway.”

A mess of detours and debates later, we found ourselves parked, walking into that big box of life and death and everything in between — through a hallway, up an elevator, in front of a desk.

A little girl stood in front of me, giggling with her daddy.

“Mommy says these bracelets are the latest fashion,” she announced as the nurse secured a hospital band to her wrist. Her smile shined like her bald head.

“You can always count on the cancer kids for a guilt trip,” I muttered.

My mother, a hospice-nurse battling cancer herself, slapped my shoulder with a “stop that” as my father jokingly reprimanded me with his default explanation for any snarky comment I make.

“You’re just being jealous and hateful.”

He said this about all my complaints, ranging from the one about overweight, middle-aged women showing off their tramp stamps via social media and others about college students who haven’t quite mastered that whole grammar thing yet. This time, though, he was correct.

I shed the sarcasm for a moment. Are sick young kids so unafraid of dying because they haven’t yet learned the value of life and don’t know what they’re missing — or are they unafraid because they have learned the value, and know they better appreciate it?

“I’m about as jealous and hateful as everyone staring at us.”

“So, you’re super jealous, is what you mean,” Dad said.

“Absolutely.”

“Yeah, lemme use your sleeve to wipe off this sarcasm you just dripped all over my–”

“Can I help you?” the nurse asks.

Oh. Right. What we’re here for.

 PART II

 Ten minutes later I’m in the prep room.

“Mom, what am I supposed to do with these?”

“Put them on.”

“No shit. Where?”

“They’re panties.”

“What? No. Bitty pieces of often-brightly-colored fabrics sometimes sporting cute patterns and/or provocative sayings are panties. These… this is a piece of gauze.”

“This isn’t Victoria’s Secret. It’s a hospital. They’re panties. Just put them on.”

So they were. (They were surprisingly comfortable, by the way; I ended up rather enjoying them.) I swapped my trademark red bandana, my comfy shorts, and my “Operation” t-shirt —  a thrift store gem based on the board game, purchased solely for this occasion — for a cap, ubiquitously ugly gown, and slipper socks.

“I get to take all this home with me, right? I have trends to start,” I asked the nurse prepping me.

“Of course! We’ll even give you some extra panties if you want to charm the boys.”

“Perfect. I’ll charm their pants off.”

A young fellow in scrubs announcing himself as one of the surgical residents came in shortly thereafter to sign some paper work and discuss some last minute details. He asked if I would confirm what procedure I was having done, and then signed my chest. He said it was to make sure they did the correct operation or something but I didn’t really care; I just hoped it would last long enough for me to tattoo it on later.

“When you cut me open, can you give me scars in the shape of an Alabama ‘A’? Nevermind, that would mean I’d have a permanent Scarlet Letter and no one wants that. What about a lightning bolt? Can I have lightning bolt scars?”

He flashed a beautiful smile and replied, “I’ll see what I can do,” with a charming accent. It was Russian. I asked. I made him laugh a few more times and he even finally made a joke back before he left.

“He was beautiful,” I observed to my mother once he was gone, “I’m okay with him cutting open my chest. Maybe I should ask him to put my heart back while he’s in there, since he’s already stolen it.”

“You’re so freaking lame. He better watch his hands. Literally. And he better be as good at his job as he at looking good.”

After him, an anesthesiologist. She explained I would be receiving a thoracic epidural. For children she waited until they were asleep to insert it; for adults she did it while they were awake.

“But because you’re right in the middle, I’ll let you pick.”

“Um, I might be a college kid, but I’m currently cuddling a teddy bear. I’ll wait ’til I’m asleep.”

She laughed. “That works.”

“I hope your medicine does, too.”

It must have; all I remember for the rest of that morning is laying on a gurney and a nurse telling me to start counting from ‘one’ and my half-asleep-yet-still-snarky-self replying: “‘One’ as in the first decimal of pi? I hope this knocks me out quickly, cause I only know so many decimals…three-point-one-four-one-five-nine…”

PART III

Two pm (for those wondering: two is indeed the next digit of pi–see what I did there?) and I finally awoke. Kind of. That day and the next few, which I spent in the ICU, are ones I don’t really remember. I was in and out of consciousness but never out of pain.

Things I do know:

I was the epitome of sexy: unshowered, matted and knotted hair, bandages across my chest, anemic, lacking color, withdrawn, in pain, barely speaking, mostly immobile, using a Foley catheter and later a bed pan, more wires and tubes plugged into me than an extension cord at Christmas…

Unfairly Sexy Surgical Resident (heh heh that abbreviates to USSR…he’s from Russia…) totally wanted me every time he came to check in on me. When he asked me to rate my pain every day, he was really asking me to rate him. 10 for both, comrade.

