The final breath

With my turning sixty this year, I have been posting on Facebook what I hope are interesting things from my life.  Generally, they are fairly short bits.  The piece which follows is longer and, because it is, and because of its nature, I found it worthy to place on my blog.

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I never knew the woman in life, but I would be there for her final breath. The timing would be perfect, and this would provide me with one of the truly unique experiences of my life.

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I had been in the ministry a few years. We lived in Guttenberg, Iowa. I had a church there along with one twenty-five minutes north, in McGregor, Iowa. It was a summer Friday when the phone rang. I had Friday as my day off. It was typical of me not to shave and to dress in my grubbiest t-shirt and shorts—hardly pastor-presentable.

That’s how I was dressed when the person on the other end of the phone said, “Pastor Eilers, could you come to the Great River Care Center? A woman is near death and her two sons would like a pastor.”

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The Great River Care Center, McGregor, Iowa.

When she told me the woman’s name, I responded, “She’s not a member of mine. Did you call her pastor?” “Yes. She’s a member of the ELCA church on the hill south of McGregor. I called there. And I called all of the other ELCA churches in the area. No one is answering their phone.”

“It’s my day off. I have to shave and dress. It’s a twenty-five minute drive to McGregor. Tell the sons I will be there in thirty minutes.” “Thank you, Pastor.”

I zipped my electric razor over my face, then changed into my pastor attire. Within a half-hour, I was walking into Agnes’s room, but as I made the drive north two things nagged at me.  Would she still be alive when I got there, making my trip feel futile?  Or would she linger for hours and I would find that I couldn’t leave until she breathed her last?

I entered the room to find her two sons holding vigil. I introduced myself, then asked them out to the hall. “I don’t like to talk in front of the person, and I wanted to ask some questions.” They filled me in on the basic things to help me know their mother. I then said, “Clearly, your mother does not have long. Are you okay with me talking openly with her, that she will be with the Lord soon?” They were fine with everything. We headed back into the room.

I always assume that the person in the bed can both hear and understand, so I spoke to Agnes as if she were awake. I got really close—my face only inches from hers—and put my hand on the back of her head and neck. I introduced myself and explained that her pastor could not be reached, but I was pleased to be there with her and her boys. I spoke of the blessed life she enjoyed on the farm, and everything pertinent told to me by her sons.

I then spoke of her impending death and recited some beloved Scriptures to assure her that she was a precious child of God and soon she would be in His presence in heaven. I then prayed with her.

That’s when it happened, and it happened exactly as I will now tell you, with not one bit of exaggeration.

Concluding the prayer, I spoke the benediction: “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord look upon you with favor and give you peace.” With the closing words, I made the sign of the cross on her forehead. I finished, “Amen.”

Immediately, with not a millisecond’s hesitation, she gurgled. This was the only time at death that I witnessed bile come up and out of the mouth. She gurgled once, and that was it.

She was dead.

She died the moment I finished what I was asked to come to do.

Agnes’s sons stood by, marveling at what they’d just witnessed.

On the inside, I was thinking, “Wow!  Did you see that?  I’ve never seen that before!  Guys, that just doesn’t happen!”  On the outside, I acted as if this were business as usual, the moment far too solemn for comment.

I stood. I expressed my sorrow for their earthly loss and my joy at their mother’s eternal gain. They were wonderfully appreciative that I had come. They were still shaking their heads as I exited the room and headed back to Guttenberg.

I will now admit that when I was phoned to make this visit I was not pleased. It was my day off, I was not this woman’s pastor, and I wasn’t an ELCA minister. I worked hard six days a week and loved my one full day when I could do whatever I wanted, and not have to get dressed up.

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A section of the Great River Road which I drove hundreds of times between Guttenberg and McGregor, Iowa.  It was equal parts inspiring for its beauty and frustrating for its hilliness and constant curves.

But when I drove home? As I made my way down the Great River Road, which skirts the Mississippi River, climbing and descending hill after bluff after holler, and back to Guttenberg, I experienced that wonderful feeling of fulfillment. Of having done a good thing. Of having been in the most privileged spot a human being can be in, the one to whom family turned at the time of their loved one’s death.

I never knew these folks before that day, and I never saw them again. But, for a few precious minutes, I was their pastor. And this special occasion provided me with one of the truly unique moments of my life.

How the hospital treated me

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Before Dr. Sidhbh Gallagher arrived a year-and-a-half ago, sex reassignment surgery (SRS) was not being performed in Indianapolis. It has taken time for her to get established, to line up patients, and for the patients to be ready for surgery, all which helps understand why I was only the sixth person to have SRS at Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Hospital.

This being new to the hospital introduces many topics for consideration. Though I have found health care folks to be very understanding and helpful, one should not assume that everyone is automatically on board with SRS. Add to this that, at Eskenazi, surgery and post-op care is being done in the burn unit. This means that a person, who has had elective surgery—and a surgery which many people find suspect—is in the same ward as those who would never have chosen to be hospitalized for the reason that put them there.

