Lum: Throat-cutting report

Su Lum

I am delighted to report that last week’s transtracheal surgery went as smoothly and as successfully as I possibly could have imagined.

Having had my share of various nasty relapses over the years, I’m a bit superstitious about saying how absolutely astoundingly great this procedure is, that my oxygen levels have already improved and that my sinuses feel as if I’ve undergone a head transplant.

The more oxygen I needed, the more my soft palate dried up like a piece of cardboard and my sinuses felt filled with hard cement, which could only be dissolved by pumping 15 cubic centimeters of warm saline solution up my nose every evening, an operation that sometimes triggered alarming, copious nosebleeds.

Some of my friends have remarked that I was brave to take the transtracheal step, but I didn’t look on it as optional, and I was definitely ready to give it a try. By the time we left for Denver, the only portable oxygen tank that wasn’t too heavy for me to carry in a backpack lasted only 40 minutes. I had to make out my shopping list aisle by aisle so I could fly through the market hoping I didn’t run into anybody who wanted to chat. It was transtrach or move to sea level.

I get pissed off at Aspen’s suicidal “progress,” but hey, it’s home.

So, off with my daughters Skye and Hillery to the big city, and next morning, right on time, I was humping myself off the gurney onto an operating table the width of a gymnast’s balance beam and as cold as a titch’s wit. A second later it was all over and I was looking around at a sea of faces and scrubs with no idea who, what, when, where or why.

My amnesia only lasted a few moments (I think), and then came the worst part of the whole deal: I was stuck in an overflowing recovery room (ward, really) for five long hours because the hospital didn’t have a bed for me. It would have been much worse if I had to wait that long for the surgery, so I’m counting my blessings.

It was one of those long, druggy hospital nights, but my stay was mercifully short. The next morning, Dr. Schwartz, my transtrach guru from National Jewish, pulled the temporary tube out of my neck, put in a real one (all surprisingly painless, and I couldn’t feel it in there, only the comforting whiff of oxygen wind), took the cannula bridle I’d been wearing for 17 years off my head and turned on the oxygen in my neck tube. My kids and I burst into tears.

By 11:30 a.m., I was released and we were on our way to a Japanese restaurant for lunch.

It wasn’t entirely a walk in the park, but I’d guess that a Caesarian section or a facelift would be a lot worse. I wished that Dr. Macdonald, my surgeon, could have removed my turkey wattle while he was, as they say, “in there.”

I have to clean the tube twice a day with what looks like one of my grandmother’s long hatpins (I can barely feel it) and squirt saline into it, but it is not a big sterilizing deal — mainly soap and water, wash your hands.

When the hole, which looks very damned big to me, heals and closes up, I have to learn to pull the whole thing out and exchange it for a clean one twice a day. Until then, a professional has to do that part.

Meanwhile, my nose, throat, soft palate and sinuses have transmogrified from a war zone to an English watercolor. Cleaning the tubes will be a drop in the bucket compared with what I used to have to do for a breath of air.

Yeah, my neck is sore. It’s OK.

My daughters and I hung out in Denver until Friday (that was the best part), when I had my first changing of the tube (painless), and headed back to Fat City. During those five days, I managed to hit Kentucky Fried Chicken three times — nirvana.

The only thing I have to watch out for (besides fever, infection and things best unmentioned) are what I think of as hairballs. If that sounds gross, the real name for them is “mucus plugs.” I have to be diligent applying the hatpin lest a ball of mucus plug up the end of my inner tube.

I already barked up one of these icky things the size of a raisin, and once I learn how to change my own tubes, this problem is supposed to disappear. But I was so reminded of my childhood cat, Cassiopeia, half Persian and half angora, who used to work for days on his hairballs, coughing, retching and gagging until he hacked out the hairy, turdy-looking thing, usually steaming on my pillow.

I’ve probably grossed you out already, and I’ve barely gotten started. Stay tuned — or not. Thanks so much for all of your well-wishes, and all of you out there who are on oxygen, there’s a whole new life after cannulas. Go for it!

Su Lum is a longtime local whose oxygen numbers are good and whose spirits are high. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times. Reach her at