21. Just Breathe

Just breathe, I told myself as I slowly began to fade in and out of consciousness. My legs were weak, my body was heavy, my heart slowed as I fell backward and landed on the medical exam bed. I could feel myself slowly drifting away. The lights in the ceiling began to fade. I was in what seemed like a weird cloud. In the distance, I could see hoards of people ambush me with alcohol swabs and oxygen. A nurse kept smacking my face and yelling, “Ms. Velez, Ms. Velez, can you hear me?” Yes, I obviously could hear her, she was yelling two inches away from my face, but no, I didn’t respond. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I was drifting away. In that space, at that moment, I was letting myself go, and responding to a yelling nurse was nearly impossible. I had no control over my body or my mind. It was euphoric. It was a feeling of emptiness. A feeling of nothingness. A feeling I wanted to cling on to, because something about it felt nice, but suddenly, the pungent smell of alcohol entered my nostrils and it hit me like a thousand tiny knives. I felt the rush of adrenaline entering my body. I blinked and I realized I was alive.

That was my first experience donating blood for my surgery. I was so embarrassed after I realized that I had almost fainted that all I wanted to do was get up and leave.

A week later I had my MRI visit.

Just breathe. That’s what I told myself as I lay there trying my hardest not to move. A young, scrawny lab technician in his early twenties was there. He was setting everything up and preparing the machine for my MRI. ”It’s really important that you stay as still as possible, do you understand?” he said. I didn’t respond to him; I simply nodded and then began to notice how itchy my entire body was. Isn’t that always the case? As soon as someone says don’t move, that’s precisely when you have to scratch something. This is especially true when you’re 12 years old and the entire concept of staying still is nearly impossible.

“Okay, Eliana, the button that I placed in your right hand is for emergencies only. If you feel like you’re starting to panic or hyperventilate, or if at any point you can’t breathe, push the button and I will slide you out immediately. Is that clear?” he said.

“Ugh, yup,” I managed to reply.

“Let’s do this. I’m going to be behind the glass monitoring you this entire time. As soon as I start the machine, I’ll also put on the CD you gave the receptionist.” he said.

“Sounds good,” I replied as I watched him walk away.

Through the intercom, I heard him say, “Are you ready? I’m going to start sliding you in.”

I lifted my thumb to give the universal sign for I’m ready, and that was it. As soon as he saw my thumb in the air, he started the machine and I slowly began to slide further and further into the vestibule.

There was so much anxiety building up inside of me. It felt like I was on a roller coaster. You know the clicking sound that happens when you’re climbing up a roller coaster? It’s almost as if with each click the rollercoaster makes your heart pounds a little harder. As if the engineers do that on purpose so that you get that I-might-pee-my-pants type of feeling on the way up to the top. It’s the same feeling entering an MRI machine, with one clear exception: there is no adrenaline rush with an MRI machine. Once you enter those tight dreary walls, you are basically stuck there for about two hours, or at least it was like that 18 years ago.

Inside, I couldn’t move, but I wasn’t really supposed to anyway. The walls were a few inches away from my entire body. I could feel my own breath bouncing back at me as I exhaled. I felt like I was inside of a giant vibrating casket and I had no way out. With each rattling sound the machine made, my body tightened and twitched. I began to sweat and thought about removing my gown; I wanted it off of me because it was suffocating me. I needed to remove my clothes. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I needed to get out of the machine somehow, but I was told I shouldn’t move. I didn’t know if I should push the button. I didn’t think it was really an option. I began to count and breathe. I focused on my breath. I tried hard to control my breath, but the situation had control over me, and I was panicking. I began to count the dots inside the machine. Somewhere around 56, I fell asleep.

After two hours of sleeping through the close-range banging inside the vestibule, I woke up to my mom and the X-ray technician staring at me. He apologized for forgetting to hit play on my CD, and that was it, I don’t remember what happened next.

A week later I had my final appointment with the Orthopedic.

Just breathe, I told myself as I listened to the group of doctors explain my upcoming surgical procedure. There were three of them in the room, each equipped with their very own clipboard and medical coat. I often wondered if they even used those clipboards for anything useful or if they were like my school notebooks covered in doodles and “I hate literature” notes.

