Luciano was eying my lap, but I edged him away with my foot. I didn’t need a cat jumping on me, right now. Being hooked-up to a catheter and urine bag restricts your life in all sorts of ways. At night, the plastic tether limits how much you can move in bed. By day, you have to be careful not to lift the bag above you waist, otherwise you experience a sort of hydraulic siphoning sensation that quickly gets your attention.
I was so looking forward to getting rid of this catheter.
The phone rang. It was my primary surgeon calling to report that the pathology tests on my prostate indicated that the cancer had been contained or “encapsulated”. I would continue to get blood tests for the next five years, but the odds were very good that I was clean. Great, halfway there. Now, would come the wait for the results on my pancreas. Those pathology scores were still a week away. I wasn’t out of the woods yet.
But, the next day, I took another few steps down the path when I had a post-surgical follow-up appointment at the hospital.
There was a slight grimace on my face.
The nurse pulling the staples out of my stomach paused. “Did that hurt?”
“No, it’s just pinching a little. I’m okay.”
“We’ve just got a few more to go,” she assured me.
The concept of stapling an incision closed after surgery almost seems like a comical technique that Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine and Dr. Howard would have used in one of those Three Stooges short films I watched as a kid after school. But, in fact, it’s a quite common procedure, these days, and apparently a method that’s less prone to infection, compared to the more traditional stitched sutures of the past. And how do you take out those staples? With a staple puller, not much different that those spring-loaded gizmos at the office.
“There you go,” she said, and then proceeded to apply little strips of tape to the de-stapled incisions. There were two. One, resembling a languid sine wave, undulating across my stomach, was the result of the pancreas surgery. And just below that was the shorter vertical scar where my prostate had been removed. The pieces of tape would eventually fall off as the wounds continued to heal.
My pancreas surgeon walked into the examination room and began admiring his handiwork. “It looks great, David. You’re coming along fine,” he said. “Now, it’s going to be up to you to continue eating more, and increase your exercise. There’s no such thing as too much exercise. We’ll send you the pathology reports when they come in.”
The next day, my friend Robin and I headed off on a road trip to her home in the Maryland suburb of Mt. Rainier, just outside of Washington DC. There I would continue my recovery under the watchful eyes of Robin and her husband Glenn, who had gone through the prostate surgery experience several years ago. I was looking forward to having a male confidante, who understood what I was going through with… the clutching wounds… the little internal aches… and THE CATHETER! I was really getting tired of that plastic appendage.
The rest stop at Breezewood on the Pennsylvania turnpike was jammed with late summer travelers. I tried to look nonchalant as I elbowed my way through the crowd, Nature Conservancy bag in hand. I pushed past the shop of over-priced Pennsylvania trinkets…past some frazzled parents trying to rein-in kids wearing Hannah Montana tee-shirts…and into the massive men’s room, where I found an empty stall. There, I commenced the now accustomed ritual of pulling out the urine bag, emptying it, and then re-concealing it, before heading for a sink to awkwardly wash my hands.
A couple hours later, we pulled into Robin’s driveway and Glenn was there to greet us. The long journey had taken its toll and I was toast. They hustled me straight up to the guest bedroom and I slowly maneuvered myself onto the bed, trying not to get tangled in my tubing. The last thing I remember as I passed out was Glenn’s sympathetic face saying, “This is bringing back a lot of memories.”
The next day, we drove to the home of Robin’s sister Kathy, in Virginia. Kathy is a registered nurse and when we arrived she was still sleeping, after her night shift. While we waited, I hung out in the living room with her 20-something daughter and some cousins. The big screen TV was running a Food Network program as the kids chattered away. Ah, youth. What do they know about prostates and catheters and Nature Conservancy bags full of pee? I tried to concentrate on a video report about high-end cake decorating, but my mind was elsewhere.
After about ten minutes, Kathy came down in a white bathrobe and tapped me on the shoulder, “Are you ready?” It was time to remove the catheter, or “cath” as it’s known in medical lingo.
I managed a wan smile. “You better believe it.”
We headed to an upstairs bedroom where she laid an absorbent cover sheet on a bed as I settled down onto it. I expressed concern that I might start leaking all over the place, but she dismissed that fear with a wave of her hand. “You’ll be fine.”
Kathy pulled out a syringe that she connected to a special valve on the cath. Its function was to deflate a little balloon in my bladder that had been holding the tube in place. That done, she leaned over me, “Okay David, hold your breath, this won’t hurt a bit.” I sucked it in and gritted my teeth.
“What? Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I calmed down. “I’m fine. It just burned a little bit, but it wasn’t so bad.”
“There’s a bathroom over there, where you can clean yourself up,” she said, heading out.
I was alone… lying on my back, staring at the ceiling. It was gone. And I wasn’t spurting around like an untamed garden hose. Phew. I carefully hoisted myself up. The internal muscles seemed to be working. Now, the question was, would they open up again? Would they do my bidding? Too much to think about, right now. One thing at a time. I was free.
Driving back home, Robin made a stop at a local coffee shop to pick-up some beans. Did I want to try out my bathroom skills, she asked? Sure, I’d give it a shot, so to speak. As she headed to the counter, I found the men’s room and clicked the door lock behind me. I ambled over to the urinal with a bit of trepidation. This was the moment of truth. I’d been strapped to that cursed catheter bag for two weeks, but now, after liberation, was I up to the task of taking over the controls again?
A few minutes later, I opened the restroom door. Robin was waiting with a look of anticipation. I raised my arm and signaled a thumb’s up. Initial success. To return to the garden hose analogy: the spigot seemed to work, but it was still a bit rusty. What did the near future hold for me? Well... Depends.