In Spanish – at least the Mexican Spanish that I speak – there are three words to describe three distinct types of cramps.
“Dolor de caballo” – or literally, horse’s pain – is the kind of sharp cramp you get when exercising. You feel it in your lower diaphragm, or sometimes quite oddly in your shoulder blades. While it makes breathing slightly painful, it lasts just enough to be obnoxious but not enough to do anything but let it pass after a minute or so. That is, if it passes…
“Cólico” is the namesake for menstrual pain. Not particularly sharp, not dull either, but painful enough to make you curl up into a ball and, in its extreme form, make you cry. It hits the lower abdominal region, and can extend to the upper abdomen and the lower back.
“Retortijón” is on a similar plane to a colic cramp, except it usually refers to that feeling you get when your bowels are twisting inside out and you have to sprint to the bathroom. It can also describe a stomach ache, or any extremely unpleasant feeling in your insides.
In English, all three of these are simply “cramps,” yet they neatly sum up the post-op experience of my hysterectomy.
At least that’s the short version of it.
The day before my hysto, I was instructed to follow a strict clear-liquid diet. In medical-speak, this is called a bowel prep: no solid food for 24 hours. Your body can only receive sustenance in the form of apple juice, seltzer water, ginger ale, jello, gatorade, and chicken broth. Thankfully my surgeon opted me out of a laxative regime as long as I played by the rules.
By 2pm I was hungry and very grumpy.
At midnight, absolutely no eating and drinking in order to prepare for surgery the next day. (You quickly realize Jello does not qualify as “eating…”)
At 6am on Thursday Jan 17 2013 the alarm went off. I was hungry, and thirsty, and – as always – nervous. We got to the hospital a bit after 7am, and I almost passed out when the nurse inserted my IV (signs of things to come). By 9:25am I was sound asleep in the OR.
A few hours later I awoke in the OR recovery room, half-conscious and in searing pain. The doctor came by to say everything went smoothly as the nurses scrambled to pump me with meds.
Meanwhile, my body took this as a sign that it was under attack, and started its ritualistic 24 hour vomiting routine, compounding my abdominal woes. Oh well, at least this time it wasn’t unexpected. I remember the poor anesthesiologist coming in and shaking his head in a mix of disappointment, embarrassment, and pity. “I tried everything I could!” He put in as much anti-nausea as humanly allowable, yet its desired effect was trumped by my body’s twisted definition of “defense.”
By 5pm it was ordered I had to stay the night.
I know my body, and I knew I just had to get through the first 24 hours. In this surreal, trance-like fog of narcotics, nausea, and pain, all I could to was sleep in order to escape. My sleep was interrupted every hour as I started to wriggle around with pain and nausea. Even peeing hurts for the first day or so.
It sounds hellish, and it kind of was, but at least the narcotics kept me semi-dazed.
Friday morning I finally had a few sips of water, and the pain began to subside. By noon I ate Corn Flakes, the first solid food in over 2 days, a sure sign that I was ready to leave.
At home I took a long nap, had a combo chicken broth with painkillers, and sat down for a long TV marathon.
Things were looking up. I dreamt of all the solid and delicious food I was going to eat once my digestive tract was restored to its previous healthy condition.
By Saturday I was feeling loads better. I even showered!
The major discomfort at this point was experiencing runner’s cramps in my shoulder and abdomen. In a laparascopy, they fill you up with CO2 to make room for the surgeon to see your insides, and I figure the gas kind of travels around.
My whole belly was inflated, swollen and tender. I spent the rest of the day listening to rumbling noises as my insides became accustomed to their new configuration.
Every day brings about an exponential improvement. I walked around like grandpa, slowly and cautiously, which served as a great excuse to continue to wear sweatpants all day.
Oscillating between all three types of cramps, though not nearly as debilitating as on the first day, some painkillers and couch time was all I needed. I could feel stuff moving around in there, every time I got up or lay down or ate. But by now the discomfort as no longer as severe to qualify as pain.
Unlike my previous surgery, I thankfully did not fall under the the commonly overlooked phenomenon of post-operative depression. (Though I cursed the skies to no end on Thursday, and I even remember pleading with my partner, “Why did you let me do this?” I bet she suffered as much as I did, hands down, just taking care of me. She’s a champ.)
By Monday I thought I’d be ready for work (since my job involves actively staring at a computer screen, I can do it at home) but I was still very out of it. It’s surprisingly hard to focus on anything more than an email when you are taking narcotics.
At this point, the pain was minimal to none; more like annoying discomfort accompanied by a strange curiosity to find out how many different rumbling sounds my belly can produce. It’s an orchestra in there! I am in awe of the wonders of digestion.
A friend came over and we baked banana bread, with chocolate chips of course! A bit more rest, relaxation, and solid, oh gloriously solid food, are the best medicine.
Tuesday I didn’t even take a nap, and felt almost back to normal (apart from the occasional rumbling). Not to mention I left the house for dinner, and put on jeans and shoes like a decent human.
It’s amazing what modern medicine can do. As always, I leave you with the requisite photo.
By the time this is published on Thursday, exactly one week after major surgery, I’ll be on a cab across town for my post-op checkup, not looking or feeling significantly different than a week prior.