Dr. Sinclair, my doctor, the one I had been seeing this entire time, was leading the parade, followed by random doctors one and two (they told me their names, but it’s been so long I can’t remember them). All three would be part of my surgery in one way or another.

Dr. Sinclair began to explain the procedure while the other two stood silently nodding in the background.

“So, you see, we have met and discussed your case and we feel like the best course of action is to make an incision from T-4 to T-12. This means we will only be addressing the top curve and we will not be fusing the bottom curve. This will provide the smallest amount of risk possible while still addressing the issue. Does that sound good to you?”

I think it was more of a rhetorical question because he didn’t give anyone a chance to respond.  They had already decided what they were going to do. This appointment was more of a formality—something they had to do.

“You should arrive at the hospital at five AM, the morning of the surgery, and from there the staff will check you in and get everything started. The surgery will take roughly four to five hours and once it’s over you will be in your own room and your family will be there to greet you. There are complications and risks involved with a procedure of this magnitude, so I suggest you inform yourself of those risks and get back to me if you have any questions.” He paused for a moment to turn around and grab a brochure from the counter.

“Here’s a leaflet with information about the procedure, the possible risks and complications, what to expect the day of, and how to prepare for surgery.” He handed one to my brother, one to my Mama, and one to me.

“Do you have any questions?” he blurted out.

And I just stared at him. Blankly.

Everything was explained so casually and rapidly. As if he was explaining the process of how to cook macaroni and cheese. I didn’t feel like I understood the gravity of this major surgery; I didn’t make the connection, at the time, that this would be a procedure done on me. I couldn’t really grasp the fact that this would be happening to me. I couldn’t connect to what he was saying. It all seemed like someone else’s reality. It definitely wasn’t mine.

I could barely collect my thoughts and process what he had just said to me. I didn’t know what to ask. I didn’t know what to think.

My brother could probably sense my confusion, so he immediately started blurting out questions. I listened to their back-and-forth dialogue about the ins-and-outs of my procedure but I didn’t react. My mind was stuck in this zombie-like trance. Before I could realize it, the conversation was over. We stood up and walked out and I didn’t give a second thought to the procedure.  

But something about this appointment, especially, the fact that I wasn’t really prepared for what was going to happen, stayed with me long after it was all done.

A week later was the night before my surgery.

Just breathe, I told myself as I lay in bed staring at my glow-in-the-dark stars. They were mesmerizing. I felt captivated by their glow. The longer I stared the farther away my mind drifted from the worry of my impending surgery. The surgery would take place at five AM, and I couldn’t wait. I needed this entire thing to happen so that scoliosis could be in the past.

In my mind, at that moment, I thought surgery would be easy; anything was easy compared to the struggle I had already been through. It was the step I needed to take to normalcy; after this, I would no longer have the deformity. It was the answer to a pain-free life; I would do anything to live my life without pain. It was going to be the end to the doctors appointments; I would be “fixed” and there would no longer be a need to go so frequently.

I envisioned it all. I would wake up after surgery three inches taller (and, naturally, I would be thinner too), I would have a straight spine, and I would live every day without pain. The days of visiting an orthopedic, or seeing a chiropractor every week, would be over. I would be able to live my life as a normal teen—one without a deformity. I would be just like everyone else.

I smiled and slowly drifted away from my daydream and fell straight to sleep.

“Nana, nana, levántate. Nana, ya es hora.” My mama let me know that it was time to wake up and get out of bed.

Just breathe, I told myself as I opened my eyes. The day I had longed for and had been anticipating; the day of my surgery had finally arrived. I felt this immense rush of blood soar throughout my entire body. I didn’t know if I was going to faint or puke. I didn’t know what to think or feel. As much as I had prepared for this day, I wasn’t really ready. I rolled out of bed and I walked toward the door. My hands trembled slightly with fear as I held onto the doorknob. I pushed open the door and prepared to face the world. Just breathe, I told myself. Just breathe.

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