I’m deviating from the normal plan this week, by sharing (okay, technically venting) about something that has been mentally and physically plaguing my life for the past 10 months or so. In the late Summer of 2016, the small area of the left side of my face adjacent to my ear lobe felt slightly swollen. Since I have one of the worst immune systems known to man, I just assumed I was having a reaction to something or a minor infection. The weird thing was that I wasn’t in any pain and you couldn’t see anything physically wrong with me. Even though the thought of it slightly bothered me, the idea of having to deal with Kaiser seemed even more irritating. I ignored it for the most part, but then life became extremely hectic and started to put me under more stress.
I wasn’t doing exactly what I wanted to be doing career wise, so I went back to school and found a new job. One of my best friends moved back to his home country to pursue his next steps in becoming a doctor and my relationship was taking a pretty rocky turn. I felt helpless and alone in so many ways, and the swollen area of my face starting feeling more and more like a small lump. After getting a nasty cold (like I always do) in early November, I decided to ask my doctor about it. During the appointment he seemed puzzled, but thought it was most likely a swollen lymph node, which is pretty common when your body is trying to fight off an infection. Just to be safe, he referred me to the Head and Neck department to check it out. While I was relieved he was referring me to a specialist, I was a little worried that he couldn’t completely narrow it down.
Finding Out What Was Wrong With Me
The only time Head and Neck could see me was on my birthday. Since turning 23 didn’t even seem like that big of a deal to me, I decided not to fight it and go anyway. No one in the office wished me a “Happy Birthday” even though they asked me to repeat my date of birth twice. Part of me understood since everyone was preoccupied with Thanksgiving being the very next day, but I was still a little disappointed. The doctor that saw me looked like he just became a doctor, and spent the whole time poking and squeezing the little lump. He finally stopped after saying, “Wow, this is a squirrely little thing!” I awkwardly laughed before he said that I’d have to get a CT scan. I was instructed to wait five days for his office to give a referral and then I could schedule my CT scan at the Kaiser center across town. Even though I was disappointed that I spent more money on my birthday to still be just as unsure with what was wrong with me, I followed instructions.
Five days later, there was no news. I called the Head and Neck department every couple of days just to be told (by the rudest administrative staff in the history of my existence) that the doctor still never put the referral in for my CT scan. It got to the point where I didn’t want to call anymore, because I thought I was going to break down and start crying to some random lady who couldn’t care less about me. I was finally able to get through and get an appointment for blood work to be drawn. As it turns out, I had to get this done before the CT scan, even though no one had bothered to mention that part. After the blood work, I immediately scheduled an appointment for my CT scan, which was exactly a month after I initially went to the Head and Neck department.
I remember going to that appointment in a jolly Christmas sweater, to distract myself from the Grinch-like thoughts going on in my insides. I lied on my back as the machine rotated around my head, while my veins were rushing with a warm sensation caused by the iodine being injected into them. The CT scan technicians were incredibly nice, but told me that they’d have to send my results to the lab before they could tell me anything. Once again, I was left in the dark about what this lump could be.
As my luck would have it, it had taken longer than they said to get back to me AGAIN. I finally was scheduled to go back to the Head and Neck department where they were going to perform a needle biopsy. Through this procedure, a needle is injected directly into the mass and collects some of the cells to determine what it is. I was relieved to see it was a different doctor this time who seemed to have A LOT more experience than the first one. The biopsy was painful and the slight crunching sound of the needle taking my cells didn’t help either. He finally told me that from the CT scan it appeared to be a mass, or as it’s referred to in the medical community, a tumor. Of course this wasn’t what I was hoping to hear, but luckily most masses in that area tend to be benign. I was instructed to wait five days again for the needle biopsy results to come back before getting a call to schedule a follow up appointment.
You guessed it! The fifth, sixth, and seventh day passed without contact. I once again had to begrudgingly make the phone call to Head and Neck, and the incompetent woman that always answered their phones. I couldn’t believe that it was mid-January, literally over two months later, and I was still dealing with this. Finally, I was scheduled with an actual surgeon who would tell me what the mass actually was, and what the appropriate next steps would be.
As it turns out, I had a pleomorphic adenoma. For those of you who are asking, “What the heck is that?”, it’s a benign tumor of the salivary gland (the parotid gland to be exact) that does not cause any pain or discomfort and is usually found in older people. Even though it’s benign now, if I decided to wait 10 years or so to remove it, it would have most likely become cancerous. Luckily, the surgeon I was talking to is one of the best surgeons in the area that operated on these bad boys. Not only was the surgeon an expert, but he was also incredibly kind and answered all of my questions. FINALLY, someone at Kaiser who was wonderful at their job?!?! It seemed too good to be true. I guess if I only had to pick one person to be helpful during this entire process, it would be the guy that would eventually be putting a scalpel to my face.
The worst part of not knowing what this mass was for so long, was imagining worst case scenarios in my head. Would it be cancer? Would I have to drop out of my certificate program? Would Trump’s administration get rid of Obamacare in 2017 causing me to be without health insurance? I was stressing myself out to the point of periodically waking up in the middle of the night and throwing up. Once I actually found out what it was, I felt this huge wave of relief. Since it was still a serious matter, I didn’t feel like a complete fool for freaking myself out so much. Fortunately, removing the tumor wasn’t completely time-sensitive, meaning I could wait until after finishing my certificate before undergoing surgery. The recovery period was only going to be about one to two weeks and there were no fatal risks. Since the tumor was located near the nerve that controls the entire left side of my face, worst case scenario the left half of my face would be paralyzed (potentially permanently). Even though the surgeon reassured me that this has never happened to any of his patients, I was still a little worried.
