“Staying Awake: Notes From Surgery”

“Staying Awake: Notes From Surgery”
October 17, 2013 Robin Rice



I admit it: I live a charmed life in a small town on a farm where we grow our own food and have long lovely mornings on the front porch. I work for myself from home and love what I do. About the only real complaint I have is this 50-year-old feminine body wearing out a little faster than I’d expected.

But, like any good vehicle, I suppose repairs must be expected.

And so it was I was squeezing in a reasonably major surgery just a day after my work team was here for a long weekend and just a few days before my next 9 months of teaching would start.

It would have been so easy to get into the surgery assembly line along with all the others that parade through our hospitals every day. To not say things, or see things, that are out of the realm of “normal.” But that’s not what I’m about. At this stage of my “be who you are” game, it’s just not possible.

So here are four small ways I stayed “awake” through the process, even if I did get totally knocked out for those few hours under the knife.

None of them amount to much. But collectively, perhaps, they do.

Weighing in.

You wouldn’t think stepping on a scale would be such a big deal. How much does the patient weigh? Good information for the anesthesiologist, I would think. Routine as it gets.

I had a small blanket on my shoulders, as the hospital was cold, and was carrying a small purse with a book in it. The nurse kept asking me to take off as much as I could. Even my flip-flops.

I was thinking they must want to be really, really accurate. Until the nurse said: “We don’t want to cheat you, making you weigh more than you do.”

Ah, this wasn’t a weight-for-surgery thing. It was a weight for body image thing. Really?Today?

“It doesn’t really matter,” I said, preferring to stay warm.

She looked at me like I had five heads. “I’ve never heard a woman say that in all my years here.”

Never, in all her years weighing in women before surgery, had she heard a woman say she didn’t care if the scale weighed a few pounds over? Women were worrying about their weight just moments before going under anesthesia (something not everyone lives through) and being cut open?

Oh my, are we a screwed up culture or what?

Really, that’s all I could think. Oh. My.

The surgeon.

My surgeon is head of the practice I go to. Known by his staff as “the golden boy,” he is smart, talented, and very, very experienced (despite what you might think looking into his baby face.)

When we spoke before surgery, he had about a dozen papers for me to sign. It was routine for him, I was sure, because he repeated himself a few times with the same material. It was all designed, I realized, to cover himself in a potential lawsuit.

So I chose to step out of his assembly line and get his real attention.

I became a real person to him by telling him one of my best friends was a plastic surgeon, that I’d dated a surgeon and an anesthesiologist before I married my husband. This made me someone he might see in a social circle—always a great tool for making things real. I also told him it was my job to work with people at the very top of their game and so I know genius when I see it.

“Oh,” he said, really looking at me–really looking—for the first time.

“You are good at what you do, right?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“So when you get in there, if in your expertise and wisdom you see something that needs to be done that you did not expect, just do it. I’m counting on you and all of your years of experience, and I trust you to make that call.”

He shook his head, and said: “I can’t tell you how it relieves me to hear that. Everyone wants to come back and say “you didn’t put that one thing in the line of things that might have to happen…”

He shook his head again, and his eyes spoke volumes. I could tell those conversations are the real fear of his job.

“Furthermore,” I continued, “I’ll tell you right now, I’m not going to sue you. It’s not my style, it’s not who I am, and I know accidents do happen even in life threatening situations. So when you see this face on that table, out cold but still this face, remember that you can relax a little and do your excellent best.”

His own face was priceless. I could see him scanning his brain for any possible script that responded to this. There was none.

He was so shocked by my words (perhaps by the word “sue” even coming out of someone’s mouth pre-surgery is a shell-shock for doctors these days), he didn’t have any to say.

I imagined him coming home to his wife and saying, “Honey, you’ll never in a million years guess what a patient said today…”

The forgetting pill.

Enter the anesthesiologist.

Just try to tell someone who has never heard of shamanism that you may actually hear what is being said in surgery, so it would be nice if he would please to be kind with his words.

Doesn’t. Compute.

