By myself, but not alone

On Monday, I had surgery. It was on my foot – no big deal. Or so I thought.

Despite being prepared during this pandemic that no one would be waiting for me in the waiting room and that no one would be allowed to walk me in or out of the hospital (or shall I say “hobble” out of the hospital), I was really unprepared for how much I felt alone during what seemed like a fairly routine surgery. And, I know I had it easy compared with so many others before me.

When I think about people dying alone, mothers giving birth alone, loved ones experiencing great pain and illness without being able to speak or see their family, that is great pain. That is loneliness. And those were the most difficult stories that I heard during this pandemic. Devastating. And me? I would be in and out of the hospital in only a few short hours. Who was I to complain about being lonely?

But I was.

After walking through eerily empty hallways and infrared temperature checks, I eventually found my way to the operating room area. I got into my hospital bed, fully masked and nervous to be sedated. In between my frantic last minute texts to friends and family (please, say prayers for me!), a petite and kind nurse started to ask me questions about my health history. I paused and asked for her name. “Michelle” she said. “One “L” or two?” I asked. “Two.” And I immediately started to cry.

Michelle looked at me and said, “please, tell me why you are crying.” I explained to her that it’s scary to go through something like this alone, but Michelle (with two “Ls”) was the name of my sister, who passed away decades ago. Somehow, instantly, I didn’t feel so alone. The nurse got it and was deeply touched that she filled that emptiness for me. She said under normal circumstances she would give me a hug, but, she couldn’t. Honestly, she didn’t need to. I felt so protected and cared for, just knowing that somehow, somewhere, my sister was with me. Michelle would take care of me.

“Will you be with me in the OR, Michelle?” “Yes, sweetie.” She called me “sweetie” as if I was her junior, even though I was sure I had a least a decade on her. There was comfort in knowing that Michelle would be by my side.

As I lie in the hospital bed, different people gradually opened the curtain to say hello to me and ask me to sign my life away. I met with the anesthesiologist, several surgeons, some aides, some more doctors and nurses, all of whom would be with me in the OR. We probably had at least a minyan taking care of me.

And, as it goes, before I knew it, I woke up and my surgery was over. As they were pushing me on the gurney, I thanked everyone and asked the crew if I could buy them lunch as a token of my appreciation. It was 4 o’clock. My doctor met me in the recovery room and showed me how to wear my new, fashionable boot. As he velcroed the pieces together and gave me instructions on wearing it, I started spacing out – and not because of the anesthesia.

I was instantly taken back to middle school, high school maybe. My father, of blessed memory, had four (or was it five? I’m embarrassed that I don’t know…) toes removed after various other medical complications. He wore custom-made boots for as long as I can remember. I remember helping my dad put on his boots, with plastic-like braces that stretched up around his calves, sometimes leaving marks as if they cut off his already-poor diabetic circulation. I remember tightening his laces and as a young, bratty child sometimes complaining about how long it would take to do this sometimes every morning. I feel horrible admitting that now.

I stared at my new boot and immediately felt empathy for my dad. If he suffered for years in his boots, I could handle one month. I remembered making sure the tongues of his boots were in the correct position and how his customized insoles were properly in place. I remembered how his laces would sometimes break after hanging on by only a thread. I remembered how difficult it was to get the length of each side of the laces correct because if one was too long, the other side was too short. Putting on my boot brought me back to my father. He was instantly there with me too, helping me recover.

“Do I wear my boot while sleeping?” I asked my doc.

“You can, some people like to do that for more support.”

If this boot brings me closer to my father, you better believe I’m wearing it to bed for more support.

No one walked me into the hospital or sat in the waiting room eager to hear how my procedure went.

Although I was by myself, though, I was far from being alone.

Michelle, Dad: thanks for being there by my side when no one else could.