BRCA Surgeries: Recovery Time

Photo credit: Helga Weber


How long does it take to recover from a mastectomy? This question is the subject of a thousand conversations I’ve read in message boards, discussed with other breast cancer patients, doctors, nurses and experts. Truth is, everyone is different. All bets are off when you sign on the dotted line to go under the knife.

When one has five surgeries over a seven day span like I did, it means long periods either under general anesthesia or in that no man’s land called the recovery room. Time disappears in large chunks. Much is forgotten right away, whether it is good or bad. Kurt Vonnegut’s famous novel “Slaughterhouse Five” invites the reader into the story with the line “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” Last night I came unstuck in time and relived a brief hospital episode that had been tucked away.

All of a sudden I was in the recovery room once again. A nurse was never more than a few feet away. She called me funny, sweet names like ladybug and pumpkin and spooned ice chips into my dry mouth. Across the corridor from where I recouped along with several other post-op patients, they wheeled a woman into a smaller room, walled off with glass. She was impossibly ancient.

Technicians came and went from the old woman’s bedside as they tried to bring her around without success. They spoke to her in loud voices, patted her hands and face, observed and waited. At one point  some type of mask was held against her withered face as medication was forced into her lungs. Granny did not awaken.

I had no sense of how long I was in the recovery area, nor could I say if this had been my third, fourth or fifth surgery, but I knew with certainty the old woman was in serious trouble. After a while she was wheeled out of my sight. I recalled this did not bother me. Drugs dull every aspect of normal brain function and I am grateful for this fact. Why this memory surfaced last night, nearly three months after my complicated bilateral mastectomy, is a puzzle. This was not a dream. I was not asleep and it was batshit crazy real. Now I understand how soldiers can reawaken battlefield trauma at odd moments. The grocery store can become a killing field just as my bedroom had become a post-op recovery room.

What happened to that elderly woman? Did she ever regain consciousness? There is no way to answer this question. Perhaps I will come unstuck in time again. I hope not. There are so many things I do not want to know. I’m still recovering.


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