My Reconstruction Journey During a Global Pandemic

After my first set of expanders were lost to a rare infection back in 2017 and then getting a stage 4 breast cancer diagnosis in February 2019, I thought that there would never come a day where I would revisit the idea of reconstruction again. August 2020, I heard the words, you have no evidence of disease (NED). To be so happy about this in a time where the world is in a global pandemic and millions of people are dying seemed almost trivial.

I booked an appointment with my plastic surgeon and was relieved to hear that he thought I could still get tissue expanders after three years of having skin flaps hang off my chest. I walked out of the consult room and his secretary gave me a surgery date, October 15th, 2020. The whirlwind of emotions that toppled me were positive ones and also negative ones. Something I dreamed of for years was going to happen in a few short weeks and I could not hold back the happiness, confidence and gratitude I felt but along with those feelings of doubt, fear and anxiety.

Pre-op called and as I went through the questionnaire over the phone, she also relayed the info about my COVID test. Once I was booked for my COVID test and received it, I would have to be isolated for the remaining time until my surgery. My husband and I formulated a plan. My eight year old son was e-learning because at the time of enrollment I was not NED. Seeing as he never went anywhere he would stay isolated with me here at the house while my husband stayed at my mother’s house and continued to work up until the morning of my surgery. My COVID test was on a Monday and my surgery was on Thursday. Three long days of isolation of not having my husband to hold me and hug me, comfort me in the days approaching the surgery. A person never truly knows how much they rely on that physical and emotional support until that support can’t be anywhere near you because of new world order.

Thursday morning, my mom and husband came to the house masked up and kept more than six feet away from me as I handed off my responsibilities to them and drove off to my surgery alone. Driving there, a few stray tears leaked down my face as I missed kissing and hugging my family goodbye. This was not my first surgery but it definitely felt odd. Usually the hospital waiting rooms are packed and people are almost fighting for places to sit. Not this time… the quiet was deafening and the whole room was icy and distant. Waking up from my surgery my nurse gave me the allotted amount of time to recover. She dressed me and wheeled me out of the hospital while we waited for my husband to drive up to the loading zone. I felt as though I was a curbside pick-up item.

Two weeks later, my follow-up was to take place in the hospital once more. Socially distanced chairs and benches marked with X’s on them lined the waiting room and hall. Everyone was wearing masks and barely talking. Seeing your surgeon gowned, masked and shielded makes you feel more like you have a foreign disease than it makes you feel protected. Once you leave the hospital, all you feel like doing is going home and taking a hot shower, scrubbing away the day. Each visit that followed brought on even more new procedures. From intake staff taking down info pen and paper style to them moving to digital inputs. From small open doorways and people waiting in long social distance lines outside in the cold to the hospital creating a shelter to accommodate those long lines. From wearing your own cloth masks at the hospital, to now having paper masks dispensers at intake. Each change was made to protect us but each change makes us feel more isolated and drives fear that we may never be post pandemic.

As I continue my journey of slowly filling my expanders every second week and into my exchange surgery, I am grateful. Many cancer patients have been denied reconstruction due to the toll COVID-19 is taking on our healthcare system. Even though this was not ideal timing, I was able to take back something that cancer stole from me. I see the exhaustion and dedication that our healthcare providers face everyday and even though reconstruction is not essential, I was never discriminated against for making that choice. During this pandemic kindness is a simple act but has a big impact. Let’s continue to be kind as we all adjust to the pandemic. – Melissa Saitti

Click here to read Rachel’s experience with breast cancer during a pandemic.

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