Tuesday, August 20 — the day Prince Philip and I had been waiting for, anticipating and praying for — for months. This was the surgery that would remove the painful tissue expander in my right breast area and replace it with my own tissue transplanted from my abdomen. The surgery called a TRAM (transverse rectus abdominus myocutaneous) flap uses muscle, fat and skin from the abdomen to create a new breast mound. It is used when radiation has followed a mastectomy and when the new blood supply from the tummy will be helpful in keeping the transferred tissue alive and healthy.
And that most certainly is what we wanted: alive and healthy — words any cancer-sufferer loves to hear! Ah yes, “alive and healthy” — what nice words they are especially as it relates to your own body parts! I’d had the left side of my chest reconstructed in February using the Latissmus Dorsi muscle from my back along with a gel implant. After six months of healing, to use our favorite words, it is alive and healthy. Now a matching set would be huge blessing — a breast mound on the right side that pretty well appeared in shape and size like the breast mound on the left side — wow! After 19 months since my double-mastectomy, matching breast mounds seemed a little out of reach, unlikely, too much to hope or even pray for.
But my plastic surgeon Dr. Eleanore Zetrenne (affectionally “Dr. Z”) has been more than my top-notch plastic surgeon over these 19 months. She’s been my cheerleader, my coach and yes, my truth-teller. I remember the visit when I told her that Philip and I had made the choice not to have nipple reconstruction. Shock is the only word that could adequately describe her response. “Listen to me,” she said in that tone you expect to hear only from a family matriarch or perhaps a university president. She had my rapt attention as she looked me eye-to-eye and said firmly, “In my practice, nipples are non-negotiable.” Really! When I asked “why?” she explained that a couple of years down the road when I saw my breasts in the mirror without nipples, I would think “cancer.” With nipples, I would just think “breasts”. I left the office, sat in my car and asked Jesus about what she had said. And in my prayers, it seemed Jesus was telling me He agreed with Dr. Z, my top-notch plastic surgeon, cheerleader, coach and truth-teller! So nipples it shall be!
And Dr. Z was truthful about this upcoming TRAM flap surgery too. She thought I’d do very well. Yes, the surgery could be long and require both her and her partner Dr. Mark Kobayashi as the micro-vascular issues of the surgery are a pretty big deal. I’d need more than a little time to fully recover but at the end, I’d have two nice breast mounds and a flat stomach as an added bonus. What a deal.
As always on the day of the surgery, I told both the attending OR nurse and reminded Dr. Z that I want to make sure the last words I would say in the operating room were the Lord’s Prayer and I ask anyone in the room to say it with me and if because of the effects of the anesthetic, I can’t finish the prayer, someone else please finish it for me! Dr. Z was familiar with this little tradition of mine and happy to make it happen! I also mentioned that over the last couple of days, I’d had that Easter hymn “Joyful, Joyful, I Adore Thee” running through my head. I’d printed it out and the nurse had put it in a plastic bag and I was holding it my hand as the gurney started moving toward the operating room. Philip kissed me goodbye, placed the sign of the cross of my forehead and Dr. Z said, “Go ahead and sing!” So as I was wheeled down the hall, Dr. Z at my side, around corners, through the doors and finally into the Operating Suite, I was a one-person flash mob singing with all my heart,
Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee,
God of glory, Lord of love;
Hearts unfold like flowers before Thee,
opening to the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness;
drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness,
fill us with the light of day!
After the song’s last line, Dr. Z said it was time to pray the Lord’s Prayer and I heard voices wrap all around me, including Dr. Z’s and Christy, the OR nurse. I fell sweetly asleep and spent a rather delightful 7 1/2 hours with Jesus while the OR team did its work.
Or maybe I should say while God did His work because Dr. Z tells a very interesting insider’s story of what happened after I slipped into unconsciousness:
Her partner Dr. Kobayashi came in a little late — after the first prayer was over, so Dr. Z suggested the prayer should be said again. This time hands were joined in a circle around my surgical bed and another group of folks behind them held hands also. Everyone in the Operating Room was holding someone else’s hand while the prayer was being said.
As Dr. Z relays the story, she said something remarkable happened then. As the Lord’s Prayer was being prayed a second time, the atmosphere in the room began to change. It got quiet, reverent and yes, even holy. She’d never felt anything like it and she knew some of the others in the room were sensing it too. In Matthew 18:20, Jesus promises that where two or more are gathered in His name, He is in the midst of them. And on Tuesday, August 20 there were more than a few folks inviting Jesus to come into that Operating Room! True to his promise in Mathew 18:20, He showed up and stood in the midst of them!
And with His presence, the atmosphere changed! So much so, that some of the folks in the OR, including my surgeon could sense His presence. So much so, my surgery went astoundingly well, doggone fast, and rather perfect in execution. And the frosting on the cake: well, Dr. Z said, “I’m not sure how much of that surgery I actually did — if you know what I mean. I kept wanting to look over my shoulder. I felt like someone else was there — if you know what I mean.”
Yes, Dr. Z, I do know that you mean. I’ve been in too many places where Jesus is invited in and He comes and the atmosphere changes and you’d have to be blind, deaf and dumb to not notice it! I love those moments — when God shows up and you have to just say, “Wow, God is here! How crazy good is that?”
Thanks for showing up at my surgery, Jesus. I think I’ve got the best plastic surgeon there is in Dr. Z — but You and she together in the same room … well, I’m just glad I was already unconscious ’cause I’m not sure I could have handled all that excitement!
Just imagine for a moment how great it would be if every surgery started this way — Jesus invited in. Jesus standing in the midst of the OR team. Jesus changing the environment and the Operating Room becoming something more like a chapel. Jesus directing surgeon’s hands? And Jesus just holding in His loving embrace the unconscious patient and taking them to a place of perfect peace and perfect love.
For these and lots more reasons, Tuesday, August 20 was a downright perfect day for us! Thank you, Dr. Z and thank you, Jesus!
After more than 25 years in parish ministry, Rev. Cathie retired in early 2018 to pursue a quieter life with her husband Philip in the mountains of Central Oregon. Although no longer a leader in congregational life, she continues to follow her calling and passion to minister to those who suffer, especially those with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.