Authors: Ellyn Oaksmith
Adventures with Max and Louise
For the man who finally let me live my own romantic comedy, my husband.
And for my parents on their fiftieth anniversary.
ERE WE GO,”
says the anesthesiologist. Poking the needle into my arm, he withdraws a tiny bit of blood into the clear drug he’s about to shoot into my vein. Red blood blooms in the benzodiazepine. I squeeze Angeli’s hand, grateful to have an ally in the room. She squeezes back hard, too hard. From the bed where I rest, prone in my unisex surgery gown, I can see that Angeli’s brown eyes are scary huge, like melting chocolates. She stares at the needle, transfixed, her lush coffee-colored skin now ashy pale. She clasps my hand until my fingers tingle. I want to say something about my hand being strangled, but the drug is taking effect. My brain floats three feet above, watching Angeli wobble unsteadily. Her skin fades further to a weird hue, lips purplish white. I haven’t seen her this shade since high school, when we drank all my dad’s Crown Royal and threw up on my mom’s prize Tropicana rosebushes. She’s going to faint.
In the back of my drug-addled brain there is a tug of remembrance, a creeping sense of doom. Why did Angeli quit medical school? Because she was tired of her doctor parents pushing their profession, their immigrant drive, their Indian lives down her thoroughly Americanized throat. That was it, right? Then I remember: she quit because she fainted at the sight of blood.
“You’re squeezing my hand too hard,” I squeal.
This isn’t happening. I’m shot full of drugs, going down faster than the
and my best friend, the person who is supposed to drive me, tend me, and take the helm while I am out of commission, is teetering like a drunk. My lips numb Lovely soft fuzz fills my brain. I remember some comedian’s quip about why so many people become drug addicts: because drugs are fun. I give Angeli a squishy smile, trying to form a sentence in my soggy brain, something about how she’d better not faint because I need her to look after me. Then Angeli disappears from view. One minute she’s there, and the next, nothing but wall space and a dull thud.
I turn woozily to the anesthesiologist. He looks down at the floor, a deep frown creasing his brow.
“Nola, we got a fainter!” he yells.
Panicking, I realize that this surgery, which is supposed to rid me of the scars on my neck and chest, boost my confidence, expand my career, and maybe even jump-start my love life, isn’t going well. And I haven’t even left the pre-op room. The last thing that goes through my head is this: I’ve picked the wrong damn friend.
Medical errors occur in 17 percent of all hospital procedures. Most of them are caused by understaffing, fatigue, lack of communication, and staff error. My best friend caused mine. When it came time to pick my advocate during surgery, it came down to five people: my sisters, Trina and Denise; my best friends, Martin and Angeli; and my dad. Trina was out because I was using her plastic surgeon. She’d spend all her time agonizing over whether or not to get a quick shot of Botox instead of looking out for me. My younger sister Denise is too busy chaining herself to whaling ships and picketing outside the federal building. Besides, she’d view plastic surgery as antifeminist, lecturing me on embracing my scars and wearing them like a badge of courage. My dad, well, surgery would remind him of the worst night of his life, the night I got the scars. Martin was busy covering my job at the newspaper.
Angeli, who never mentioned anything about queasiness at the sight of blood, could easily get someone to cover for her at the Clinique counter at Nordstrom. She seemed the obvious choice.
I subscribe to the domino theory of life. One bad choice or event triggers a chain of events that then lead to an explosion in one’s life. In this case, Angeli was the first tilting tile. Nurse Nola, who rushed to pick Angeli off the floor, was holding someone else’s chart. In her haste, she dropped the chart on my bed. Three minutes later I was wheeled into surgery with another patient’s chart.
I wake up in the recovery room three hours later feeling as if I’ve fallen off a cliff. It’s not so bad, though, because I’ve landed in a warm pile of drugs. A wan, tired Angeli is at my side, holding my hand, smiling in her surprisingly empathetic way. In a chemical haze, I tilt my head from side to side. The room swims pleasantly as though I’m underwater. Dimly aware of a faint ache in my chest and neck, I float above the pain, enjoying my little high. This isn’t so bad. My surgeon, Dr. Hupta, told me I’d have lots more pain after the drugs wear off. But then he’ll give me more to take home. Easy peasy.
Across from me is a teenage girl with bandages covering her cheeks and nose, sipping from a green juice box. Her mother, in a pink velour jogging suit, flips through a movie magazine. They watch me as I blink my eyes woozily, struggling to sit up. Angeli jumps from her chair to help me.
“Here, here, I got it.” She presses a button, lifting the bed. As my head becomes level with hers, she whispers in my ear, nodding at the teenager. “One guess what she’s in here for.”
Before I can answer, a nurse bustles in, her neon white smile fixed. “Well, hello there. And how are we feeling after our big day in surgery?”
I try to say, “Fine.” It comes out, “Fiiiiaaaay.”
