I See Angels In The Operating Theatre

25 June 2010

I wake up at 5.45am. This is the day. I should be nervous, but feel oddly peaceful.

By the time I get downstairs — with my pillow in an X-ray bag — my kids are all awake. Mom-in-law has brought Big B to school, in fact. Little B is rolling around in bed (I steal a kiss) and Middle B is trying to be brave.

“Do you really need to stay in hospital for one week?” she whispers, fighting back tears.

“Yes if I have to go for the long operation,” I reply. “The long operation” is the one where I have a mastectomy. “The short operation” is the one where a lumpectomy suffices.

“I can come and see you right? Tonight? After your operation?”

“Yes sweetie.” We hug each other tight, her tears seeping through my T-shirt.

Since my chat with Jen, I’ve been praying for that peace that she enjoyed. I think the phrase “Seek peace and pursue it” is a most wise piece of advice. I prayed last night I would see angels, that Jesus would make Himself felt, that I would not feel afraid nor alone going into that freezing OT (it’s always freezing).

We arrive at 6.45am and the sky’s just beginning to brighten. Check-in takes 30 minutes — the lounge is filled with sleepy to-be patients watching World Cup replays with glassy eyes.

“Sorry for the delay, ma’am,” the smiley Malay bellman apologises as he helps us with the bag. “Full house today.”

“Full house” means I have a very low chance of getting a single room, which means I might have to listen to someone else groaning through the night. It also means Mr Threez couldn’t stay overnight with me. Now that is a bummer.

We roll into my room at Ward 9 East. My neighbour is a sprightly 60something who is cheerily watching TV and eating. She’s had her operation already and appears to be recovering well.

I load up my bedside drawers with my toiletries, Bible, journal, books, fluffy Ritz Carlton slippers, my iPod and Beth’s card for me. Laptop and clothes go into the wardrobe.

The nurse comes in and gets me to change into the blue dressing gown. “I’m having my period,” I grimace, and so does she. “Don’t worry,” she says, catching herself. “We’ll put the sheet under you. And we’ll clean you up. Don’t worry.”

For the next few hours, Mr Threez and I stare at the dark clouds gathering outside the window, and the rain start to pelt down like licks from a giant dog, turning swiftly into torrents. This day would measure the second greatest amount of rainfall for the year.

At 9am, Dr Andrew Khoo comes in to “mark me”. He’s got two nurses with him, a dark blue magic marker and a coil of measuring tape.

“Look at that rain!” he remarks. “In this kind of weather, park at the top of the hill.” We laugh.

I stand naked with my dressing gown poorly tied around my lower hips as he draws lines down the centre of my body, under the curves of my breasts (I guess to make sure they end up on the same level), and then a line from hip to hip.

“Don’t move,” he says firmly to the nurse who is holding the measuring tape. He draws. Then he stops and glares at her.

“You moved. It’s crooked.”

It occurs to me that now might be a good time to tell him I have scoliosis and my hips are really not level.

“Um, Dr Khoo, I have scoliosis. My right hip is higher than my left.” I smile my best Wallace & Gromit smile by way of apology for not telling him earlier.

He pauses and looks at me, like someone let the air out of him. Then he says “Oh, you poor thing. Okay, I got it.” He redraws the line, then says to the nurse, “Okay, you didn’t move.”

I stifle a grin.

Dr Khoo flashes me a smile and says he will see me later. I guess it can’t be easy for him either, operating on women like me who are forced to have reconstruction and are emotionally affected by the surgery, instead of women who look forward to his hands transforming them in to a thinner/more buxom/younger-looking new person.

But in a big way, I am happy he is available to carry out the reconstruction. When my mother had cancer 21 years ago she didn’t have that option. Her doctor would only encourage reconstruction a year after her mastectomy. She didn’t get to “wake up with two” like I would.

And if I did go through the whole mastectomy and recon thing, I would be losing my mummy tummy, which in theory should make me yummy.

