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My Phantom Ovaries
written by: Catherine Shields
The doctor wants to remove my what? I wasn’t sure I heard correctly. My uterus? My ovaries?
A few minutes earlier I sat with the paper sheet draped across my bottom as a nurse who bore a striking resemblance to Beyonce held a stethoscope and pumped the blood pressure cuff. She whispered, “Relax.”
Sure Beyonce, you try to relax with this thing squeezing your arm I bet you never heard of white coat syndrome.
I focused on the embroidered logo of a coconut tree and pictured myself in a bikini on the beach sipping a cold Pina colada. Maybe this time, the sight of the white lab coat wouldn’t cause my blood pressure to skyrocket.
“178 over 94, a bit elevated.”
A BIT elevated? Any nurse worth her salt wouldn’t act so nonchalant. I could be on the verge of a heart attack. And all you’re going to do is flash your booty and say it’s a bit elevated?
“Don’t look so worried. Dr. Lorenzo will be right in.” With the laptop screen opened, she read, “I see you have a pelvic organ prolapse. Any symptoms?”
Flustered, I lowered my eyes in embarrassment. I must explain this to a girl who looks like Beyonce?
“Well, it feels like a bulge. Squishy. It looked like a pink ball trying to squeeze its way out, um — from down there.”
“So, when did you first notice it?”
Where is the doctor? Shouldn’t he be asking these questions?
“Well, I felt some pressure. In the past few months, I had a couple of urinary tract infections and then a few weeks ago, I saw it.”
The vision of the horrifying image returned.
“It protruded. I thought I had a tumor, so I went straight to my doctor. He diagnosed a prolapsed bladder. He was the one who recommended your office.”
I relaxed when I heard the soft knock on the door, and a tall, lanky man entered. “I’m Dr. Lorenzo,” the man intoned. I expected him to greet me with a handshake, but both hands remained in his pockets. His short hair, peppered with flecks of gray, clung to his narrow flat head. He strode across the room to the open laptop.
Okay, so he’s not that friendly.
A hint of a smirk danced across his features. He reminded me of Lurch, the faithful butler from the movie The Addams Family. He studied the screen and murmured, “uh-huh.”
“So, I see you’re here for a prolapsed bladder.” He donned a pair of blue gloves. “Please lie down so I can examine you.”
Two minutes later he announced, “You can sit up.”
The paper sheet made a crinkly sound as I struggled. I felt like a fly trapped in a spider’s web. Once I regained my composure, I watched the doctor. His stone-faced expression was illuminated by the ghostly glow of the laptop screen. In a matter of fact tone he said, “In addition to what your primary care doctor found, you also have a prolapsed uterus.”
“My uterus? Really? So, you can fix that too, right?”
I imagined how he’d sew everything into place. I’d be back shopping at the mall in no time, but then he said the words I didn’t expect to hear.
“Yes, we will perform a hysterectomy and support the bladder with mesh. The procedure is called Sacro-Colpopexy.
Hysterectomy? Mesh? What are you talking about?
“You seem surprised. It’s a simple procedure. It’s done laparoscopically. Overnight in the hospital, and then you’re home. Dr. D’Angelo will perform the hysterectomy. After he removes your uterus, ovaries, and cervix, I use mesh to repair the prolapse.”
“But you’re saying you have to take out perfectly healthy parts before you can fix this?”
He frowned. “That’s how it’s done. Your uterus has collapsed. You don’t need your ovaries. They don’t produce hormones. A hysterectomy is a standard procedure. Research shows women in your age group are susceptible to ovarian, uterine, and cervical cancer. Google it if you have any questions about the procedure.”
Goggle it? Did you just tell me to Google it?
On his notepad, he wrote, Sacro-Colpopexy and handed it to me.
My mouth hung open. Questions? There were a million questions.
“Wait, I do have a question. What would you do if this were happening to you? Or your wife?
Zombie-like, the doctor turned to face me.
Whatever on earth is wrong with you?
“No question. I’d tell her to have the surgery. Make an appointment with Dr. D’Angelo. He’ll schedule the surgery. Nice to meet you.” Lurch vanished through the open door.
The nurse shoved a form in my hand. “Go to the appointment desk. Tell them it’s for Dr. D’Angelo.”
Wait, I’m sorry, what? Really? Am I just a body on an assembly line? Goggle it? Go see the next doctor? What in the world am I doing here?
In my car, I sat in a daze and stared through the windshield at the empty cars in the parking garage. The ride down the elevator, the walk to the car, all of it was a blur. My fingers gripped the steering wheel while the word hysterectomy howled like a banshee in my thoughts.
Hysterectomy? Remove everything? Is it too late to scream stop? You don’t understand. Those parts define me. It’s my shrine to Motherhood.
When did I step across the threshold to join the ranks of the old? I grabbed the rearview mirror, pushed it toward me, and a cold shiver rushed down my spine. The face of a crone stared at me. An old woman with a uterus hanging from her vagina.
I couldn’t bring myself to Google Sacro-Colpopexy. Instead, I searched for the origins of the word hysterectomy.
