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What Did I Learn from 3 Surgeries in 17 Hours.

A less-than-30-mins medical procedure on a seemingly normal Thursday eventually turned into an operation with general anesthesia. What did I learn about provider-patient communication, self-advocacy, the medical system, and community?

by Zhou Fang, Intersectional Group

So it finally happened: here I am, sitting on the procedure table, wearing a hospital gown, rearranging and cancelling my meetings and obligations. "I had a medical procedure this morning that went much longer than planned (there were complications). I'm still at the clinic right now. I'll email shortly for rescheduling. Sorry about the last minute change." "I cannot believe I'm saying this. But, I'm at the ER and about to go into the OR (operation room) for an emergency surgery... I am very sorry." - these are some of the messages I had to send out throughout the day while enduring massive pain.

After 2 surgeries at the clinic, - I had to go home first and then go back to the clinic and go home again, each trip was 30 mins - it was clear that I needed to be put under general anesthesia for the medical professionals to operate on my body in order to stop the bleeding. "I've never seen anything like this in my 25 years' practice." says my doctor. Around 5 pm, about 7 hours after the initial procedure, I was on my way again, this time to the ER, another 30 mins trip. At close to 10 pm, I was finally in the operation room, asleep, being operated on. At 2 am the next day, I was in the clear and discharged. Now, I am on a 4 to 6-week recovery journey.

So what did I learn from 3 surgeries in 17 hours?


  1. Be very clear about how we are feeling at the moment. Sore? Searing pain? Discomfort? Nausea? Dizziness? Chest tightness?

    1. This is vital because being able to communicate with our health providers is critical to our care and treatments. In the U.S., if a patient is not fluent in English, it can be extremely challenging for them to get proper care. Having adequate translation and interpretation services for patients who have a hard time with English is extremely important.

  2. Pay attention to our symptoms. We know our body the best. Cramps? Bleeding? Stabbing pain in a certain area? Numbness? Chest pain?

    1. During the second clinic visit, my doctor put a good amount of medical gauze in me hoping the pressure would help slow down or stop the bleeding. Unfortunately it didn't work. As soon as I got home, it had bled through the gauze. And I knew it immediately, which prompted my ER visit shortly after. In other words, paying attention to our symptoms saves lives.

  3. Advocate for ourselves without holding back regardless of how embarrassing or weird it might sound or feel. “I cannot pass urine.” “I am bleeding through the gauze.” “[swearing] and [yelping]” "I feel tension here." "I am in a lot of pain." "It is burning me."

    1. For women, people of color, immigrants (with cultural differences), and non-binary folks, it can be very hard to say exactly how we feel at the moment. However, saying how we feel timely and clearly can save our dear life. Our medical providers and practitioners have seen it all and they are there to help if they know what they are dealing with.

  4. Don't wait. Be proactive. Respond and make plans as things can worsen or escalate very quickly. I can't imagine how much precious time would have lost had I not communicated with my providers the moment I sensed something was wrong.

    1. One hour after my first clinic visit of the day, I was bleeding more than what I was expecting. I called the clinic after 2 back-to-back bathroom visits. The doctors asked me to get back immediately.

    2. The moment I stepped out of the car after my second clinic visit of the day, I knew I was bleeding through the gauze. Again, I called the clinic immediately and they sent me to the ER. "Go to the ER, now. We will be ready for you."

    3. At the ER, the moment I saw the nurse, I told them that I couldn't pass urine and I was worried. They advised me to try again and told me there are ways to help me, which calmed me down.

  5. Ask Questions. Similar to self-advocacy, there are questions that may seem unintelligent or embarrassing. Ask anyway. Because that is how we get educated and use the knowledge we learn to help ourselves. "Is it normal that I have this much pain right here?" "Is the IV causing me discomfort? I feel tension around where the needle is." "My heart rate is going up a little. Can you look?"

  6. The U.S. medical system is not designed to help patients. It is hard to navigate, requires a lot of calls and self-advocacy, as well as tech-savvy-ness. However, I was fortunate to have doctors, medical assistants, nurses, and technicians who are good at their job and care. I am grateful for the care and treatments I received that day, even though it was hellishly painful and scary.

  7. Our community will lift us up, over and over, again and again. I would not have been able to get through the 3 surgeries in 17 hours without my yoga teacher and dear friend who not only drove me to the clinic for the second visit, but also took in my dog for the day so that I didn't have to worry about him; my good good friend who stayed in contact with me the whole time just to make sure I was still functional (she sent me many memes that kept me entertained); my partner who came up to Portland from Salem (a 1+ hours drive) and took me to the ER, helped me navigate, advocate, and joked with me. I admit the memes and jokes did make the pain worse but oh was it worth it :)

Right now, I am at about 50% of my normal capacity and processing what I went through. It will be another 4-6 weeks before I heal. I am also looking at life from a different perspective: What Is This Life For? What Is The Most Important? How Do We Apply the Lessons We Learn into Our Work?

At the end of the first procedure, I cried. My doctor asked me why. I replied:"I am thinking about all the women who have to go through this (meaning the severe pain)." Now, I think "this" also means the stigma, the unspoken trauma and pain, and the system.

Zhou Fang 


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