A View From the Other Side of the Lab Coat
After graduate school I provided therapy to mostly adults suffering from head and neck cancer—a horrific diagnosis that leaves one permanently disfigured and robs one of the ability to communicate via a natural voice, and almost always affects the ability to swallow safely. Some patients seem to tug on our heart strings a bit more than others. For me it always has been the head and neck cancer patient population.
After several years of working in the acute care setting, I became an SLP in the public schools. I enjoyed working with children and their families. The schools offer the opportunity to follow a child over the course of several years. The caseloads were demanding and coupled with the demand of traveling between several buildings within 1 work day were very taxing. So when I started having trouble sleeping and my joints started to ache, I chalked it up to my job.
Many of us are guilty of putting the care and needs of our patients before our own needs. We push through when we're not feeling our best, we make up excuses for why we are exhausted, and we tell ourselves it really isn't that bad. I made excuses for weight gain and decreasing mobility but when I became so ill that I could not stay awake during the day, my joints felt as though they were on fire, and I could not lose weight, no matter how hard I tried, I decided to see a physician. Within the first few minutes of my appointment a mass was discovered on my thyroid.
Although on some level it was comforting to have a diagnosis, my heart sank when I heard the word mass. My mother's side has a history of medullary thyroid cancer and my mother is a survivor of epithelioid sarcoma. I immediately went for a second opinion. Given the history of cancer in my family it was decided that removing the thyroid was the best option. As an SLP with a background in medical speech pathology, I was well aware of what could go wrong with a thyroidectomy. For this reason, I sought a surgeon who I was confident could remove my thyroid without damaging the surrounding vessels. I felt confident that things would go as planned; the mass was fairly small and the ultrasounds did not indicate involvement beyond my thyroid.
I was prepped and wheeled into the operating room. I woke realizing I was in the recovery area. Although still groggy I overheard a nurse say “she has a foley, a line in her foot, they lost her pressure during the surgery and they transected her left recurrent laryngeal nerve.” My first thought was “wow, that poor person is a mess,” but then I realized the nurses were standing at the head of my bed and I began to sob. Later I learned that while there was an attempt at reanastomosis, it was unsuccessful and my left vocal cord was paralyzed.