“Am I patient?”

The three-year-old me asked my mother this question after a surgery in 1982. I had just had a myringotomy, a fairly common procedure in which a surgeon places small “tubes” into the eardrum to help fluid drain from the ears.

My earliest childhood memories are of ear infections. I remember rubbing my ears with both fists and crying.

Mom tried everything to ease the pain. She wrapped my head in warm compresses heated in the oven, and I was later prescribed a liquid medication she had to drop into my ears. The liquid was cold, tickled, and didn’t feel right—like when water gets into the ear after swimming.

After months of pain I was eventually scheduled for the myringotomy—the first surgery in my life.

A concept called “childhood amnesia” explains why most adults can’t recall episodic memories before the ages of 2-4, but there is a powerful moment from the myringotomy I remember quite clearly.

My mother was leaning over me while I was laying on a gurney being wheeled into surgery. The gurney was pushed through a set of double doors and my mother stayed behind. I called out to her, but a nurse reassured me I would see my mom through a small window in the door. Mom had her face up to the window.

A cheery person in the operating room put a mask over my nose and mouth and asked, “Do you know how to count to 10?” I nodded enthusiastically because I knew my numbers. The cheery person said, “Wonderful! In your head, count to 10 for us.”

1… 2… Blackness.

The adult me has no more memories from that experience, but my mother does. When I was growing up she liked to tell the funny story about the time I had tubes placed in my ears.

You woke up from anesthesia asking, ‘Was I patient?’ I didn’t know what you were talking about at first. Of course you were patient—you were unconscious.

But I soon realized you were using the word patient in the wrong context. As a little kid, the only time you heard that word was when an adult would tell you to “be patient.”

While you were unconscious, you must have heard the doctors and nurses calling you “the patient” during the surgery. So when you woke up you wanted to know if you had been good.

Am I a good patient?

Today, my husband Brett and I joke about things that happened after my brain cancer diagnosis. Many heartbreaking things occurred during the first two years, and it’s only now with the luxury of time we are able to laugh.

Stitches and incision site for my craniotomies.

To recap the first day… I had two grand mal seizures, landed in the ER, saw a CT scan with a “mass” in my brain, and was admitted to the hospital for surgery. This all went down in the matter of two hours. Upon intake, doctors asked myriad questions about my medical history. I wanted to be helpful and provide as much information as possible.

I wanted to be a good patient.

The mass in my brain was a mystery to all of us, but questioning from the doctors made me feel like they thought I knew something and was hiding it from them. When asked about previous surgeries I consistently said, “I had tubes put in my ears when I was three.”

Brett would shake his head when I provided this detail because he felt it was irrelevant to the matter at hand, whereas I believed I was being a “good patient” by telling them everything I knew. Maybe it was too much. But I kept saying this when asked about previous surgeries.

Of course, the myringotomy never came up as a point of interest. But someone, somewhere, added this detail to my medical record.

Nearly nine years after that trip to the ER, I met my new neuro-oncologist. As her new patient, she sat down to review my medical history with me. I thought we’d jump right in to the brain cancer details. But no.

“So… I see here you had tubes in your ears as a child,” she stated.

I looked at Brett and said nothing, but feeling vindicated, my face said, See, I told you someone was listening.

Too Much medical Information (TMI)

Is it possible I provided too much information for my medical team? Yes, but I believe it better to share everything and leave it to the professionals to weed out extraneous details.