As, when I became mobile two days after surgery, I walked the halls of the burn unit, my eye caught a number of these patients. Many of them looked to be in serious condition, with tremendously challenging healing in front of them, perhaps with lives permanently altered, and in need of the greatest care from the doctors, nurses, and therapists.

Why is SRS handled in the burn unit? The burn unit provides a place for the best of care. SRS is no small surgery. For the first few post-op days, the patient must be watched very carefully. Indeed, a nurse was in to see me every four hours, around the clock.

I am pleased to report that every last person treated me wonderfully, and no differently than I have ever been treated when previously hospitalized, pre-transition.

From admittance to release, I interacted with at least twenty persons. I was misgendered at least once by nearly half of them, and more than once by a few. Only one noted his mistake, saying, “Sorry,” and then using the correct pronoun.

One certainly appreciates that this was noticed, but I don’t absolutely need folks to make note of it. Simply correcting it tells me all I need from them.

When I had my first post-op visit, Dr. Gallagher told me that one of the folks felt terrible that she had misgendered me. This person popped in to say hi that day and was very friendly, as is her nature.

Frankly, I didn’t blame any of them for misgendering me, especially after surgery. I know what I looked like lying there, and I hardly resembled a woman, and with this growth on my vocal cord right now my voice sounds just awful. Sure, I have woman’s name, and everyone knew why I was there, but I have learned much about how people are perceived. I took no offense when called he and him, even as I appreciated when it was corrected to she and her.

The most sensitive situation for doctors and nurses was checking my dressing and examining the surgical area.  If anyone had a problem with this, with the changing of a penis into a vagina, I detected nothing.  I am sure you know how it can be when a person is disagreeable to something, or disgusted by it, how it can be almost impossible for it not to show on the face or in a verbal reaction—even if it is as small as a tiny grunt or sigh, or lips which are slightly turned down, or a frown on the eyes—so spontaneous it is that it happens despite the person’s not wanting to show it.  If any of the several folks, all of whom were women, had a problem with this, I witnessed nothing.  Nothing but concern for my well-being and their desire to do their job well for their patient.

If any of the staff begrudged my presence, and the reason I was in the burn unit, I never detected it. I give each one high marks. I always felt that my needs were the concern of everyone—doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, the physical therapist, and other staff.

I hope I have opportunity to make that known. I informed Dr. Gallagher when I saw her at my first post-op appointment, that she might pass on the good word.

Dr. Gallagher also does top surgery for trans men, and she has done way more of those than bottom surgery for trans women—something like eight times more. So, there have been a number of folks in Eskenazi for trans-related surgery.

This brings me to another new area of concern for the hospital, which is the spiritual care of its trans patients.

They have a fine man in the unit, who is serving as chaplain. Chaplain Rick was a pastor for many years, landing in the chaplaincy fairly recently. When he found Julie during my surgery, he got the lowdown on me. (Poor guy.) Post-surgery, he and I had two nice visits. This all is new for him. He demonstrated a high concern for understanding our issues, and for providing appropriate care.

It is common for trans folks, who were brought up in a religious faith, to have been stung bad. Many no longer possess the faith of their youth, largely because they have been beat down: “You’re going to hell if you keep this up.” Some have come to completely reject all ideas about God which they had been taught. Issues of religion often continue with family, as the family still practices its faith and often judge their child’s or sibling’s or parent’s transitioning as sinful.

So, to have Chaplain Rick walk into their hospital room, and announce that he is the chaplain on staff, could easily upset the transgender woman or transgender man who already is in a delicate state because of the surgery just undergone.

Chaplain Rick has already learned a lot. He demonstrates a keen concern for doing the best job he can for we trans folks. I am delighted that he wants to continue talking with me. He’s already contacted me since I’ve been home.

Not only am I pleased that he desires to provide good care for us, I like him—and likeability goes a long way in how a person will receive a minister in her or his hospital room.

Kudos to you, Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Hospital, and to your hardworking and faithful employees. Thank you for making what was the most physically challenging few days of my life to go as smoothly as one could ask.

I had a secret

Two years ago, today, I flipped my life on its head. I exposed myself. I left myself wide open to rejection, to ridicule, to accusations of every sort, even to hatred.

top-secret.jpgI emptied the contents of the envelope.  I told my secret.

We all harbor plenty of secrets. There’s no reason anyone ever needed to know that I once shoplifted. Sure, I was ten, and the item was a penny piece of Bazooka bubble gum, but that doesn’t change the fact that I stole something. (I used this when teaching my students the commandment, “You shall not steal.” It worked well as a lesson, and the youngsters loved that their pastor had been a regular kid.)

