This is a story about the razor fine line between humility and humiliation and it begins with a trip to the operating room.
After making the decision to have my cancerous prostate removed by a surgeon and his robot, I manage to stop thinking about it for a few weeks. My oldest son is graduating from college and I’m racing to complete as much work as I can on a house I’m remodeling. The last days pass in a blur.
Eighteen hours to go and I guzzle 20 ounces of cherry-flavored magnesium citrate that will give the scrubbing bubble treatment to my guts. As I trudge to the bathroom over and over, I realize that this is truly the beginning of putting my fate in the hands of others.
At the hospital, I sign documents and give my girlfriend and parents final hugs and kisses. Then I doff street clothes for the classic open-backed gown, slipper socks and paper-cloth bonnet of the surgical patient. A shot of Versed helps me relax.
And then we are on our way. I bump through the door of the operating room, secure in the bosom of the drug, beneath a giant light with a million lenses. I breathe gently through the anesthesiologist’s mask and pass peacefully into the future.
Git 'er done
As easily and simply as I fell asleep in the OR, I awake in the recovery room.
The first thing I see is Katie Cannon, the photojournalist documenting my journey for the series, and her camera. “Hey, Stuckey!”
I ask Katie, who was in the OR for the entire procedure, how it went. Then I immediately fret that I'm putting her in an awkward spot if something has gone horribly awry.
But she smiles, which probably means that one of my legs has not been accidentally amputated.
I am happily amazed by the simple facts that I am alive and in no pain. I can feel that something has happened to my belly, but that’s about it.
A comforting cocoon of morphine and the doctors’ mostly positive post-op reports keep the anxiety at bay. Although the tumor was bigger than expected, the operation went very well and they believe all of the cancer came out with my prostate.
Intense gratitude for all that others are doing for me carries me happily through the first hours. But when I try to rise for the first time, weakness and nausea sweep over me and an unavoidable sense of failure sets in.
That’s what this part of my journey is really all about.
As men, many of us invest so much in carrying the ball and seizing the day. We’ll handle it. We’ll git ’er done. We don’t need any help. You can count on us. And if you can’t count on us, well, at least we can count on ourselves.
I have always loved being the go-to guy. From my youngest days, I was intent on taking care of myself and everyone else. I got my first newspaper job at age 14 and my second at 17, moving 200 miles away from my family to earn my own way through college.
I took as my hero another San Francisco Bay Area boy, Jack London, the ultimate in self-made rugged individuals. I talked bigger, wrote faster and drank harder than all my friends. At work or after, I thrived on being "The Man."
No matter what I wanted, I had only to point myself in the proper direction and go, physically as well as intellectually. In my 20s, I set tile in San Francisco, muscling 65-pound buckets of mortar two at a time up six flights of stairs with a Pall Mall dangling from my lips. In my 30s, I hiked all 212 miles of the John Muir trail through the heart of the Sierra in a dozen days. In my 40s, I have scaled Washington’s ice-covered mountains from Rainier to Glacier Peak.
True, I have slowed down some. I don’t drink any more. I try to listen at least half as much as I talk. But those were choices I made, not consequences forced on me by renegade cells staging a coup inside my own body, tiny but powerful avatars of evil that have left me roped to a bed like some kind of goofy Gulliver.
So in my hospital room now, surrounded by smiling loved ones and flowers, I am in truly uncharted territory. I am breathing for myself, but that’s about it. I had to be lifted into this bed by others. I’m being fed and watered by a tube. Another tube is doing my peeing for me, emptying the blood-tinged results in a bag on the floor for all my visitors to see.
Welcome to no man's land
As night falls, so does my blood pressure, precipitously low, and I feel like I’m sinking into a worsening nightmare. I have no idea where this might lead. I fear the worst, that I’m bleeding internally. All the mortar I have carried, the miles I have hiked and the B.S. I have spun mean nothing now. I am in a no man’s land like no other I’ve ever visited and I want out now. But that’s futile. The single thing I can do is lay off the self-administered morphine, which I do, but even this seems to have no result on my blood pressure.
In the morning, the nurses stop giving me a powerful anti-inflammatory drug. Slowly, my blood pressure rises, the nausea abates and I am able to make a few slow, careful forays along the hallways. But my doctor stops by and says he wants me to stay another night.
I leave the next morning, completely dependent on my girlfriend and parents to get me to the car and into the house. They help me eat, drink and shower. They change pee bags. I have not needed this kind of care since I was, literally, still in diapers.
That they are willing to give it to me is deeply moving; that I am able to receive it without falling apart emotionally is somewhat of a mystery to me.
I am deeply humbled, aware of limitations that I have never known, but I am able to keep from crossing that fine line into humiliation. I puzzle over this for days and finally conclude that it’s a product of the great care and love others are giving me and my own willingness to be very open about what I’m going through.
What the hell happens now?
There’s still plenty of apprehension about what lies ahead, though. I am thinking a little about the future of sex, some about my first post-op PSA test in six weeks and a lot about what will happen to my ability to hold urine once the catheter is removed. Twelve days pass quickly and it’s time to lose the pee tube.
The same kind, efficient nurse who presided over my biopsy is on hand to remove the catheter. Lying on an exam table, I squeeze my girlfriend’s hand. The nurse pulls gently. An electric shock sparks somewhere deep inside my abdomen and shoots up my urethra to the tip of my penis. That’s it. The catheter has come out with a single pull.
I lift my head slightly and look down my body, past my shirt, which is pulled high on my chest, beyond my pasty belly where Steri-Strips still cover the surgeon’s holes, over my shaved groin and shriveled manhood to my underwear and workout pants, lassoed embarrassingly around my ankles. What happens now? What the hell happens now?
My feet, the flattest size 12s on the planet, lie splayed on the table in white socks and sandals, framing my view of the exam room’s wall. I think of all the places they have taken me — from Manhattan sidewalks to Sierra summits to Kona beaches. They have served me well in the past, but now they are just a pair of awkward bookends around a very uncertain future.
I hope they can get me there. I know it’s time to get up and get started, but I am in no hurry to go.
MSNBC.com writer Mike Stuckey was diagnosed with prostate cancer in April. He will chronicle his battle in "Low Blow," a series appearing every other Wednesday. In the next installment, he faces a fear he didn't know he had.