Once the right pictures were hung, surgery was a breeze

Topeka Capital-Journal – May 2000

When my wife, Barbara, and I learned last Thursday she would have surgery on Saturday I called our daughter, Amy, told her about it, and asked her to call the other four offspring. I called her because she lives near Dallas, and it was cheaper to phone her than any of the others, who are scattered from coast to coast. She also was the least likely to forget to make the calls.

She made them, and she also got to Topeka so fast I barely had time to dig out the pictures of her children and display them prominently around the house. We like to make whichever child is visiting think he or she is No. 1 in our hearts and in photo display space.

GrandmaBefore the Thursday decision there had been tests conducted or ordered by the renowned gastroenterologist, Dr. Robert Ricci. It would be an exaggeration to refer to him as the late Dr. Ricci, but he has been known to run, as he puts it, “on Ricci time.”

He was punctual, however, in reporting to us that the tests indicated surgery was called for, and in making an appointment for us to see the surgeon, Dr. James Hamilton, who is famous for having separated me from my gall bladder four years ago, and for writing learned letters to the editor on matters ranging from medicine to neighborhood blight.

When we went to see him we were accompanied by Michelle Meier, a close friend, a neighbor and a nurse who is administrator of the Kansas Medical Clinic. It wasn’t exactly the same as taking your lawyer to a real estate closing, but it made us feel more comfortable.

Dr. Hamilton explained in detail why the surgery was necessary, and what he would do. In layman’s language, he would remove a segment of bad colon, then sew the two loose ends together. It sounded simple enough.

But then, also in detail, he explained what could go wrong. As he listed the possible pitfalls, it occurred to me that if an airline pilot did the same thing before every flight, a lot of people wouldn’t make the trip.

This was a trip, however, that had to be made, and the patient asked if she could be his first surgery some morning. He said it would be a while before she could be first, but she could be second on Saturday, and he’d be warmed up by then. The deal was made.

What nobody really explained in advance was the ordeal of the night before surgery. Colon surgical patients (or maybe all surgical patients) are required to drink a gallon of nitroglycerin the night before. Barbara survived it, thanks to a lot of help from Michelle and Amy.

Very early Saturday morning there was a change in the schedule and Barbara was moved up to the leadoff spot in the surgical batting order. St. Francis Hospital was quiet as a tomb, if you’ll pardon the expression, but Michelle was back, joining Amy, Barbara’s sister Peggy and me in the waiting room.

Shortly before 10 a.m. Dr. Hamilton came in, all smiles. He said it had gone very well, with no complications and no surprises. I shook hands with him about seven times, and thanked him each time. Amy cried, but she cries over TV commercials.

Later, Dr. Rao Donepudi, the anesthesiologist, came in and said Barbara was in the recovery room, and that one person at a time could see her. He motioned Amy to come with him.

I wanted to protest. I wanted to say I have known Barbara longer than Amy has. I wanted to ask him, who does he think I am, the maintenance man? I wanted to say to him that just because I have on a raspberry shirt, does he think I’m a golfer, playing through, and on my way to the next tee?

But I didn’t, and the reason was that the patient, who knew the doctor by reputation only, had requested that he take part in the surgery.

This operation was a big deal only to our family and friends, but that night I left the hospital with the thought that not all the good doctors and medical people are at the Mayo Clinic or Johns Hopkins. A lot of them are in Topeka.

I was reminded of a story about Bo Schembechler, when he was football coach at Michigan. When he learned he had to have heart surgery, he scouted the situation like he would a big-time opponent.

He called friends all over the country, asking them to ask doctors where he should go for the surgery. The answer came back that he should go across town to the University of Michigan Medical Center. The doctors there, he was told, were as good as any in the country. It is a good point to remember.

Meanwhile, daughter Anne is coming from Virginia to relieve Amy. It means I’ll have to change the pictures.

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