I allegedly referred the tough-love nurse, Nadia, as “Nadia-the-Nazi-Nurse” (I was a bit a dramatic; I blame it on the drugs) to her face. My dad might have made that up. But I probably actually did that.

I sent one of my professors an email with a post-script I’m too embarrassed to even repeat here, which is fairly self-deprecating story as it is, so you know it wasn’t good. However, I don’t remember doing that at all. Or even being on my laptop, for that matter, but I guess I was to send a quick “I’m-okay” email to my extended family. I know these things only from my outbox telling me so.

Those weird breathing exercises birthing women do? Yeah that actually helps. I was, like, Honorary Lamaze Class Champ by the end of that stay. One of the pregnant nurses told me so.

Why people take those prescription painkillers recreationally. Woah. I had hallucinations and a muddle perception of reality. I once screamed for a nurse when I thought a scary looking lady awoke me in the middle of the night announcing in a thick Eastern European accent: “I’m here to take your blood.” Uhh Dr. Acula hallucination?

I once screamed for a nurse when a scary looking lady awoke me in the middle of the night announcing in a thick Eastern European accent: “I’m here to take your blood.” Not a hallucination.

Everyone should know that in a Chicagoland hospital there is an amazing nurse named Alex. He might actually be a saint. This is my tiny tribute to him. The end.

My epidural never worked but they didn’t discover that for a few days or the trouble with a partially collapsed lung or how some stupid septuagenarian and sexist doctor took me off all my pills cold turkey Thursday morning because I am “young, and need to build [my] pain tolerance to go through childbirth one day anyway.” My mom held me back.

Yes, I could go on about the nonsense that goes with having your chest cut open from both sides, your ribs pulled apart, metal placed inside to hold them like that, and being glued back up again, but I have other uninteresting things to bitch about, so I will.

PART IV

Thursday they moved me to a regular room on the trauma floor. I had only one previous hospital stay in my life, and I was still a minor at the time and thus placed in pediatrics. While I knew I would be on a regular floor this time, I hadn’t thought of what that meant: a roommate. They wheeled me into room 416 and my first (drug-tainted, surely, but mostly just mythology-loving-and-weird me) thought: ‘Oh, looks like I’m rooming with Odin’.

There on the first bed sat a large and intimidating middle-aged woman with wild hair and gauze taped over one eye.

Some things the Norse god probably did not have that my roommate did: a Bluetooth headset, loud and uncomfortable conversations on aforementioned headset, a tattoo of Minnie Mouse, a bouncer-like husband with a vocal hatred of mashed potatoes, a vagina (I assume). I was going to add “the need to blast Maury as loud as the television would allow,” but given Odin’s life story, he might have actually been interested in that program. Hell, he probably could have been on a few episodes. Anything else I have to add about her and her family — because I could — would probably just be unfairly judgmental due to my terrible pain/mood at the time, and she was discharged within a few hours of my arrival anyway.

She was replaced by a girl a few hours later who had just two years on me and an unconventional name that comically and coincidentally rhymed with my own. For the sake of a pretense of privacy, let’s change the first letter of her name and call her Bangie. Like Angie, but with a B. It was like a lame sitcom set-up. The nurses loved walking into “Angie and Bangie’s Room” and would try to make cute little comments.

She and I both had a rough night the night she arrived but spent the next day bonding. She turned out to be a twentysomething girl who grew up not far from me, was attending school in Tennessee, was majoring in criminal justice, planned on working for the FBI or DEA or something similar, and loved Disney.

“I feel like I’m a hundred,” she groaned, “Every inch of my body aches. I’m eating mush. I’m getting sponge baths. I can’t go to the bathroom by myself. What the hell, man.”

“Saaaaame. I feel ya,” I empathized. “I’m in respiratory and cardiac rehab therapy.”

“Damn. This blows. For both of us. There isn’t even anything good on Disney Channel. Fuck this ‘Fish Hooks’ shit. Though, in regards to the period, I just like to think of them as my body’s multi-day celebrations that I wasn’t dumb enough to get pregnant that month.”

“Hahaha, fair enough.” I glanced over at the elephant in the room. I couldn’t tell if it was a metaphor or the morphine. “So, uh, what are you in here for, if you don’t mind me asking?” I finally asked .

“I don’t mind. I had a breast reduction.”

Blunt. Nice. “I sort of thought so. I don’t know if you remember, but your first night here your dad told you they accidentally dropped you down to an A-cup and you nearly started crying.”

“Haha, did he? Sounds like him. What an asshole. I can’t believe he’d say that.” She looked at my notably flat chest, accentuated by the the gown and lack of bra. “I mean, nothing wrong with that…just would have been….unexpected…” she tried to cover, but then just quickly changed the subject, “So what about you?”

“Surgery on my chest, too.” I paused, then deadpanned: “Implants.” She stayed silent, assessing what I had said and wondering how to reply. Poor thing.