Two nurses come in, having been sent by Dr Khoo to “clean shave” me. This is necessary because I’m having my tummy tucked and hair could cause infections.

Man, I hate this part! They take some kind of 2-cent disposable shaver and scrape off all your muff hair. Plus my shavers are two (lovely but absolutely-never-done-this) nurses who exchange glances, doing an eyeball lom-chiam-pass to ascertain who is going to have to shave me.

One of them finally drops her gaze and determinedly snaps on her gloves. She proceeds to try shaving – upwards.

Oh for Pete’s sake.

“Um, you need to get some powder,” I say, gently but very firmly. The one that won the eyeball-toss rushes out to find a bottle of powder, returning with a brand new Johnson’s Baby Powder, no doubt from the maternity ward.

They pour enough powder on my triangle to make a snowglobe, and then she starts to shave—”downward!”. Once she gets the hang of it, she does a pretty neat job. I am hating this by the second, knowing that for the next three months while the hair grows out I’m going to feel like I have a hedgehog between my legs. A poor girl’s chastity belt.

After an eternity, the girls leave me in my bed, starting at the rain as I pray. There is a warmth emanating from my core. I know my many friends are praying hard for me this morning.

Have you ever felt Jesus just sitting beside you, His arm around you, like you’re His kid? That’s what I feel this morning. Just warm, happy (and a little itchy down there).

Mr Threez leans over and kisses me. Together, we pray, trusting my life into God’s hands. I don’t tell him, but I’m banking on seeing some angels today.

“Lord, please let me see some angels,” I pray. “I don’t get to come out of theatre with a baby this time, so at least let me see something wonderful.”

It’s 9.45am and they’ve come to wheel me to the OT. Mr Threez walks this Via Dolorosa along with me in my gurney. We’ve done this three times before, for each of our babies. It feels weird — maybe just wrong — going into OT without that same excited anticipation of meeting a beautiful bundle of life at the end of the ordeal.

We part as they push me through the swing doors and park me at the prep room. My cheery anaesthesist introduces herself — “Hi I’m Dr Tan,” and proceeds to chat with me about my allergies, family history and any other health issues I might have.

“I have scoliosis,” I blurt apologetically, as if to make up for not telling Dr Khoo earlier and causing him to draw double lines on my tummy.

“Oh, it’s true!” exclaims Dr Tan. “My professor used to say ‘All pretty girls have scoliosis.'”

She asks what I’m in for, and I explain that Dr Hoe’s going to try a lumpectomy, failing which, I’ll have a mastectomy followed by reconstruction.

Dr Tan’s eyes cloud with sympathy. She pats my hand. “Yes, a lumpectomy is better, huh? You’re so young.”

The nurses wheel me into the freezing OT. “This is the newest one – it’s freezing,” I hear somebody comment. Someone else inserts a tap into my left hand for a drip.

“Is Dr Hoe here yet? Late again ah?”

Dr Tan’s giving instructions on how much GA to give me.

I remember my prayer to God and open my eyes. There, on my right, are two watery blue angels with indescribably peaceful and loving faces.

“You sent them!” I smile to Jesus, my heart warm with peace. “You’re here!”

Dr Hoe comes in. “Hello Theresa! Sorry I’m late!”

I nod my acceptance of his apology. He discusses the procedure with Dr Tan, who wins me with her appeal to him to give me a lumpectomy as far as possible, and not a mastectomy.

“She’s so young…”

I am beginning to wonder when they’re going to put me to sleep when they finally slip a breathing mask over my nose and mouth.

“Breathe, Theresa.”

I count in my head: one, one thousand, two, one thousand… funny I’m still awake.

“Keep breathing Theresa, breathe deep.”

Three one thousand… and I’m out.


13 Hours Later

25 June 2010: 10pm (thereabouts)

It’s the “deet, deet, deet” of my own heartbeat on the monitor that wakes me up.

I’ve been here before: three C-sections and thrice in the post-op waiting area. Except this time I have no baby to show for my time in the OT.

