My New Face
“I am going to take your vitals,” the nurse says calmly. She takes my temperature and places the blood pressure reader around my upper arm. Taking my temperature while reading my blood pressure, the machine around my arm begins to swell, the pressure feeling stronger by the minute.
“How are you feeling?” she says, almost as an afterthought.
I sit there, sutures in my nose and chin, bacitracin completely covering every scar prominently adorning my face. I’ve been better.
“Fine,” I say.
“Good,” she replies. “This should be almost done.”
I have learned since my world came crashing down more than eight years ago – suffering second and third degree burns at the hands of an exploding glass jar filled with sulfuric acid – never to show your cards. People want to hear what they want to hear. They need to be reassured, told that everything is going to be alright. Even if you are the one with dozens of stitches in your face.
“The doctor will be right in.”
My mind wanders while awaiting the arrival of the doctor who performed surgery on my face just five days ago. This appointment is simply a follow-up, providing an opportunity for the doctor to track my progress since the operation. A sense of anticipation fills the room. Will the doctor be pleased with his handiwork?
Moments later he appears, wearing a black suit jacket with white stripes.
“…I try to dress up when I am in the office…” he says, “…since I don’t really have an excuse to wear scrubs.”
His choice of dress notwithstanding, the man standing in front of me is a fantastic doctor. After decades of work with burn survivors, he has developed a knack for treating his patients with both care and respect. He is always careful in his examinations not to stare too long at the affected areas, tilting his eyes in such a way that one almost feels comfortable by his gaze.
“Lift your head up for me,” he asks with a hint of compassion.
I know what he is looking for, the area he is most drawn to in the wake of scar revision surgery. The scar under my nose – the pesky flap that keeps pulling down my right nostril, threatening to collapse once again – is the area most in need of correction. He carefully inspects his work, eyeing the area to see if his efforts were enough to prevent the disappearance of this vital airflow.
He is not the only one carrying out an examination. My eyes are trained on him, even as my head is tilted upwards towards the ceiling. I am intent on catching a glimpse of his reaction, attempting to read him in an effort to decipher whether more surgeries will be necessary to save my face. I am searching for any glimmer in his eye, anything that would betray his inner thoughts. For, in many ways, my future remains within his hands.
“Ok,” he says, motioning for me to return to my normal resting position.
“How is your breathing?” he asks.
“Much better,” I say.
“Good,” he says.
“How many days has it been since the operation?” he asks, glancing down towards my file sitting on the edge of the desk.
“It was Friday,” my mother says, acting as my mouthpiece in a journey that has largely been just as much hers as it has been mine.
She talks in these appointments much more than I do. At first, this was out of necessity. The shock felt after enduring such a traumatic event loomed large in those early days. As months of appointments and surgeries turned into years, my desire to communicate with medical staff has waned even further. We are a good team in that way. She does the talking, while I do my best to comprehend the implications of each word uttered by the doctor. In many ways she is my compass, leading me through the maze of healing and recovery.
“Ok, hop on up here,” he says, motioning towards the table in the middle of the room.
He doesn’t have to tell me what comes next. Out come the tweezers, his hands ready to remove the sutures currently holding my nose and chin together. He asks me to lift my head once again, getting a better look at the area he is about to inflict great pain upon.
Suddenly, I am overcome with a sense of fear. I am unsure as to whether I have what it takes to stomach the pain that will soon reverberate around every part of my face. Even though I have endured such appointments before, I remain just as scared as I did the first time I saw a doctor wielding a pair of tweezers. As a child, I believed adults were immune to such feelings. I could not have been more wrong.
Reaching down towards my nose, he begins to cut. A flood of pain envelops my entire nasal region. The scar he has remade is nearly completely attached to my right nostril, a rather sensitive area that is capable of triggering tears. He continues cutting, making his way down the right side of my face. It feels as if someone is digging a knife into my face and repeatedly ripping off flecks of skin.
“Everyone thought that you were brother and sister,” the doctor says in reference to my mother and me, attempting to reduce some of the tension filling the room.
“That happens often,” my mother says, detailing how on a recent conference photo shoot, the photographer thought we were husband and wife.
When people make such declarations, I cannot help but wonder if this means I look old. Perhaps the acute stress felt over the last several years has caused me to age less gracefully in comparison to many of my peers. The doctor disagrees with such an assertion.
“It’s not about you,” the doctor assures me. “It’s really a compliment to your mom.”
He continues cutting, undoing the careful work he completed just five days before. Tears begin to well up inside my eyelids, the pain beginning to overwhelm my sensory system. Part of me wants to ask the doctor for a few seconds to compose myself before continuing on. Yet prolonging the inevitable seems rather silly. Best to carry on, hoping that the agony will end soon enough.