I never really “broadcasted” what was going on with me, but I probably confided in about five people early-on. Once I knew that it was a benign tumor, I told a few more people. Even then, many people had no idea that I was losing my mind over this stupid lumpy mass in my face. Luckily, my life was starting to return back to normal in February after learning what my diagnosis was. I was starting to enjoy my class, performing well at my job and my relationship was back to normal. I was also finally able to get my appetite back and I stopped randomly throwing up in the middle of the night. Life was pretty good again.
Post Surgery/The Recovery Era
It wasn’t until June came that I was starting to panic a little bit. “How painful is this procedure going to be and will my face go back to normal?”, were the two questions repeatedly haunting me. The morning of the surgery I was getting nervous. I wasn’t able to drink any liquids after 6:00 am, but I still kept thinking I had to use the restroom. We arrived at the new Kaiser hospital in my area around 9:00 am and I was prepared for surgery shortly after. I was put in a hospital gown and given socks to keep my feet warm. It all started becoming very real, very quickly. Not long after I was given an IV along with a cocktail of pain killers and anti-nausea medicine. Then I was visited by an extremely helpful staff including the anesthesiologist and the surgeon. After a while they wheeled me off and I was on my way to the operating room. I was given anesthesia and told to breathe in and out of a mask connected to a tube. My third attempt of breathing in finally became easier and next thing you know, I’m out cold.
I remember waking up in a different room, in my own little sectioned of space, with a blurry picture of a sunset on the wall. The blurriness of the picture made me think I was highly medicated, but then I realized that Kaiser just had a sick sense of humor in the artwork they chose to decorate with. I remember a friendly nurse was there asking me if I needed anything. Once she went to grab me some ice chips, I began silently crying. I wasn’t in any pain (yet), but I just felt so alone. In movies and TV shows they always show people waking up to a hospital room full of family and close friends, and I woke up to a crappy painting of a sunset. I wasn’t alone, since both of my amazing parents were in the waiting room, but I felt emotionally terrible. After a few more ice chips, I was reconnected with my parents, given some stronger pain meds (Hello, Oxycodone!), and wheeled out to the car. My mom drove me home and I fell asleep on and off throughout the day. Even though I could feel a little bit of pain in my face, it wasn’t too bad.
Then came the next day. I forgot to turn off my alarm, since I would normally wake up at 5:00 am on Wednesday mornings. My cell phone was blaring across my room, and I couldn’t move. My entire body was throbbing and it felt like Mike Tyson had punched me in the chest. My throat was so sore from the breathing tube inserted during surgery, that I couldn’t even talk. I also had a drain sticking out of a newly established face hole, making any sudden reactions undesirable. I was somehow able to slowly shimmy my aching body out of my bed and turn off my alarm. The type of pain I experienced over the next two days was a hell that I wouldn’t even wish on my worst enemy. The pain meds that I was able to take home with me, were not nearly as strong enough as the hospital- grade Oxycodone. I kept myself busy with occasional ice cream and mashed potatoes breaks along with updating my LinkedIn profile. By the third day I was annoyed by watching my drain fill up with blood, and the lack of friends checking up on me. I knew everyone was preoccupied with their own stuff, but I couldn’t believe that hardly anyone asked me how I was doing.
That Friday (three days after the surgery) I was able to get my drain removed. That single event gave me so much more freedom, and I immediately started to feel like I was making progress on my recovery. Three days after that I was able to get my stitches removed. I had already weened myself off of the pain meds I was given, so that part let me in some minor pain. I went back to work two days later, which was about a week after the procedure. Looking back, I should have probably taken a couple more days off, but I was trying to be a good worker bee. I continued to wear a bandage on my face for a few more days, just to protect my funky feeling ear. Since the surgeon made an incision around my left ear to remove the tumor, I have temporarily lost feeling in that ear for an estimated six months. This has made daily things like blow drying my hair and putting on earring a little challenging.
So, What Have I Gotten Out of This Tedious Experience?
Ever since I stopped wearing my bandage, which was about two weeks after the surgery, I started to feel considerably better. My ear is still numb and parts of my face are still tender, but I can finally chew food and wear makeup again. Despite having to go back to get two more forgotten stitches removed, my recovery process has gone well. I have a final follow-up appointment on Friday and I’m relieved that this weirdness is all coming to an end.
This whole experience has taught me some painful and unforgettable lessons. First and foremost, only you are in charge of your health. You have to stay on top of your health, because no one else will even if it’s in their job title. Second of all, act on your instincts. If you know something is unusual with your body, get it checked out right away. The longer you wait, the longer everyone else will as well. Third of all, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Looking back, I was incredibly stubborn and thought I could handle all of this on my own. Realistically, I was on the verge of a mental breakdown. And last but not least, don’t expect people to be there for you. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t expecting a community of friends to bring me chicken noodle soup in gold encrusted bowls, but I was expecting a “Hey, did your surgery go okay?” text from a few of the people I told about it. At first it was pretty depressing, but then I realized that this whole thing made me a mentally stronger person. Even if you are a part of codependent relationships (family, romantic, friendly, etc.) you should always remain somewhat independent. Would I have liked for more people to check up on me? Of course I would have, but I found that I don’t need to rely on that. My parents were there for me and I turned out fine. I hope to God something like this doesn’t happen again for a very long time, but I’m glad I know how to handle any situations similar to this one going forward.
Infographic of the Week:
Question of the Week:
What’s an experience that made you a stronger person?