The first sensation is the horrible, horrible backache that comes in waves like a pinch that won’t let go. My eyelids flutter open and I see two nurses in masks checking their clipboards like they were traders and the floor had just opened.

“Back… pain.”

They look up at me. The China nurse pecks at me with her staccato English – possibly the most annoying sound in the world after Kenny G – “No! You cannot move. Doctor see you later.”

I don’t feel any other pain, just the backache, that suan feeling, like rheumatism at its worst. My buttocks feel numb. I am resting on the right one.

Seeing that I am going to get no help, I slowly slip one hand under my butt and lift myself up. I position my left buttock to take my weight, and that relieves the backache for a few welcome seconds.

I guess they are waiting for me to stabilise before bringing me back to my room. I tell myself they are not ignoring me on purpose, though they seem to be. I try to peek down at my gown – I see bloodstains on the blue gown cover my right chest.

Looks like I’ve had the whole shebang. The lumpectomy didn’t happen.

Still, I am thankful to be alive, and to be out of surgery. I wonder when I can see my husband. I creak my neck around to look for a clock but cannot find one.

After what seems like an hour, a nurse releases the lock on the wheels of my gurney and tells me “Okay, Theresa, we are going back to the ward okay?”

Familiar voices tickle my ear drums as the lift door opens and I am wheeled back to my room. I hear my husband’s voice – and my daughter’s.

The nurses who wheel me back to my room chuckle. “Theresa! Do you know how long you’ve been in surgery?” I shake my head – and regret it. Feels like an ocean between my ears. “13 hours! What were you doing in there?! Your children have been waiting for you for a long time!”

Husband’s face appears before me — it’s the most beautiful vision ever. He kisses my forehead. “You did good! You’re the champ! You were in there longer than me during my brain surgery!”

I know I am smiling weakly. Throat is so dry.

“The kids are here.”

I look to my right and there are my precious Big B and Middle B. I look up at the clock – gosh, it’s 11pm! My Little B is all tucked up in bed… I miss her.

Middle B holds my hand and asks me how I feel. Big B gives me his best grin. I feel my heart fill with love and gratitude that I get to see my gorgeous offspring! God is good!

Middle B’s eyes are wild with emotion but she can’t get the words out. Instead, she focuses on the small details. “Why is there blood on your gown?”

“That’s where the doctor operated, darling,” I whispered hoarsely.

After five minutes, their daddy rounds them up to bring them home. My father and mother-in-law pop their heads in — I’ve never been so happy to see them.

“You all right?”

I nod with a wry smile. At least, I think I managed a wry smile.

My head feels like a 10-ton water bed. My eyelids feel like titanium plates being held up by wood skewers.

“Sleep, my love,” said my husband. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

It must have been the combination of the GA and the painkillers, but all I want to do is sleep. I say “Thank you Lord”, and I pass out.

Pre-Surgery Rush Hour 2

Thursday 24 June

Today’s To-Do List:
1. Nanzinc stories to be uploaded for next week. Editing 6 stories takes me 2 hours! I must be losing my touch. Looking for photos takes another 1 hour 15 minutes. Either I’m slow or my broadband connection is. I think it’s both.

2. Pack books to read (see my “Booklist For Speedy Recovery”). Borders has a “25% off + 10% more for members” coupon. I’m so going to Borders.

3. Arrange for laptop and dongle – I want to watch the weekend service with Dr AR Bernard! Not missing that for the world. Call my buddy the S Man and he says he’ll bring it to hospital for me before service begins. With the S Man, friendship is uplifted several levels.

4. Pack my pillow. My personal secret to a comfortable stay in hospital! First, those plastic covers on those foam pillows in hospital are designed to drive you crazy and make you sweat. Second, you bring the soothing smell of home with you when you bring your pillow. (Okay, I’ll admit, this is the adult version of bringing my smelly bolster everywhere.)