“Kidding. Did have surgery on my chest, but to correct a birth defect of sorts. They had to cut me open, pull my ribs apart, and put a bar in to keep them like so my ribs would stop pressing on my lungs and heart. It was causing lung problems and heart palpitations and other fun stuff like that.”

“Woah. Sounds intense. No wonder you were up all night in pain. Or why you were crying during respiratory therapy. I was wondering. Have you looked at your incisions or anything yet?” she asked.

I hadn’t really thought about it before. “Huh. Actually, no. I’ve been too sore to really care. Now I kind of want to…”

PART V

The next time a nurse came to check on me, she obligingly walked me to the bathroom mirror. She undid the gown, and revealed the man behind the curtain.

I stared at the ugly gashes, the chunks of tissue missing from my already-small breasts, the misshapenness of everything. After two decades with it, I didn’t recognize my own body. I ran a finger over one scar with curiosity, but then the next in a panic, and finally the middle of my chest–I couldn’t feel a thing. Nerve damage. Hadn’t thought of that. I tried not to–I didn’t want to admit I was that emotionally invested in my appearance, but also because it made my eyes water just to yawn-cough-sneeze-breathe… crying would be torture–but I teared up at the body they had torn up.

The nurse, a pretty girl barely older than me, stroked my mess of hair: “Those scars will be easily hidden. And no one will see them on your wedding day, and that’s really all that counts, right?”

I didn’t smile at her attempted joke.

She tried harder, “Well, even when they can be seen, they look good. You’re lucky. Besides, you could be in here for something worse. Or you could not afford the hospital at all. You’re lucky. You and Bangie both.” I knew she was right, but at the moment, it made no difference. I had her pull the gown back on, hobbled back to my bed with her help, wincing, and announced to my roommate that I was going to try to sleep for a while.

PART VI

I did attempt to nap, but couldn’t. My thoughts crawled all over, worms burrowing holes into my brain. Worms might be good for soil but they don’t always do as much good for the soul.

“You are an intellectual, Angela. You are a smart girl. You know that you are lucky to have a body that mostly serves you well, that has the potential for decades of healthy living and loving left in it. You know you’ll recover. You’ve had all kinds of friends and family here every single day to visit you, despite being almost an hour away. You know this is for the best. You know in a few weeks, a few months, a few years, none of this will matter. You know looks aren’t actually important. And you’re the one who always said that scars were just souvenirs you’ve proudly collected. You are just being ungrateful and juvenile and overall ridiculous right now and you know it.”

I, of course, was right. And I knew that. But none of that mattered. I could tell myself anything I wanted. Didn’t make a difference. At heart, I was a teenage girl who, like most girls–or, if we’re being honest, most people–just wanted to feel good about herself.

While I sat there more or less pouting and wallowing and whatnot but pretending to be asleep, Bangie’s mother came to visit.

“What’s she in here for?” she asked her daughter, nodding her head in my direction.

“She had surgery on her chest.”

Her mother glanced over at me. “A mastectomy? At that age? Poor thing! She gonna be alright?”

I wanted to cry. Or die. Or…eat pie. Oreo, specifically (I’ve always preferred things in black and white).

PART VII

Later while Bangie and I discussed some things we’d be missing out on for a bit while we both recovered, she mentioned her work-outs she was doing to stay in shape for, hopefully, the FBI academy.

“Dude, I can tell. Your body is smoking hot. I mean, I’d bang you. Well, if you and I were both in better physical shape, that is.”

“Well thank you, girl! I wish I was as tall and skinny as you, though. Seriously. Can you say model body?”

“Please. Don’t bother with that talk. I’d kill for curves.”

“I just had ten pounds of breast removed. That is literally almost two small bowling balls I’d been carrying around on my chest 24/7. That’s double what you’re allowed to even lift right now. Be grateful for your tiny frame. And for the fact that you know guys aren’t chasin’ you for your tits. Hashtag story of my life.”

“Well. Thanks. But my self-esteem wasn’t stellar before, and I’m feeling the opposite of attractive at this point. My best friends could easily work at Hooters and strip clubs and I still have the body of a thirteen year-old-girl. Actually, that’s not even true, because my ex-boyfriend’s thirteen-year-old sister had a nicer body than I did, as his charming friends used to point out. And good grief, now… Now I can barely lift my arms above my head. I can’t go to the bathroom by myself. I have scars on each side of me. And this whole situation isn’t just one of those quirks you can ignore or explain away to some guy at a bar over a live band and booze. There’s a difference between ‘I have eleven toes’ and ‘I have metal shoved in my sides so handle with care.’ I won’t wear a bra for weeks. And if it wasn’t for avoiding looking all nippy a la Rachel on Friends, I wouldn’t even need one. I’ve just got a bar now, which I guess would be a bra if I was dyslexic. But still.”

