On September 26, 2002, I was awakened at midnight to begin one of the longest days of my life. I spent the next 17 hours making my way to the operating room of the hospital for a mastectomy. The following is an excerpt from my book, The Slumber Party from Hell, about the experience. Why am I posting this today? Please read to the end to find out.
“It was not the way I pictured it. Because I am an inmate awaiting sentencing at the jail, there is a procedure. I feel terribly alone, but I am ready. I know the drill. All the trips to the hospital are made this inhumane way. At two in the morning, I am shackled, cuffed, and led to the bus with forty-nine other women for the fifteen-minute ride to the old jail and courthouse. We wait in the old morgue that the girls call the dungeon. It is a big, cold, dirty concrete room with an open toilet on one wall. There are no chairs, just the freezing floor, so cold that it feels like an ice rink. There are little roaches everywhere, despite the cold, which you think would discourage them.
Fifty shackled women: some sit, some lie down on the filthy floor, some pace despite the shackles that cut into your ankles. We’re all waiting for the door to open at four thirty. No books allowed. Time drags.
At four fifteen, we’re moved upstairs, given plastic sacks of sandwich meat, bread, an orange, and blue Kool-Aid. It’s the only food inmates at court get for twelve hours or more. Daily bread takes on a whole new meaning. It was freezing in those cells. We shiver, we pray, we talk, we shiver some more while we wait for the dawn.
No food or drink for me before surgery. Instead, I wait. Ten women crammed in each small cell with four bunks, no mattresses, just the cold, hard steel. For four hours, the women all sit, lie, pace, and pray. By eight fifteen, when the guards start yelling names, we are all frozen stiff, sore, and exhausted. They will go to court to face some of the most important decisions of their life and they are worn out before they start. So am I. Finally, I’m led to the hospital van, anxious and alone.
I think surgery is at ten o’clock in the morning, but they put me in another concrete holding cell alone and I wait and wait some more. At noon, I ask, “What’s happening? How long?” They give me no answer. I am cold, hungry, scared. More time to pray and I hold a one sided conversation with God.
God, this would be a great time to take me home, to let me see the light, to let me rest in your arms. But, if I wake up, I’ll know you aren’t done with me yet.
Finally, at four o’clock, I am taken down to Admitting and the Operating Room full of surgeons, nurses, and my guards. Still shackled, I put on the hospital gown. For the first time in three months, I see myself in a real mirror. My hair is just gray fuzz, I’ve lost twenty pounds, and my muscle tone is gone. I look like a stranger. I look at my breast for the last time. How do they dispose of it? Does it go in the trash? The girls say it’s going to Booby Heaven.
Finally, it’s time, time for the I.V. Dear God. Four veins collapse. Digging, poking, crying, shaking. Stop! It hurts. Please, please, knock me out first and do the I.V. in the O.R. Finally in the O.R., the shackles come off as I go under.
I wake up five hours later upstairs in the jail ward, bandaged and sore, but alive.
Oh, God, I get the message. You aren’t done with me yet.”
Next week, I’m facing surgery again, coming full circle. Because my cancer was advanced, I’m having a second “preventative” mastectomy followed by reconstruction. I admit to mixed emotions. In 2002, the surgeon gave me a 60% chance to live five years. It’s actually been eight and I am thankful to be alive. But I’ve been lopsided for eight years. It will be nice to be balanced again.
Next week is Thanksgiving and I am writing this to share my gratitude and joy over this surgery. Why? Because, instead of black and white stripes, shackles, belly chains, handcuffs, and aloof jail guards, I am going to the hospital in soft, comfortable clothes with my husband and friends. Yes, I’m nervous, but I am so very thankful for this opportunity and the loving support of friends and David.
This Thanksgiving I am counting my blessings. It will only be two days after my surgery and I may be sore, without an appetite for turkey, but I have a roof over my head, a warm shower, hot food and loved ones. When I think of lonely holidays in prison, and people like Tara on the streets, I am so thankful for every blessing, particularly my family and friends.
Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.