5. Write cards for all my kids and hubby. I used to do this when I had to travel for work. I would write a tiny little card for every day I was away and hide it away so my kids would have to hunt and find all of them. This time… because I am feeling sentimental, and because my father-in-law, a man of few words who in a rare moment, came up to me this morning and put his hand on my shoulder and said “Don’t worry. You are going to be fine, okay?” So moved.

6. Pack outfit for going home in. Deciding what I’ll need to wear when I come out of hospital takes me nearly an hour. I had bought a pair of calf-length harem pants at the Mango sale. They’re perfect because they come with a broad elastic waistband. After a tummy tuck my abdomen is definitely going to be swollen and I can’t imagine squeezing into my jeans. What if I burst my stitches?! Okay, harem pants and a white shirt, that’s the eventual verdict.

In the midst of all the rush I decide, I want to bring my mother-in-law out for lunch. I’m blessed to have the best MIL in the world. She would do anything for me — and does, sometimes without my even thinking about it. If Love has a face, it’s my mom-in-law’s.

I know the next few weeks are going to be exhausting for her as she takes over my mommy-taxi duties. Not that a lunch could take away that stress but I just want her to know I love her and appreciate her.

So braving a crazy heavy shower at noon, we drive to Playground@Big Splash for a buffet lunch at Seafood International Market & Restaurant.

The ala carte buffet lunch is a winner at $22.80++ a head. The 12 premium dishes alone are worth more than the price of the buffet. These include a whole braised abalone, braised shark’s fin soup, drunken prawn in herbal soup, black pepper crayfish, sirloin steak in barbecue sauce, and the yummiest deepfried sea bass.

We were so stuffed after those that we barely had room for a tom yum soup and the signature Sakura Chicken in three sauces.

Dessert was a buffet range of nonya kueh and sea coconut soup.

I only wish we were hungrier because the dim sum and the crabmeat fried rice looked really yum but we were floaty from overeating!

I hope to go back there with some friends next round, and this time I would order slowly — we had all the dishes come at once so some grew cold as we ate…

But more than anything it was just worthwhile to hang with my MIL and chitchat on a rainy day, pretending like we’re two tai-tais. I’m not sure when we’ll get to do this again…

We head home and I start packing. There’s a certain “numbness” to this whole scenario. I find myself trying not to think about waking up without my natural born breast. The terror of the empty breast skin has subsided, but I gotta admit, it’s still not exactly something to “look forward to”.

I have to fast from midnight, but I eat dinner at 7pm, and have some tea and 8pm and don’t feel like anything after that. In bed at 10pm, Mr Threez asks if I want to be woken up at 11.30 with Milo and bikkies and I shake my head. I don’t know how death row prisoners eat their last meal. It just seems so pointless.

I pray with my kids and kiss them all to sleep. Middle B is anxious and teary and insists on waking up to “send me off” tomorrow.
I go to bed and pray.
I pray Jesus will let me have the peace that surpasses all understanding.
I pray I will feel His presence like He’s next to me holding my hand.
I pray I will see angels and know that my operating theatre is an anointed place.
I pray that as I come to the Lord and carry this burden, this yoke will prove easy and the burden light.

My Last Supper

Yummy seafood at Kuishin-bo

“Dinner, Bunnie?”

An SMS from my beloved! Instantly the weight of filing papers and writing cheques lifts off me.

We had initially planned to try out the lobster teppanyaki set at Sakae Sushi at Tampines Century Square.

But now, realising that once I’ve had my surgery I’ll have to be off shellfish for months, we decide to sup at Kuishin-bo at Great World City.

It costs about $50 a head. Wednesdays are ladies’ night, and ladies get like, 10% off or something.

The spread is awesome:

Chilled seafood: prawns, scallops in the half-shell, and Alaskan crab legs (best eaten with the sweet chilli sauce)

Grilled seafood: (the night we went, it was a haul!) lobster, giant prawns, lamb, beef slices (marinated with a beautiful soy sauce – awesome) and fish.