“That was funny. You’re funny. Rock that. And really, I mean, I think you’re looking at this wrong. Hopefully you can master taking a piss alone again, cuz I can’t help you there, but the rest of those are just pick-up lines waiting to happen, girl.” She batted her eyelashes, turned on a seductive voice I could never hope to imitate, and continued: ‘I’m not wearing a bra… I’ll need help getting out of my shirt tonight…and getting into bed… So I’ve got a few limitations…guess this just means you’ll have to get creative… Want to see my scars? Hope you don’t mind they’re on my breasts… And you can just lie about what happened, if you want. Or don’t, and just appeal to every guy’s love of comics: I’m practically Iron Man…” Her face, her delivery, her lines–I laughed.

It hurt like hell to, but it was my first genuine laugh since my surgery. “Besides, it’s true what they say: confidence is the sexiest accessory. Get some then get some and get over yourself, girl.” Dang. Well. Okay. ”Now let’s see what’s on Disney Channel. I hope that damn Fish Hooks shit is over…”

Bangie left the next day. She gave me her number, but I’ll probably never use it, and I don’t think she ever meant for me to. I recovered all right without her, and probably better because of her. I’d have a new room. After Bangie left, the nurses moved me to a private room so I wouldn’t have to be paired with one of the gang members brought in that night after a gunfight. A few more days in the hospital, a few weeks of wearing nothing but braids, button-up shirts, and elastic-waisted shorts, and I’d be returning to school in the Fall still aching through the day, hurting through the night, and restricted in some things I could do. I’d have a few more frustration-fueled breakdowns, and every few days I would find I could no longer do something I could do before surgery. But I had a much better attitude about all of it.

PART VIII

Tuesday, after a total of eight days in the hospital, I was finally discharged. The night before they let me go home, a certified nursing assistant who had taken a liking to the sassy young girl on the floor (a rarity amongst the usual geriatric patients) came in and helped me bathe one more time, brushed out my long knotted hair and tamed it into braids, tied up my red bandana for me, applied some deodorant, and even spritzed on a bit of her personal perfume.

I woke up the next morning in a good mood, made even better by the fact that Unfairly Sexy Surgical Resident came to check on me one last time even though he didn’t have to (a different doctor had cleared me already). He asked to take another peek at my incisions (I like to think I know why) and explained some things I should and should not be doing during recovery. The last one: “And no weight-lifting or contact sports for six months.”

“Oh dear, what will the Alabama football team do without me?” He laughed. (Of course he did. He wanted me.)

“Maybe you can just be cheerleader this year, not quarterback. Any questions, though?”

“Yeah, I’ve got one,” I almost bit my tongue, but it was a legitimate question. I sort of smiled and shyly asked: “Does sex count as a contact sport?”

He looked genuinely shocked and unsure how to answer for a moment. Then–a laugh, and: “Guess it depends on what kind of sex you’re having.” A wink, and that godly grin. “I hope you don’t end up back in here, but if you do, make sure you have the nurses let me know.” I choose to believe that request had nothing to do with the fact that he was my doctor and should, logically, be alerted to such things.

“I’ll make sure I see you if I do…even if you didn’t give me the lightning bolts I asked for.”

He laughed. “Didn’t want Voldemort going after you. Keep on eye on her for me, Henry. Take care of yourself, Angela. Good luck. With…everything.”

“Thank you. For…everything.” My respiratory therapist chose that moment to enter. Most likely because she knew I couldn’t breathe. Unfairly Sexy Surgical Resident walked out of the room…but, just before he left, he looked back with a smile. He so wanted me.

PART IX

Later I laughed it off when the similarly-small-chested respiratory therapist joked, “If it were me, I would have had them make my boobs bigger while they had my chest cut open.”

I joked about it when the nurses accidentally gave me a referral for a follow-up visit with Bangie’s plastic surgeon instead of with my thoracic surgeon. I uploaded a picture of me striking a ridiculous model pose in my ridiculous hospital gown and even more ridiculous hospital pants. I let myself believe a boy when he told me I was beautiful. I went to the beach, and felt good about it (helped that I was there with an eight year old). And since I apparently, sadly, cannot have Unfairly Sexy Surgical Resident, I wrote this personal dating ad for UA’s new magazine.

Wait, that’s what this is, right? A place in the paper for personal ads?

Perfect.

If interested, just look for the tall and not-so-curvy girl in a red bandana and sports bra setting off metal detectors for no apparent reason.

  • Maury

    That was incredibly entertaining and witty. I was almos late to class cause I wouldn’t stop reading it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/paul.wiersma.5 Paul Wiersma

    Still my favorite piece on the peanunt to date.