The first surgery was planned, carefully scheduled for my husband to recover in time to enjoy a robust family vacation. This surgery was meant to solve, once and for all, some issues that had plagued my husband for 35 years. I hoped it would keep him from being a frequent flyer at the emergency room.
All went well, he was discharged right on schedule, and he dragged his oxygen tank around for about a week. Then the surgeon pronounced him well.
I cleared my throat. “Well, he does spike these fevers every now and then.”
“What’s a fever at your house?” the surgeon asked.
“It goes up above 101.”
“That’s a fever a my house too. Let’s do some blood work.”
We got a call before the day was over saying to meet the surgeon at the hospital and be prepared to stay. The surgeon had prepared the admission personally and rushed my husband off to a CT scan that made the poor guy scream. The results startled—and befuddled—a battery of doctors.
The surgeon came back at midnight to pull enough fluid off my husband’s lungs to float a boat. Over the next several days, he got sicker and sicker as specialists rotated through the hospital room and ordered tests. Surgery #2 was to insert a couple of drains for the nasty stuff accumulating inside him. Broad spectrum antibiotics were accomplishing nothing, and he needed more and more oxygen. (And hallucinating ants all over the floor.)
Finally an infectious disease specialist identified the cause. It was an uncommon complication. The original procedure involved the stomach, and apparently a specific organism that is harmless in the stomach had gotten loose in the abdominal cavity and now endangered my husband’s lung.
A thoracic surgeon entered the picture for Surgery #3. He peeled off the pleura, the membrane that covers the lung, and took it out. It was too badly infected to scrape clean.
My husband went home two days later, after spending most of a month in the hospital. He needed a lot of recovery time. Altogether he was off work for nine weeks. (No vacation that year!)
Why did this change my life? On an obvious level, I could well have lost my husband. I was horrified to think what might have happened if I had accepted the surgeon’s pronouncement of healing and not mentioned the passing fevers.
1. Patients have to participate in their own health care. Speak up about what you don’t know. Verify what you think you do know.
2. People who care about the patient may well have information the doctor needs but that the patient does not mention. If you’re a family member, say something!