“Okay,” he says.

But now I’m a nut. I can see it in his eyes, the way he goes back to his clipboard and checklists like a safety zone.

It’s okay, he sees lots of nuts. People say things. They are weird. They are afraid. They are crazy. Not his job. Just get through this checklist, knock her out, wake her up and move on.

I smile. I get it.

He asks if I want a forgetting drip of Valium before surgery. It will make me less nervous, he says, and I won’t remember anything from before or after, including this conversation I am having with him.

I tell him I’m not nervous, and only then realize I really am not.


I ask him what might happen that I might want to be forgetting. He says nothing, really. So I say no, I don’t need it, and why put more drugs into me than we absolutely need to?

He says good, it makes waking up harder.

Now he tells me?

He has no idea that what I mean by “waking up” is totally different than what he means by waking up. But pretty much anything that is going to hinder my consciousness in any way is important to me. I register the thought (glad that I will remember it), but choose not to become even more of a nut by commenting on it.

They say the difference between a shaman and a crazy person is the shaman knows who NOT to talk to about the voices in her head! This was one of those times to be a wise shaman.


Where I’d most love to be.

The needle is in my left hand, the operating room is cold, I’ve been moved to the even colder table and I’m looking around at the huge trays of surgical tools, and the stained walls, and the broken tiles in the ceiling of the older hospital…

Was this what they wanted me to forget, that the operating room wasn’t whistle clean like in the movies?

Things start to go fuzzy, just a little. The anesthesiologist is there to my left, and a nurse to my right, and the anesthesiologist asks me if I have a favorite place in the world to go.

Half drifting, I know what he is asking me for. He wants me to find a field of flowers in Italy or a mountain top spa. But I’m too far-gone to think of what he wants. I can only find my truth:

“Right here.”

Immediately, as I knew he would, he argues, and the nurse as well. They start saying how this was hardly the most favorite place for anyone to be, a hospital just before surgery.

I have seconds before I am gone, and no time to explain how exciting it is that my “right here” is not about the hospital. It’s not about what is happening. It’s about always wanting to be right here, right now. About preferring this moment in all it’s glory or hell, to a fantasy.

I force out “my front porch swing” to please them, and they relax, and tell me I’m going there now, and yada-yada-yada…

But I know, even as the lights go out, my truth about being here, now, wasn’t some theoretical ideal I was ego-touting. It was now so deeply ingrained, it came to me even as I was leaving consciousness.

It came as truth.

I went to sleep knowing I really was awakening.

And because I was not afraid, and did not choose the drip of forgetting, I woke up remembering everything.

And because of that choice, I’m writing this article, and now here you are, reading it.

My lesson.

I was fortunate to have had a profound waking up experience in my 35th year. It was a split-second of revelation that changed everything in my life, and in me. Yet I have also had 15 years since to practice what I learned in that moment, and I have needed them. I am also aware that I will need many, many more years before I can claim true mastery.

But what I have learned so far is this: When we awaken, whether through a sudden flash of insight or a long slow journey, it will be the little things that make proof of it. The ways we step off the conveyer belt and make choices that are different. The way we speak our truth, and the way we show those who intersect with us that there are other ways to live.

Maybe those who served me September 3rd, 2013 won’t remember the woman who didn’t care what she weighed, who said she would not sue as a matter of rule, who wasn’t afraid of surgery and who chose here-now as her most ideal place to be in the world. But maybe they will. Maybe one tiny small wedge in “the way things are” will have been put into place, waiting for others to widen the gap.

That’s my wide-awake dream, anyway.

(And thanks, in advance, for all the well-wishes…. Yes, I am recovering slow, but well… )


About the Author:


Robin Rice is founder of BeWhoYouAre.com, a social change company that supports diversity and authentic self-expression. She is an internationally published novelist, a mentor to world-level change makers, and she teaches a yearly online apprenticeship in contemporary shamanism at HealingWithPresenceAndBeauty.com. Find her “wowza-ya-mama!” books on her author page at Amazon.com.


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