Others: sashimi, sushi, teppanyaki (beef, chicken, fish), paper pot, chawanmushi, salad, cooked Japanese dishes (eg Japanese “yong tau fu”, curry etc), porridge (a wonderful ginseng chicken or scallop).

Soft drinks, coffee, tea on freeflow, as well as soft Japanese ice cream (green tea and vanilla) and a dessert spread that includes chocolates, fruit, cheesecake, Black Forest, a “wet dessert” of the day (like a sea coconut with Konniyaku jelly pieces), and a chocolate fountain.

All that’s missing is the beer on tap. Haha. (If we feel indulgent, we order a Kirin each.)

I love coming here with Mr Threez. We share great conversations and a delight for every morsel and we always eat fit to burst!

It’s the perfect Last Supper. I leave, happy and full, arm in arm with the man I love.

Pre-Surgery Rush Hour 1

Wednesday 23 June

It struck me when I woke up this morning that I literally have 2 days to get everything in order before I go in for surgery.

I’m dashing about trying to get all my stories fixed up for next week — the 6 stories that will go live on Nanzinc.Com. I’m suddenly realising I do have to tell some people about what’s happening to me, like my freelance editorial team. They send me a beautiful arrangement of cheerful gerberas from Greeting Cuts, and better yet, assure me that everything will go smoothly while I am in hospital.

I tell Nanz, who bursts into tears and prays like a hailstorm for me. This woman was once my cell group leader, and really, it was her faith that inspired my faith and brought me thus far. “I see this black cursed thing at the foot of Jesus,” she Blackberry-Messengers me. I, too, pray the cancer falls out of me like a black lump — I’ve read it in books about Smith Wigglesworth and Kathryn Kuhlman. Surely the God who healed those people is the same God who will heal me.

I tell my partner from my writing agency WORD, Michelle. She is shocked into vulgarities, but quickly composes herself and jumps to offer help in 109 ways.

I tell the head of City News, a newspaper at which I work part time. She’s utterly shocked, and immediately tells me not to worry about the paper. I’m grateful for the team I work with, they are more capable than they give themselves credit for.

Okay, so now all the ongoing work is kind of sorted out, I move on to bills. Pay all credit card bills. Check that there’s enough money in the account for the GIRO payments. Cash for the tutors. Allowance for the kids. Pay for the maid.

I think for a moment about my will, last drawn up in 2003. Perhaps, foolishly, I decide against looking at it again. I am sure I am going to come out of this alive.

I’m exhausted after hours of “admin” work. It’s really not my strength. But better to get it over with. I can’t imagine stressing over paperwork when I’m home trying to recover…

Cancer is proving more of an inconvenience than I first imagined.

What’s On My Surgery Menu… Hmm…

Tuesday 22 June

Mr Threez and I see Dr Hoe for the last time before the scheduled op, which will happen this Friday, 25 June.

Once again we discuss the possibility of saving my nipple (man, I tell you, the number of manhours spent discussing my nipple, you’d think it was insured for a million dollars).

Dr Hoe sees anxiety written all over my face, and assures us he will try for a lumpectomy first, and only in the event that he (as my expert surgeon) deems it’s too dangerous not to remove the nipple, will he do so.

He writes down on the surgery “order sheet” that I’ll bring with me when I come for my operation on Friday: “Lumpectomy, KIV full mastectomy followed by TRAM flap reconstruction.”

This means it’ll be a longer procedure than a straight up chop-and-go, but it does put my heart at ease a little, knowing this good man is going to try his best to save my femininity.

As we leave Dr Hoe’s clinic, an inexplicable sombreness falls over both of us. There is an air of finality about today. We walk quietly to the car. Words that are bubbling near the surface dissolve into silence.

What My Breasts Looked Like 10 Years Ago

This is one of my favourite photos of me. It was taken the first year when the new ELLE Singapore team was formed — 2000 I think. (Hachette Filipacchi reclaimed the title from ACP in 1999. Later it went into a joint venture with MediaCorp, and now MediaCorp owns the title in Singapore.)