“Hysteria comes from the Greek root hystera, meaning uterus. Long ago, it was believed hysteria and hysterical symptoms were caused by a defect in the womb, and thus, only women could become hysterical.”
Is that what Lurch thinks? That all his patients are hysterical? I should have shown him hysterical. If I wanted a reaction from him, I could have screamed and cried the moment he said hysterectomy.
I phoned my husband, Chip.
“So, what did the doctor say?”
“I have to see another doctor. They want to do a hysterectomy.”
“I don’t know. I can’t think about it anymore. I see the other doctor next Tuesday. Maybe he won’t be as weird.”
The next week, I sat across from Dr. D’Angelo while he reviewed Dr. Lorenzo’s notes. When he asked if I understood the procedure, I pressed my lips together to keep from crying. It didn’t work.
“No,” I blathered, “everything is accelerating way too fast. This wasn’t what I expected. I thought Dr. Lorenzo was going to just sew everything in place.”
I could barely speak the word hysterectomy.
“Didn’t Chris explain the operation?”
“Maybe a little. I didn’t know what kinds of questions to ask. He told me to Google it.”
He nodded. “Okay, let me draw a diagram so you’ll have a better understanding.”
He used a marker to draw a rough sketch and continued his explanation. “The prolapse is the result of damage to tissues which connect the reproductive organs. So, these are your ovaries,” he pointed to two circles.
I stifled a laugh. Who do you think you are, Walt Disney? What’s next? Are you going to draw mouse ears on my ovaries?
“And when I complete the hysterectomy, Dr. Lorenzo will use mesh. He will attach it here. Like this.”
Nope, you’re not Walt Disney and you’re almost as weird as your friend Dr. Lurch. If your surgical skills aren’t better than your artistic ones, I’m screwed.
“And Dr. Lorenzo will reposition your bladder to prevent it from sliding out. Does that answer your questions?”
I covered my eyes with my hand and murmured, “Yes.”
Why did I ask him to explain? Now I picture him gutting me like a fish.
The next day, the surgical coordinator called. “Schedule a pre-op appointment with your primary care doctor.”
I called their office. The receptionist told me they had one pre-op appointment available.
“Monday at ten with Dr. Selman? I’ll be there.” I felt relief. Dr. Selman was a woman, she’d understand.
At Dr. Selman’s office, I waited for the x-ray and the EKG results. When she breezed into the room, Dr. Selman swung the stethoscope over her head like a rope, so cheerful, I half expected her to yell yeehaw.
“You’re all set! I’ve cleared you for surgery.” Dr. Selman lifted her eyes and smiled. “Hey, I expected you to be happy about this. What’s going on?”
“Just a sec,” I whispered the words and waved my hand. “Every time I think about this, this surgery, I cry. Dr. Lorenzo told me to Google it. Dr. D’Angelo drew cartoons. Am I crazy? I’m going to let these guys operate on me?”
Dr. Selman laughed. “Oh, I understand what you mean. Those two might not have the world’s best bedside manner, but they are excellent surgeons. This isn’t going to get better on its own. Surgery is an ideal option. Most women say it’s the best thing they’ve ever done.
I shrugged, “Yeah I’ve heard that too, but I’m not sure I trust their opinion.”
Okay but it sounds like Mary Poppins wants me to believe a spoon full of sugar will help the medicine go down.
“Well, I’ve seen many patients with this condition.” She grinned. “Want to know something? I’ve seen a uterus fall out. Your vagina is caving in and getting crushed by the organs falling on it. And your ovaries? They’re shriveled up like tiny raisins!”
Raisins? Great. Every time I buy a box of Sun-Maid’s I’ll think of my poor ovaries.
“Dr. Selman, are you comparing my uterus to a wrecking ball?” I shuddered at the image. “What would you do if this were you?”
Dr. Selman laughed. “A wrecking ball? You’re too funny! Yeah, that’s basically what’s happened. You ask what I’d do if this were happening to me? I’d do it. In a heartbeat. No question. I’d opt for the surgery.”
I stared at my hands. I still couldn’t say the dreaded word, hysterectomy, but I managed a weak smile. “I guess you’re right.”
I wondered when I’d become such a good liar.
“Good choice. Oh, one more thing. No smoking, no alcohol, not even aspirin or vitamins for the next week.”
No wine? No wine for a week? How am I supposed to cook dinner without a glass of wine?
The day before surgery, I went to the hospital for blood work, in case I needed a blood transfusion. The nurse asked dozens of questions.
“Is it okay to take Valium tonight?” I asked.
A blood transfusion? Some patients go home with a catheter? This is horrible! Can’t they just knock me out and let me sleep until this nightmare ends?
The following day, Chip and I arrived at the hospital at 5:30 am. I counted 178-floor tiles from the elevator to the registration desk while I wondered how many steps Marie Antoinette took on her march to the guillotine.
Okay, I surrender. Let them chop out my ovaries, along with everything else. Bring on the guillotine.
While the nurse started my IV, I talked to Chip. “This is a bad idea. I want to go home.”
“Are you serious?” He lowered his glasses and peered over the rim. “What do you mean? You’re here.”
