“Taking a selfie?”
By now, I’ve come to anticipate Z’s familiar scoff whenever he catches me turning my iPhone lens inwards. He concedes that taking a selfie isn’t a terrible idea if I can capture a magnificent landscape behind me … but he doesn’t understand why I sometimes take them in mundane settings like subway platforms, dentists’ offices, and on our living room couch.
Most of the time, my motivation for these snapshots can be attributed to a mixture of boredom and vanity. But for several months in 2015, I took photos of myself out of pure fear.
I was afraid that I would lose my face — and not in the figurative sense of experiencing mild social embarrassment (which had always been presented to me by my Chinese-American family as one of the worst possible outcomes in life).
I was afraid that after an upcoming surgery, I would literally no longer have a face I’d recognize as my own.
In June of 2014, I discovered a hard lump just under my left ear. It was about a third of the size of a golf ball, and I could see it in the mirror.
I was used to getting swollen lymph nodes, so I figured the new lump would subside. This conviction, together with my general laziness, meant that I didn’t get it checked out until December. When I finally bit the bullet and saw a doctor, she suggested that I get the lump biopsied.
Result: a benign tumor was revealed to be growing out of my left salivary gland — a part of my body I barely knew existed! But I wasn’t too disturbed; I thought I just needed to ease up on the Sour Patch Kids. After all, the tumor was benign and could presumably be removed.
It was only when I started investigating the removal surgery that anxiety set in.
My first stop was to the office of an Ear and Throat specialist. I showed the doctor my biopsy results and asked for his advice.
He poked at the lump, then sat back in his chair to ponder. Finally, he asked me my age.
“Usually, these tumors show up in people who are 40+ years old,” he expounded. “It can definitely be removed, but the surgery is risky. There’s a chance of permanent facial paralysis.” He paused. “For you, I wouldn’t recommend removal. Looks are important when you’re young.”
I gaped at him. Sure, I valued my pulchritude — but could I really just walk around with this golf ball in my neck? “What if it grows?” I asked.
“Just measure it with a ruler every few months,” he shrugged. “Do you have a ruler?”
I thought about my plastic green ruler from Staples lying at home on my desk. It wasn’t bad for drawing straight lines, but I suspected it wouldn’t be great for measuring incremental changes in the size of rounded objects.
Bewildered, I said meekly, “Yes, I do.”
Obviously, I needed a second opinion, so I looked up a local surgeon who specialized in the operation. When I arrived at his office with a coffee in hand, his receptionist smiled apologetically and motioned for me to toss the drink.
“He’s very particular about food and beverages in the office, even in the lobby,” she clarified conspiratorially.
I would soon find out those weren’t the only areas in which he was particular. When I met him face to face, he addressed me with a military brusqueness.
“Of course you have to remove the tumor,” he huffed indignantly. “Any remotely trained doctor would tell you that. If you don’t remove it, the tumor can grow tendrils around your facial nerve, and you would end up with facial paralysis anyway. Also, it can turn malignant, and then you’re looking at much lower survival rates. The surgery is delicate but routine, and I am very experienced. Now, let me take a look at your MRI results.”
As I struggled to weigh his words against the words of my first doctor, I reluctantly handed him a CD from an MRI lab I’d visited recently. To my surprise, he fumbled the CD and dropped it on the floor.
He tried to pick it up and fumbled it again. The CD clattered against the tile a second time.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with my hands today!” laughed the surgeon.
My eyes bugged. When he tried to usher me to the receptionist to pick a date for the surgery, I stammered something about needing to check my calendar, stumbled out onto the sidewalk, and made a beeline to purchase a hot, soothing beverage.
I guess it’s not for nothing that they say “third time’s a charm.” The surgeon I visited next also advocated for removal, but he projected calmness and warmth and took the time to answer all of my questions.
I scheduled the surgery for June 2015. In the ensuing weeks, I prepared for the worst. I took selfies galore, read blogs by people living with facial paralysis, read about how to deal with depression resulting from facial paralysis, and read stories about patients who’d experienced anesthetic awareness (patients who had woken up in the middle of a surgery but not been able to signify their awakened state to doctors).
By the day of the surgery, I was properly terrified. Tears streamed down my face as I waited to be operated on. My surgeon was running late from another appointment, and I prayed that he’d had some time to rest and eat a sandwich before slicing open my neck.
Meanwhile, the anesthesiologist for the operation met with me separately to discuss my medical history. I asked her about the possibility of anesthetic awareness.
She cocked an eyebrow. “You know that’s not going to happen, right?
“Please,” I begged. “Could you give me something extra? I’m very resistant to drugs. One-time-Z-and-I-went-to-Amsterdam-and-we-got-some-stuff-and-he-had-a-great-time-but-I-couldn’t-feel-anything-and-also-at-the-dentist’s-office-I-always-have-to-ask-for-more-Novocaine-before-my-mouth-goes-numb-and-”
“Alright, alright,” she interjected. “I’ll give you something extra.”
The operating room looked like the interior of a spaceship. Humongous white fluorescent lights hovered over the operating table.
“Am I getting a tumor removed or being abducted by aliens?” I joked weakly as I climbed onto the table. The anesthesiologist chortled as she walked over to my side.
“Just relax,” she said as she fiddled with equipment beyond my range of vision. “Think about a relaxing activity. Do you like having a glass of wine from time to time?”
“Sure,” I replied as I squinted to keep my eyes open despite the fluorescent lights.
“Red wine or white wine?”
“It depends on what I’m eating. I could go for either.”
A needle slipped into my arm.
“What’s your favorite wine?” The voice of the anesthesiologist droned. “Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Merlot…”
I don’t remember the rest.
Here I am, almost a year later. Thankfully, I experienced only a month’s worth of very mild, partial facial paralysis, which simply meant that my smile was lopsided for a few weeks. I did lose permanent sensation in my left earlobe and down part of my neck, but those are things I barely notice.
To this day, I don’t know if the anesthesiologist gave me something extra or if she gave me anything at all. (Who knows? Perhaps I’m the first patient in the history of medicine to be anesthetized by the reading of a wine list.)
It’s hard to say how the whole episode affected me. At a minimum, I think I’ve definitely become more aware of and grateful for my health.
As for Z? I think he’s a bit more forgiving when he sees me taking a selfie. Even if it is just from our living room couch.