I can’t remember if my favourite fashion photographer Wee Khim took this photo… but thank you, Mr Photographer who took this. And thank you Xylia for the loan and Jenn for the scan!

The ELLE team, 2000

That’s me in the middle, in my Gucci gown (past season but who cares? As long as it makes you look and feel good, it’s a keeper), which I have only dared to wear twice, but both times, felt beautiful. That’s because it’s a booby gown – the boobs are the main attraction in this dress.

I was kinda chubby here — Big B was a little over a year old and I hadn’t lost all the post-partum weight yet. But I love this photo anyway because the ELLE girls and I were the dream team and we were all gorgeous. The men in our building used to part like the Red Sea when we walked through the lobby during lunch break — we were pretty inseparable.

Thanks to the extremely adventurous President of Hachette Asia-Pacific Christine Brendle (definitely one of my career heroes), I was brought on as editor-in-chief and allowed to hire the perfect person for every single position, and we were a rockin’ team. The magazine entered an era of new possibilities — a challenge because ELLE has a formula that you don’t mess with, but we did… (And it didn’t win me no brownie points with Hachette! But our Prez did not find fault with our numbers at the end of Year 1, which was well into 7 figures.)

Anyway, back to my boobs!

I loved them after childbirth. Before 1999 when Big B was born, my left breast was a good 25% larger than my right. So I had one boob that could fit in a soup bowl and another in a champagne glass.

But when the milk came in, RB (right breast) caught up in size. I failed at my first attempt at breastfeeding. My mom was convinced I was going to starve Big B by trying to breastfeed him when there was perfectly good formula waiting on the table. I caved after a week, and settled for pumping out what little breast milk I had for him, for a month.

(Incidentally, Mom wasn’t wrong. Big B is perfectly fine despite the fact he was not *gasp* a breastfed baby, and he is also rather brilliant.)

While I beat myself up for not “bonding with my child” (also bollix, because Big B and I are still very close now after 11 years and I hope it will be so for the next 50 years or however long God gives us), my boobs grew rather nice and big and round, and were, for the next 10 years, thoroughly appreciated by Mr Threez.

Incidentally, the rest of the ELLE team had really nice boobs too, especially Patsze Teo, my sales & marketing director. (The girl with the short hair on the ladder on the right). Plus she has big brains to match.

And of course Anita Kapoor (right of me in the photo), whose bosom was and still is legendary (upon which Big B as an infant fell asleep).

Looking at this photo, I so miss my team, boobs and all.

From left:

Xylia Lim, then sales manager, now mother-of-two and handling MediaCorp accounts.

Claudette Peralta, then The-Best-Dep-Ed-In-The-World, now Straits Times sub-editor

Alfrayda Ayob, then fashion stylist, now head of Womenswear team and Divisional Merchandising Manager at Lane Crawford Hong Kong. And pregnant with her first child!

Linda Lim, then marketing executive, now mother-of-three and the last I checked, a marketing director of a telco (Linda if you read this, please update!)

Tracy Lee (on ladder), then features editor, now Mrs Tracy Lee-Elrick and writer-at-large.

Stephanie Tay, then sales manager, now mother-of-two and working tai-tai.

Me, then editor-in-chief, now … just me.

Elizabeth Szepsy, then Luminous-And-Ultra-Gifted-Fashion-Director, now married to a duke (I hear) and mommy of two, with a new skincare line for babies, Planet Peach.

Anita Kapoor (laughin), then beauty editor, now Body Shop-ambassador, TV host and diva-about-town.

Joan Lim (with the red hair), then senior graphic designer, now mother-of-three and the last surviving member of this ELLE team!

Daphne Tso, then art director of ELLE, now art director of Harper’s Bazaar Singapore.

Patsze Teo (on ladder), then sales & marketing director, now very-important-executive (sorry sweetie, please update) at Diageo Hong Kong, and from what I see, blissfully married.

Marlina Aziz, then my sweet-and-very-precious PA, now a marketing honcho (I hear! Update please!)

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