Note: This writing was developed for The Girl Named Trees Project (a children's charitable foundation) to help parents understand what their children might remember after having surgery. You can learn more about this project and the beautiful children's book written by Therese Gramercy, with 50 artworks hand-painted on silk by Alaskan artist Gina Murrow, at the project's website www.girlnamedtrees.com.
A true story for adults: what it is like for a child, and how it feels to own such a memory.
What I Remember – Surgery at Age Five
I truly was the smallest among us, and the shiest. I had been quite sick since birth and I was even smaller than the smallest size for the school uniforms (size 4X), so they custom-made a uniform. I had already seen a ton of doctors by the time I had my surgery, so I was not afraid of doctors or hospitals or E.R.’s at all. My mom kept telling the doctors she thought I had appendicitis. My dad was away at sea (he had been away for more than two years, back-to-back with another tour of duty just like that).
The Day of Surgery
I doubled-over. My mom knew exactly what was wrong, for she had a mother's intuition that this day would come, she just didn't know when it would be. She rushed me to the nearest hospital – where it became an 'on‑call' surgeon’s fate to save her little girl – while she prayed that it would be so.
When I was older, my mom told me that the hospital staff had said how good I had been about the surgery, for such a young child. But that wasn't it at all – I had felt totally disconnected from my body. I didn't feel pain at that point. They poked me with needles to take blood, but I didn't care about it. That young, you don't understand the concept 'of 'death', but I knew that I was "outta there". They used gas masks for surgery back then (the 1950's), but I didn't struggle, I didn't care what they did, I just looked up at it, then nothing.
While in the Hospital
When I woke up the next day, it was just like waking up on any day, so I tried to roll over to my side. Whoa! The pain! The exact thought that went through my child head was "Yikes! I don't think I'll try to do that again!" Then I started becoming more awake and figuring out where I was. I was in a crib - that was odd. I was alone in the room, but that didn’t worry me, for a hospital setting was something I knew quite well. I just waited quietly, and eventually a nurse came in to see me.
I vaguely remember sitting at a table with some other children to color, but I was much younger than they were. I remember talking with a boy who looked at my coloring book with me. I remember him trying to explain something to me but I don't know what. He seemed so tall (I didn't know how small I was or how unusual it was for one so young to be there). I know I wasn't with them for very long (but I don't remember if I knew that tummy surgery meant sitting was a hard thing to do or if it did hurt after a while). From my room, you could see the movies at the drive-in just down the hill from the hospital. I remember seeing a cartoon with Disney's Goofy and Pluto. But I was afraid of heights and I didn't like to be by the window. When my mom left at night she put my crib back on the other side of the room. I preferred that feeling of safety over the fun of seeing a cartoon. I don't think I was anxious that she left, it was just like a other night when it was time to go to bed and go to sleep.
After Leaving the Hospital
I don't remember going home or convalescing. I remember going back to the surgeon for him to take out the stitches. My uncle took me. The doctor was very nice – so happy and very pleased. The stitches were metal; they felt really weird coming out. Both my uncle and the doctor picked me up and moved me about in a way that felt unnatural to me. I eyed them suspiciously but I stayed quiet. My thought, "They are treating me like you would a doll. I wonder if these guys know I am a little girl."; (I didn't understand that they were trying not to hurt my tummy.) My uncle sat me on the counter and held a carton of milk & straw for me to drink like I couldn't do it myself – who knows, maybe I couldn’t.
Back to School
While recuperating, I missed the first week of 1st grade, so it was not fun the next week being the new kid, as one so shy. But I liked being at school very much. I was the smallest child in school, which I didn't like; Icouldn't hide away being a shy little girl, because I had to go first in the line that we had to form at the start of the school day and at the end of each break. In 2nd grade, I was still the smallest, so I was the first in line for First Communion too; my mom made that tiny dress with a beautiful fabric that my dad brought back with him from overseas. It took me until 3rd grade to grow a bit taller (second, then third in line) and I was glad for it! I had fewer illnesses now and life was normal, but I never forgot that feeling of being “outta there”.
A Change in View
That feeling – “outta there”? It colored my life from that point on; and it helped me to sort out what was important from what was meaningless. I learned to watch out for those little ones who might not be able to watch out for themselves - an old soul, indeed. My dad lovingly called me his “strange little girl”, even as an adult, and even when I cared for him in the hospital many times. I just smiled at him and said “I know.”
A Lifelong Thank You
Although I didn't even know that surgeon's name, I always felt grateful to him, for he was the one who brought me back from being “outta there”. I do know that he was known way back then for being able to do surgery “through the eye of a needle”, and that he used that skill to leave the tiniest incision that he possibly could on my very young body. That little scar still has the power to make me smile anytime that I see it, touch it, or even talk about it. It became my loving little way to remember this gentle caring unnamed surgeon and his gift of life to me, the one who was once the smallest among us.