The nurse takes my pulse, listens to my heart rate, and hands me a juice box. “We need to get your blood sugar up, or you’ll end up on the ground like your friend here when you try to walk.”
Angeli rolls her eyes behind the nurse’s back. As soon as she leaves, Angeli whispers about my roommate. “Nose job. High school graduation present. Can you imagine? Happy graduation; how’d you like a new schnoz?”
Slowly I drink my apple juice, my head clearing slightly. “I doubt it went like that. Nice disappearing act back there.”
She rolls her eyes and shrugs. “Now you know why I flunked premed.”
“You said blood used to make you queasy, not parallel.” I wince as the pain radiates into my neck and shoulders.
Angeli shrugs. “I thought I might have improved. We don’t have a lot of bloodletting at the Clinique counter, just makeovers.”
“Well, now you know. Skip the blood drive.”
“Yes, ma’am. How’re you doing?” Angeli rubs my arm. “The surgery took a long time. Two and a half hours.”
“I’m okay. Kind of woozy.” Leaning back gingerly, I hope to relieve some of the pressure on my chest. “I just want to go home.”
The nurse arrives with a folder of post-op instructions that she hands to Angeli, who nods sagely as she listens, eager to redeem herself. “You’ll need to change the bandages for the first few days twice a day. After that you can go down to once a day. There’s antibacterial ointment for the sutures in this bag and two sets of bandages. Mandy at the front desk will have your prescription for painkillers. We suggest you stay off your feet for at least twenty-four hours. No showers during that time. After that you can cover yourself with a plastic bag to keep the stitches dry.
“Our main concern, of course, is infection. The skin is irritated while it is stretching to accommodate the implants, so you’ll need to keep it moist with lotion. We gave you a sample of the brand we like. You can get more at a Bartell’s or Walgreens. The doctor recommends twice-daily massages of the implants for two weeks while the scar tissue forms. This will prevent bunching and irregularities in scarring. You are scheduled for a post-op . . . let’s see here . . .” The nurse scans her notes.
I hold up my hand. “Whoa. Whoa. Hang on a second. Go back. Implants? You said implants.”
“Yes, implants. Breast implants,” the nurse says briskly.
I shake my head. “But I didn’t get implants. I had some scars repaired.” I wave my hand over the bandages as if this will clear things up.
The nurse purses her lips and reads the chart again, following with her finger. “Yes, you did.” Tap, tap with her finger. “Exactly the kind you and the doctor discussed.”
But I’m not listening. Lifting the sheets, I duck my head under the covers. The stitches strain. My chest radiates with pain, distant but hot. It’s too dark to see anything, so I throw back the sheets.
Angeli stares at my chest, mouth gaping in shock. Looking down at the gentle swell under the bandages, I scream and grab my chest. Aching warmth shoots through me where my hands touch but also a new sensation: mounds of flesh, breasts. They feel huge, like mountains on a once flat mesa. Everything becomes a surrealistic blur, like an old foreign film without subtitles. People in newspaper articles get messed up in surgery, not me.
“I have breasts!” There is no way to describe how absolutely terrifying it is to wake up with an additional body part. Like Frankenstein; no, Frankenstein’s stripper. I have breast implants! My brain spins around wildly. Random thoughts flutter like cards in a hurricane. I remember a PBS documentary I once saw on exotic dancers. Each of them discussed their implants’ size and firmness like judges in the agricultural booth of a county fair.
“Holy shit! He gave her implants!” Angeli’s hand flutters over her mouth. Her newfound professionalism withers in the face of catastrophe. “She didn’t come in here for implants,” she hisses at the nurse.
She whispers in my ear. “You didn’t change your mind after I fainted, did you?”
“No, I didn’t change my mind! It wasn’t even an option!” I yell.
“You don’t have to scream!” Angeli shouts.
“Yes, I do have to scream. I’m freaking out. I have breast implants! How could this happen?”
The nose job girl and her mother happily perk up, heads swiveling back and forth between us, enjoying my predicament.
“Of course it was an option,” the nurse says soothingly as though I am a mental patient. She reminds me of Nurse Ratched from
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
“It says right here,” she says authoritatively as she picks up the chart, then taps it with a fingernail, “350 cc’s saline implants: Glaxco-SmithKline which, by the way, are the best.” She lowers her voice to a confidential whisper. “That’s what I have, although now they say silicone is just as safe. I’m thinking of getting mine switched. They’re so much more realistic.” This last comment is delivered with a wink.
“My flatness was realistic!” I spit the words out so hard, it strains my stitches. “I came in here to get rid of my scars, not get fake boobs.”
The nurse winces. I realize, too late, I have insulted her. For a split second I actually feel sorry until she thrusts her chart under my nose.
“There it is in black and white.” Each syllable gets a finger tap for emphasis. This nonsense has gone as far as she’s going to let it.