Imagining what goes through a patient’s mind after surgery

“I will never forget that day.”

She smiled broadly.

“It was about a week after my cancer surgery and I had finally worked up the courage to look in the mirror. I knew you had rearranged things a bit, okay. Moved stuff around. Taken things apart and jammed them all back together, right?”

I probably would not have said it quite like that, but she was correct that her surgery had involved removing part of her tongue, a ridge of bone from the jaw, and some of the lymph nodes in her neck. She had been a bit swollen after the procedure but no more than expected, as I recalled. Things had gone well.

“So, I am standing in the bathroom and look up at myself in the mirror. Well, the face peering back WAS NOT ME! It just wasn’t me! I just kept staring. I wanted to know what had happened! Finally, I found something that looked familiar.”

“What was that?” I wanted to know.

“Finally, I recognized my left eye. I knew that face in the mirror was mine because it had my left eye! But that was the only thing I recognized! Only my left eye.”

Of course, at the time, I knew nothing of what she had discovered in the bathroom mirror. My daily rounds probably consisted of telling her she was recovering nicely and the cancer was gone. We would have talked about nutrition and what she would need to do once she was discharged from the hospital. I would have reminded her that her swelling would disappear gradually over a few weeks. I might have shared that the scars would fade steadily and would be almost invisible someday. I have had hundreds of similar discussions over the years.

She, on the other hand, must have been wondering, What the heck did this surgeon do to me?

I pressed her to go on. “So, what happened?” I asked.

“Well, gradually, I recognized more and more of my own face. After a while, I realized the unrecognizable person in the mirror had my nose, for instance. Then, over the course of a few days, I found my other eye, then my forehead, then my mouth. Finally, I recognized myself entirely. It was really weird, though! Now I know what it must be like to lose your memory or forget your childhood.”

“That must have been a scary experience,” I said.

She laughed. “I guess so. It all turned out fine. I’m doing great now.”

I tried to imagine what else had run through her head at the time. Will I get better? Does this happen to everyone? Why didn’t the doctor warn me about this? What if it gets worse?

Now, several years of cancer-free existence later, she still tells the story with great enthusiasm. Those days when her memory did not work remain very fresh in her mind.

Bruce Campbell is an otolaryngologist who blogs at Reflections in a Head Mirror.

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