“You don’t understand. It was the best of all the worst ideas. I’ll do it, but if I get dead, I want you to get my book published. Promise me. That’s all I want.”
“If you get dead?” He scratched his beard. “I don’t understand why you’d say that right before surgery. It doesn’t make sense.” He leaned forward. “So why are you scowling at me?”
I folded my arms across my chest and didn’t answer.
You can’t possibly understand.
“Okay, if you get dead, I will make sure it gets published. But I don’t understand what you’re talking about.”
Dr. Lorenzo appeared moments later. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and focused his gaze on the wall next to my bed.
What the heck was he hiding in his pockets and why was he focused on the wall instead of me?
“Mrs. Shields? We’re ready to take you into surgery. Is this your husband?”
“The surgery will take about two and a half hours. You can wait in the waiting room. When your wife wakes up, you can join her in the recovery room.”
The doctor left the room.
Chip frowned. “That’s your doctor? He’s weird.”
“Yeah,” I shrugged. “Told you he reminds me of Lurch.”
I awoke in a delirious state. The world swirled around me in a mixture of hallucinations. I heard voices, smelled the disinfectant, and faces danced above me, appearing and disappearing. Hands jostled and lifted me. I became aware of a nurse by my bedside. I heard myself say, “I think I’m tripping!”
Her calm voice replied, “I know.”
I heard my daughter’s voice, “Mom, I’m here.”
Oh my God, she heard me say I’m tripping. She’s going to wonder how I know what it feels like.
But there wasn’t time to explain. Vomit spewed from my mouth like a broken sewer pipe gushing sludge.
The nurse’s distant voice said, “Yes, she’s vomiting.”
Was she in the hall? On the phone?
I recognized the nurse’s voice. “Zofran? Okay, thank you doctor.”
Plunged deeper into the nightmare, nausea overwhelmed me. Over and over, I heaved as my body wobbled, and my head pitched forward. I don’t know who held the plastic bin. The putrid smell of bile produced more nausea. Face damp with sweat, I moaned and cried. “I told that anesthesiologist I react to anesthesia and he promised I wouldn’t get sick. I’m mad!”
“I would be too.”
The nurse’s comment surprised me, but I was too sick to ask what she meant. I liked her. She understood.
“We gave you something. You’ll feel better soon. Meanwhile, you’re got to pee. The catheter goes back in if you don’t produce any urine by 7 PM.” She gestured to the whiteboard board on the opposite wall.
Not possible. Not even a remote possibility. I couldn’t stand, much less pee. The magic stopwatch ticked as I calculated how to avoid the dreaded catheter.
“Are you kidding?” I mumbled in disbelief. “What time is it?”
“It’s three o’clock, so you have to get up and try.” She pulled off the covers and forced me from my bed, intent on dragging me like a bouncer in a bar. I struggled to stand while I glared at her. I changed my mind. I didn’t like her after all.
“I can’t pee if you watch,” I said.
She scowled from the doorway. “You just have to go a little. There’s a bowl inside the toilet to measure your urine output.”
A bowl? It sat on the toilet inches away from my bare bottom. Red measurement lines encircled the inside. I closed my eyes. This is a nightmare. You’re really Nurse Ratchet in disguise, aren’t you?
Nurse Ratchet, arms folded, stood there like a vulture. “You okay?”
Go away. You’re too scary for me to pee.
But an amazing thing happened. She must have scared the pee out of me. A few drops plopped into the bowl. “Okay,” I called, “I went.”
She checked the bowl and helped me to the bed where I prayed for the end of her shift.
In the hospital, room Chip filled me in on what happened. The surgery took longer than expected.
“When you didn’t come out of surgery after two and a half hours, I started having heart palpitations.”
His pursed lips and wrinkled brow told the rest of the story. I patted his hand.
“Really? I’m sorry. You probably thought about what I said, but you aren’t allowed to get dead. That can’t happen.”
Lurch returned the next day to check on me. With both hands jammed in his pockets, he leaned against the bed and explained the reason the surgery took more than four hours. He said it took him a while to find my ovaries.
Maybe he wasn’t looking very hard.
“Your anatomy was unique,” he observed. “It must have been the previous C-section. Nothing was where it was supposed to be, everything was spread out like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.”
A jigsaw puzzle? And what if you didn’t put things back in the right place? You said it was hard to find my ovaries.
Lurch went to the other side of the bed. “I heard your husband was worried, but it went fine. You can go home today.”
When he lifted his hand from his pocket, I thought he was about to shake mine. I struggled to pull my hand from under the covers, but he motioned with a wave and left the room. I wondered if I should feel sorry for Lurch. The least I could do was call him by his real name. Dr. Lorenzo.
I’m home now. The sensation of something dangling from down there is gone. My bladder is firmly in place, but a sense of wistfulness remains. I am keenly aware of the empty space where parts once resided. I mourn their loss. The crying spree hasn’t stopped. It comes and goes. Is it hormones? Oh, that’s right, I don’t have any hormones.
Maybe my phantom ovaries are still at work. Alive and well.