My mom continues making conversation, attempting to distract me from the pain. She stands close by, and I grab her hand, trying to steady myself in the face of mild distress. Suddenly, tears begin streaming down my face.
“I’m sorry I am making you cry,” the man says.
He grabs a tissue and carefully wipes away the tears. A simple act of kindness can do much to urge a patient forward in their quest for healing. Even in the face of mounting uncertainty.
Once he finishes with my nose, it is time to dissemble the sutures on my chin. He grabs at my face, struggling to completely remove each suture.
“Sorry,” he says repeatedly.
“I am trying not to get your hair…” he says, his arms flailing as he repeatedly jabs at my chin.
My inability to shave around the areas operated on demand a beard be grown. My hair has grown in quickly, gratefully covering most of my face. Facial hair will help disguise the inflammation that will likely be present for the next few months, while serving as a protective shield from uncomfortable questions from both friends and strangers alike regarding the appearance of my new face. Growing a beard is as close as I can get to pretend the scars have fully vanished.
Finally, he finishes, and I sit up, relieved that the process has finally reached a much-desired end.
“You have sutures that will dissolve,” he tells me, warning me to be very careful over the coming week. Now that the stitches have been removed, any disturbance could cause the affected areas to revert back to previous form.
“Be careful not to let anything hit against your chin,” he says, motioning towards the bottom of my face.
He takes another long look, beginning at my forehead and reaching my neck. He seems to be searching for something, a sign that his work is complete. Despite his efforts, he appears unable to find what he is looking for.
“Can I see you next week?” he says compassionately. “Would that be ok?”
His question strikes me as an odd way to ask for another appointment.
“Of course,” I say.
“I just want to take another look, and then, you will be done,” he says in an uncertain tone.
He hesitates on that last word, as if somehow, next week’s appointment may lead to another. This series of events has played out before. Doctor’s promising only one operation is in the offing, only to learn in follow-up appointments that more is required to correct the damage inflicted by negligently stored sulfuric acid. The need for residual surgeries is what led me to take an extended break in the first place. Raised expectations over the desired outcome of medical intervention repeatedly dashed has a way of inhibiting even the bravest among us.
“Do you have any other questions for me?”
I take a moment to collect my thoughts. A million questions come to mind. I want to ask why a burn injury suffered during my teenage years is coming back to haunt me in my mid-twenties. I want to ask if he believes that appointments much like this one will continue to make appearances in the future, forcing me to continually confront the consequences of an accident that never should have been. I want to ask if he believes I have what it takes to face whatever comes my way. If I have built up enough courage in reserves to face another operation; if, he deems one as necessary, of course.
Instead of peppering the good man with questions for which he likely possesses few good answers, I ask him if he is happy with the results of the operation.
“Yeah,” he says, launching into an explanation of the stated goals of the surgery.
The goal was to achieve “increased airflow,” to improve the quality of my breathing – while doing all he could to make small, “aesthetic,” improvements. His words make me believe that not much more can be done to improve upon the look of these red scars covering my face.
He offers a few more instructions, asking me to keep applying bacitracin to my face until our next appointment. We ask a few more questions, and he answers them quickly, seemingly unfazed by our many queries.
“Can I blow my nose?” I ask innocently.
“Be very careful,” he says, with a look of alarm. “I don’t want you to go like this…” he says, mimicking blowing his nose while motioning with his hands. He reiterates his concern that any pressure applied to this area could prevent healing from being achieved.
I begin to feel the pressure that will likely consume every waking moment for the next few days. Any small move could alter the course of healing. Forgetting to apply bacitracin, or failing to remember not to blow my nose. The fate of my future face is no longer in this capable man’s hands.
“See you next week,” he says, walking towards the door.
Before he makes his exit, I get in a few last words.
“I just want to thank you again doctor…this surgery has been much easier than any of the others…so thank you.”
“I am glad,” he says, his head peeking out from behind the door.
With that, we are on our way out of the office. There is nothing left for the doctor to do; for, the rest is up to me.
About the writer:
Samuel Moore-Sobel is a freelance writer. He is nearing publication of a memoir focusing on his experiences revolving around both trauma and recovery. Moore-Sobel writes a column for the Blue Ridge Leader and his work has been featured in several publications including Burn Support Magazine, Loudoun Now, Roanoke Star, and Mental Health Talk.
Image: “Mask” by Shelley Sarna. Sculpture. No medium specified. No size specified. By permission. Sarna is a sculptor living in Ottawa. Her work has recently appeared in Street Light magazine and in Gravel, among others. Sarna currently has work on display at the Ottawa School of Art.