I’ve had a lifelong aversion to surgical procedures. There’s a word for that fear: tomophobia. It’s from the Greek word tome, meaning incision. Don’t let that friendly-looking little Tom at the front of that term fool you — in my personal experience, surgery has been no friend.
I can still vividly feel the tube being fed down my esophagus in the hospital at age four, after I had ingested a sample of a household cleaning product resembling sugar that had been slipped through the mail slot in the front door. That was merely the beginning. After six invasive procedures over my lifetime, having this phobia is not entirely unjustified.
Many years later, after the memorable stomach pumping incident, I had to have my wire-rim glasses removed from my skull, immediately above my eye. It had been pushed deep into the flesh after a fall from a motorcycle. (There’s a reason for helmet laws.) Head injuries can cause profuse bleeding, and this was no exception. A portion of one eyebrow is still missing from that procedure.
Years after that, a well-known Boston hospital kept me waiting for 10 hours in the lobby with what their preliminary assessment said was simply stomach flu. At 11 pm they discovered it was an inflamed gall bladder, which was within 30 minutes of bursting and probably causing sepsis. With no time for laser surgery, I was swiftly wheeled into the operating room and immediately slashed open, field hospital style, to remove the lethal object.
My most recent medical trauma has involved my eyes. It seems the aging process has not only resulted in rapidly worsening cataracts but a deterioration of the internal lens. Eventually, I could barely read signs with sizable lettering even 10 feet away. Every day was like living in a dense fog.
So, surgery was definitely in my near-term future. And that brings this story to Italy, where my wife and I have lived for the past six years. My doctor here in our province scheduled the procedure to take place several weeks later at a specialized hospital in Rimini, three hours to the north. My trepidation increased with each day as the designated date approached. Just the idea of someone cutting into my eye gives me shivers. Luis Buñuel’s surrealist 1929 film scene of a straight razor approaching an eyeball totally freaks me out.
Friends who had been through the procedure assured me that it was “not that bad.” Not entirely effective, since the word bad is still in the sentence. Intellectually, I knew that I should calm down and not fret. The surgeon came highly recommended. I knew from three previous experiences in Italian hospitals in the region that the quality of care is superb. Emotionally, I was anything but relaxed.
Many Americans would be shocked by the appearance of Italian hospitals. Many are old, with some portions dating back centuries. Various styles of structures are cobbled together in a hodgepodge of winding corridors, rabbit warrens of tiny rooms, and austere seating areas. Available funding is spent on state-of-the-art technology, rather than the hotel-style decor of many hospitals in the United States. To be fair, two new hospitals are under construction in towns near us — part of a €200 billion support package for infrastructure investments allocated to Italy by the European Union last year.
The day of surgery finally arrived and was an ordeal. As with virtually everything in Italy, the first stage involved dealing with forms and documents. Italian bureaucrats love to stamp those documents; they always wield the stamps with a flourish and an audible “chunk,” suggesting that life as you know it is about to change forever. And sometimes it does.
Paperwork completed, I then engaged in another time-honored Italian ritual: waiting. Unlike the typical seating areas in American medical centers, there are no comfortable couches. No stacks of old issues of Redbook or Auto World. No artwork to gaze at. It’s best to bring a book. I had not done that, so I was mildly entertained by the comings and goings of a maintenance man, watering the potted plants along the corridor. I think I dozed off for a bit.
After a couple of hours, my name was called. I have learned to listen for my middle name to be called out, as Italians have a problem pronouncing my last name. The combination of the letters h and i rarely, if ever, occurs at the beginning of a word. They stare at it and are baffled. Thankfully, they resort to my middle name. I wait for “Mark Larson” to be called.
I was taken to a room with five other people — and waited again. This was the prep room. We put disposable paper gowns over our clothes and booties onto our shoes. We had our eyes dilated and were fitted with IVs. (Did I mention my dislike of needles?) Then we waited some more.
At this point, a team of nurses went into a collective comic routine. All of us were seated, dressed in our gowns, unable to see, staring into space, and possibly — like me — really worried about what would happen next. The nursing staff talked with each patient, cracked jokes, and told amusing stories. One told me about her life growing up in Romania. Obviously, they were trying to put us all at ease with banter. With me at least, the technique was only partially successful.
One nurse took me to another room…to wait again. This was just outside the OR. Each time the door opened, I caught a glimpse of the operating table, the assorted medical equipment, and monitors — all brightly lit by overhead lamps. After the door was closed to operate on the patient ahead of me, a loud, ominous, extraterrestrial humming sound, like atonal music from outer space, was easily heard. I must admit at this point I was pretty much cowering in the corner.
A nurse introduced herself as Anna and proceeded to go into her own, well-practiced routine. She found multiple topics of conversation to relax and reassure me, at one point making a heart shape with her hands. I was charmed and distracted. That was the point. Later, people asked me if I met Anna. She must have a widespread reputation.
The operation itself was, I must say, distinctly unpleasant. Although numbing agents were frequently dropped into my eye, it was forced open for the operation, and I could see the instruments approaching through a brightly lit haze. It was not painful, but I could feel the pressure from the direct contact. More than once I grabbed the side of the table and stifled a yelp.
The traumatic experience was eased a bit during the recovery phase, in a room shared with several other patients. An Italian man loudly asked if I was the scrittore americano — the American writer. He apparently recognized me and said he was enjoying my book of short stories. A completely unexpected moment of fandom.
Fast forward to a week later and my eye is almost good as new. A true miracle of modern science. I will still need glasses with a light prescription for distance vision. As I type this, I’m wearing glasses, with my left eye near perfect and my right one still afflicted. The left eye has a temporary glass. My half-sighted brain is fooled; things seem pretty sharp and clear. There’s no residual discomfort.
In mid-March, I will return to have the right eye done with the same procedure. The fear of the unknown is now gone. Replaced by the fear of the known.
I’m sure it will be worthwhile. In the meantime, I need to track down that Valium.