A Nightmare Experience With Surgery

By Rochelle Odell, Columnist

I have been warning my “healthy” family and friends that the opioid epidemic and the backlash against prescription opioids would affect them at some point. My recent nightmare of a surgery may prove that the time may now be at hand. 

On February 2, I underwent what normally would be minor surgery to remove a catheter -- called a portacath -- that had become dislodged. For patients with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), there is no such thing as a minor procedure and my experience became a prime example of what could go wrong.

My friend Debbie drove me to the hospital where the surgery was performed. I have undergone over 40 procedures for CRPS and I always become apprehensive, as any patient facing surgery should be. I told Debbie I did not have a warm toasty feeling about the surgery. I was frightened, a feeling I don't usually experience. But this time I did.

Before I was taken back to pre-op, Debbie asked me if I would like to pray. Thankful for the thought, I responded yes. It did not alleviate the feeling of dread nagging at me, but I hoped God would protect me.

Once in pre-op, the nurse went over my extensive allergy list. Believe me, it's long. I am allergic to almost all antibiotics, including penicillin, along with some opioids like Demerol and methadone, as well as aspirin and NSAID's. Betadine causes blisters and a horrible rash. I’m also allergic to most medical tape, including cloth, plastic, silk and paper tapes. The only one I can tolerate is Hypafix. It's a soft adhesive that allows the skin to breathe. I was very vocal about that.

The nurse asked what kind of surgery I was about to undergo and why. I told her it was because I don't have any good veins, never have, and that a catheter was a necessary evil. Without one, if I were to pass out or become very ill, dying could be a real possibility.

I told her she would only got two tries for the IV line I would need for surgery. I am not a pin cushion and multiple needle pricks could cause a major pain flare. She started the IV on the second try.

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The surgeon and anesthesiologist then came to see me. I explained how nervous I was and that I honestly was very close to walking out. I should have done that. I could tell the surgeon had no clue what CRPS was or how to treat me post-op. That is not unusual, a lot of doctors have no clue what it is, and that extra steps are needed to keep a major pain flare from happening.

Even the anesthesiologist seemed clueless about CRPS. I thought that odd, since anesthesiologists are often pain management physicians. He kept telling me don't worry, once in the operating room I would be out soon.

Four hours later I was taken to the operating room. I told the anesthesiologist that I forgot to add fentanyl to my allergy list. It gives me a smothering feeling and can't breathe. I also told him I wanted an LMA mask, because being intubated causes my asthma to flare. He told me he would use the mask, but he wanted to use fentanyl and that if I stopped breathing he would intubate me.

What is wrong with this explanation? Use something other than fentanyl and you won't have to intubate me. I also asked the surgeon to place me on IV antibiotics, as I have a long history of staph and MRSA infections.

Upon coming out of anesthesia, my throat was killing me. I knew he must have intubated me and used a drug I didn't want. The pain was excruciating. I was given small doses of Dilaudid and oxycodone, which did absolutely zip for me.

They also gave me IV Tylenol. Really, Tylenol post-op in a CRPS patient? The recovery room nurse was trying to console me as I was in tears.  Any nurse I dealt with said they were trying to make sure I didn't die of an opioid overdose. That took the cake, the minuscule doses I received were obviously not working, so an opioid overdose certainly would not happen.

One nurse told me my pain was emotional pain. I should have screamed at her to get away from me, but I was in so much pain I couldn't think clearly. I was kept for observation overnight, which brought more problems and the realization that the very thing I warned my healthy family and friends about was indeed at hand.

What kind of pain control do patients get now after surgery?  My surgeon was responsible for ordering all my meds, but how is a man who has no clue what CRPS is going to manage my pain? A man I had only seen one time before the surgery.

My RN was very sweet, but she too was stating what I think must be the hospital's policy. They do not want to provide opioid pain management.  Everyone is so convinced the opioid epidemic was and is caused by prescription opioid medication. It dawned on me, ignorance is alive and well and it must be contagious.

My ordeal continued to worsen. I looked at my surgery sites. Not only were my upper chest and right arm covered in the tell-tale orange color from Betadine, but there was medical tape. A big painful and very itchy rash had developed.

My skin was driving me nuts. I asked the nurse to remove the tape and use non-stick pads and Hypafix, but she refused. Didn't anyone read my allergy list? Why ask for one if you are going to ignore it? The surgeon ordered Benadryl cream for my arm. It helped a little and I did get one injection of IV Benadryl, but that was it. I received less medication in the hospital than I was taking at home.

After a long painful night, I told the nurse I would refuse to see the surgeon. Anyone who causes a patient as much pain as he did is one I will not see again. The nurse said he had to see me in order to release me. I told her to tell him to have a different doctor release me, as I did not want to see him. I was livid. The morning I was released I removed the tape, as I could no longer tolerate it. She helped me cover the area with sterile gauze.

As soon as I got home I cleaned the surgery area thoroughly and made an occlusive dressing over the two surgical sites. The next morning my whole upper right chest was covered with tiny blisters and a nasty looking rash. My friend took pictures for me.  The asthma flare I was afraid of was in full swing and I was running a temperature of 102.  I could barely breath and my pain was completely out of control.

I had a temperature for three weeks, and six weeks later I am still coughing up yellow gunk. That could have easily been prevented, but what do I know, I am just the patient.  Because I refused to see the surgeon for a post-op checkup, my primary care provider sent me a letter informing me I was trying to direct my care and was argumentative. He would only treat me for 30 more days and I needed to find a new primary care physician.

In the past I might have been upset with a letter like that, but since this opioid epidemic has affected me so negatively, I simply do not want to be seen by any physician who doesn't try to understand how sick I am. I was in so much pain.  Wouldn't you try to direct your care at that point?

My ordeal has not ended. As of this writing, the whole port area and catheter tubing are swollen and look infected. Have I gotten it checked yet? Nope. I have literally been frozen in place by fear, a fear I have never experienced before. I know this will require more surgery to remove and replace the portacath. Just thinking about it scares me.

All of this could have been avoided if my allergy list had been read, if there had been adequate pain management, and if IV antibiotics had been started. If this is the future of medical care, I may reconsider seeing any doctor. It just isn't worth the stress and pain.

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Rochelle Odell lives in California. She’s lived for nearly 25 years with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS/RSD).

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.