Comments & Curiosities: Trading some dignity for health

Ever had surgery? I have. Had some last week, in fact.

I had a torn rotator cuff, which has now been trimmed, stitched, un-torn, fluffed and folded. Your rotator cuff, as you know, is the part of your shoulder that, well, rotates and looks like a French cuff, pretty much. I had a crackerjack surgical team, with Dr. Russell Petrie at the Newport Orthopedic Institute large and in charge.

Everything went fine, and it's much better now. It only hurts when I breathe or when I'm standing, sitting or lying down, all of which I try to avoid.

I also try to avoid the industrial-strength painkillers like Vicodin and Percocet, which are what make you say things like "My flame is Payta Boofar" when someone asks you your name.

Eighteen Tylenol Extra Strength an hour, more or less, have done the trick so far.

If you haven't had surgery and general anesthesia, I can tell you it is a strange experience. Experts say that what causes the fear of flying that so many people have is the sense that they are locked inside a machine they don't understand and have turned their life over to someone they don't know. I love flying, but that's a good description of how I feel about surgery.

To me, you can sum up the whole experience in two words: the gown.

If you've been through boot camp, the surgical gown makes perfect sense. The whole point of basic training is to tear you down completely then rebuild you from scratch; to make you feel like you are a worthless, pathetic excuse for a human being, then slowly restore your confidence. Surgery is exactly the same except it happens in a matter of hours instead of weeks. The key is the gown.

You arrive for your surgery at the appointed hour. You think of yourself as a reasonably intelligent, somewhat dignified and fairly well-groomed person. First there are the usual 40 or 50 forms to sign — 12 of them having to do with patients' rights, which apparently do not include the right not to sign forms. Then there are forms that have to do with payment responsibility. You have to agree to pay for everything and anything, billed by anyone at anytime in any form whether or not your insurance pays it, whether or not you have insurance, doesn't matter, just pay it, no questions.

That just leaves 26 forms releasing the doctors, nurses, administrative staff, cafeteria workers, custodians, security guards, parking lot attendants and the woman in the gift shop from any and all liability related to your surgical procedure. Basically, if anything goes wrong, it's on you. Major earthquake, building pancakes, it's on you.

Surgeon throws an aneurysm, collapses on your chest, drives instrument through your heart — your fault. Instruments, sponges, devices of any kind inadvertently left inside you — totally on you. First you're born, life is hard, then you die. Just sign it. Wait, that one you just initial.

When they hand you your gown, you are told in no uncertain terms that the back of the gown must remain open. Skivvies are fine, they say, trying hard to hold back a smile, but the gown must remain open, at all times. On the off-chance that walking around with your patoot totally exposed in a turquoise gown with little flowers on it isn't humiliating enough, you also get a big puffy hairnet and little sock slippers that have rubber paw pads on the bottom. It's a good look … circus clown except goofier.

You take a deep breath and step out of your dressing room to find a few nurses and a couple of doctors staring at you and gesturing toward the gurney on which they will cart you to the operating room. The gurney, of course, has been strategically placed 25 feet away so they can watch you cross the room in your clown costume, desperately trying to hold the back of the gown closed with your good arm. Now, you tell me, how likely do you think you are to ask questions or not follow orders as you shuffle along in your split gown, hairnet and tiger cub slippers? They, of course, look great — fitted scrubs, white shoes, very professional — while you look like a cross between Kramer and Dilbert. Surgical gown, basic training, same thing.

The other thing about surgery that never fails to amaze me is the time-machine effect. From the time they put you under until the post-op nurses try to wake you up, you are lost in space, out of town, gonzo, no idea where or for how long. Were you out for 25 minutes or six hours? Not a clue. Until you can lift your head, find a clock and focus on the big hand and the little hand, it could have been one hour or three days for all you know. And when they send you to the Land of Nod, it happens so fast. It does for me anyway.

The anesthesiologist says, "Alright then, take some nice deep breaths and pretty soon you'll start to feel sleepy."

Except what you hear is, "Alright then, take some nice deep breaths and pretty…Peter? Mr. Buffa? How are we doing? You have to wake up now."

Very, very strange, knowing that X-minutes of your life have been erased, deleted, without a single memory of a sight or sound. Just blackness and quiet, period.

I think that's it. Wear the hairnet, avoid the Percocet, don't ask questions and above all, leave the gown open. You're either getting out of there with your health or your dignity, not both. Just get over it and breathe deep. You won't feel a thing.

PETER BUFFA is a former Costa Mesa mayor. His column runs Sundays. He may be reached at

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