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I got my drain out yesterday. To make sure the surgery site doesn’t fill up with fluid, at the end of the procedure the surgeon installs a bit of perforated tubing, about where an underwire sits if you’re wearing a bra (except under the skin), that exits the skin under the arm (held in place by a stitch) and ends in a flexible, transparent bulb. There’s a slight vacuum in the system, created when you squeeze the bulb to empty it, then cork it back up before letting go. This vacuum draws the fluid slowly out. The tubing can get clogged with blood clots, so you occasionally have to “milk” it, by pinching the tube up near the stitch with one hand (you don’t want to pull on that stitch!), and pinching and sliding the other hand down the length of the tube to the bulb. I only had one blood clot in the tube, which formed while I was still in the hospital. When I’d cleared it, a long, dark red worm lay coiled in the bottom of the bulb.
The bulb has been inconvenient, as you might imagine. It’s been pinned to my surgical bra, with the extra tubing taped to my side so I don’t accidentally pull at the stitch in some nocturnal flailing (fortunately, I sleep virtually without changing position all night long. And Ian, who is a flailer, is on my left side, so I was pretty safe). Since I’ve been wearing a huge flannel shirt that I bought in college at the height of grunge fashion, the bulb, coupled with some bandage padding, has done a pretty good job of simulating my boob, which wasn’t all that big to begin with (either 230 grams or 280. They told me, but I can’t remember.).
A good thing about me is that I still have lymph nodes under my right arm, and they have done a banner job of keeping the fluid running through my body. So actually, from the time I came home, I never went 24 hours with more than 20ml of fluid accumulating in the bulb, and the cut-off for getting the drain removed was 30ml in 24 hours. I briefly considered just leaving the drain in until my check-up with my surgeon on Thursday, but decided that it was enough of a bother that I’d rather just get it out. You see, not only was sleeping somewhat hazardous; showering was virtually impossible. Even with a handy invention called AquaGuard, which covered the stitch and the tubing exit, I still had the bulb to contend with. Ultimately, I tied it to a ribbon around my neck like a gory accessory for some underground cult. It worked . . . but I’m a little too mainstream to really appreciate all the nuances of such an adornment.
Something handy about the location of our house is that it’s within 10 minutes of every clinic and hospital I’ve been associated with since returning to Seattle in 2000, so when the nurse called me back yesterday morning as the snowstorm waned (Monday the clinic had been closed in honor of MLK), I was able to assure her that not only was I still interested in coming, but I actually could (the 4-Runner always appreciates the chance to show its stuff in the city).
The nurse, Cari, showed me into a room and seated me on the bed. I lifted my arm and she took a scissors to cut the stitch. I felt a touch of wooziness as she grabbed a tweezers and yanked out the last bit of nylon thread, and she asked if I needed to lie down for her to pull out the tube itself.
“No,” I said, “I’m fine.” Automatic response. My brain flitted back for an instant to the first day home, when I attempted to swab the stitch site with a Q-tip dipped in peroxide and water, and found myself immediately having to sit, light-headed, on the side of the tub before I pitched head-first in and made the entire operation moot. Something about a bit of surgical tubing coming out of my body really didn’t sit well with me. “Actually,” I said, “I do need to lie down.”
I lay back and lifted my arm over my head, and Cari said “Okay, this is only going to take 3 seconds, and it’s going to burn 1 2 3 and it’s out!”
“Aaaaaaauuugh!” I cried, as the tube, evidently become a red-hot, glass-sharded poker, ripped out of my chest and fluid started to leak down my side onto the pad I was lying on. In 6 days, my body had clearly already begun to incorporate the tube into itself, and it was loath to let it go. The thought of the procedure after two weeks instead of six days made my stomach turn, but I held it together and the burning eased within a minute.
Later, on the phone with my mother, I realized that the drain removal was by far the least comfortable part of the whole mastectomy process; in fact, the only part that was remotely uncomfortable.
But, as they say, no pain no gain. Glad we got that taken care of.