Many secrets should remain just that. Many secrets do no one any good to tell them. A woman once told me that she questioned who was the father of her son. She wanted to have a DNA test performed. I asked what her motivation was. She spoke of her guilt, of her having had an affair while married to the man whom her son never questioned was his biological father. Because her desire was not to help her child or anyone else, but only to try to shed her guilt, I urged her to keep quiet and move on. She did not. Nothing good came of it.

I had a secret, a terrible secret. Would the telling of my secret be a selfish act, or could I make good use of telling it?

When talking about becoming one of His disciples, the Lord Jesus spoke of counting the cost. “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it (Luke 14:28)?” I did a lot of cost-counting in the two years leading up to April 29, 2015. I believed that I had made my Pro and Con lists accurately, that I had assigned an honest value to the Pro items and a true cost to the Con items.

Weighing every factor, the desire to achieve good with my secret won the day. I would go public. I started a blog. My many Facebook connections would be my best way to spread the word.

After breaking down in my therapist session on April 23, I posted about that on April 24.

https://eilerspizza.wordpress.com/2015/04/24/therapy/

I had been in therapy for exactly two years and felt like I had gone nowhere. Every step forward was followed by an equal step backward. I had been in therapy for over a year before I retired from the ministry, and now nearly a year into retirement, and now I said that I would tell what forced me into retirement, what had been plaguing me my entire life, what was at that time seeking once again to crush me.

To finally get me to try killing myself.

And if I did not kill myself, I would literally loose my mind. I would become the guy in the corner, the one over there, drooling, being fed every meal, with that distant look in his eyes which left every visitor asking, “I wonder what Greg is thinking about.”

Between April 24 and 29, I posted several essays to help set the table for making known what I had kept hidden. I was thankful for the many who rallied to me, assuring me with comments like, “There’s nothing you can tell us that will cause us to hate you.” I appreciated those sentiments, but inside I said, “You have no idea what I’m going to say.”

And some would in fact hate me.

I opted for April 29, because the 30th is my birthday. I didn’t want to sully my birthday. At 7:45 a.m., I placed on the screen my secret-revealing post, “Who am I?”

https://eilerspizza.wordpress.com/2015/04/29/who-am-i/

I edited it for the umpteenth time. I walked away from my computer. I was scared.

I had been praying about this for months. I prayed once again, “Lord, is this what I should do? Is this the time? It finally feels like it is the time.” I returned to my computer. I had that odd combination of confidence that it was the right thing and total fear for going public.

At 8:00 a.m., I hit Enter.

That was two years ago, today. In those two years, I attempted transitioning, found it to be healing balm, and undertook every possible step, culminating in sex reassignment surgery eighteen days ago. Over the two years, I both gained a lot and lost a lot.

Since, in the nearly two years before this, I had already told my kids and siblings, and a few of my closest friends and several pastors and church leaders, I already had a good idea that things would sort out with those who would be supportive, those who would struggle, and those who would reject me.

Of all those who flat-out rejected me, one stands out as the worst. One of my best, oldest friends unfriended me from Facebook. No, not after I announced that was transitioning, but simply when I told my secret that I suffered issues of my gender identity.

He didn’t say a word. He simply walked away from over thirty years of friendship.

Thankfully, for every hurtful story I can tell there are many happy ones to recount. And not only with individuals, but with the work I have been able to do—speaking, writing, being interviewed—which never could have been if I had not bared my soul.

Am I glad that I told my secret? Truly, I wish I never felt that I had to. Even now, I can say that my desire would have been to have enough strength to fight this off, to still be a pastor, and not to have caused great turmoil in my family and in so many other areas of my life. When I crashed in 2013, only Julie, my first wife, and one minister knew my secret. It would be great to go back to pre-2013 times.

Ah, but one cannot go back. One can only live in today and move into tomorrow. Since I had to deal head-on with my situation, I needed to count the cost how to build something good out of it, set out to do the hard work, and perform my task well.

A secret should never be told for self-gratification. I feel good that I can say that I did not tell mine for selfish purposes, but to educate, to erase misunderstanding, and to help those individuals and their loved ones who are in the same spot as me. Because of that—because of the feedback I have gotten and the nearly 50,000 visitors to my blog—I can say, yes, I am glad that I told my secret.

The Pro side of the list had a greater value than the cost contained on the Con side.

I no longer had a secret. I had a story.

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Recovery? It’s a piece of cake!

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A piece of the first chocolate cake I ever made.

 

All right, I’ll be honest. The past sixteen days have not been a piece of cake. But, see, I was working on this post at a time when I was in a really good mood, with my having settled into a nice pattern of all that I have to do each day and enjoying consistent healing, and I had taken out of the freezer this piece of cake to enjoy with a cup of coffee, and so, well, do I really have to say anymore in this already terribly long sentence?

Here are some of the significant goings-on that have me going on with my goings-on.

Dilation Nation

It occurred to me that when I told you I began dilation, I did not tell you why dilating is needed.

The neo vagina is formed by the surgeon creating a space next to the anus. Literally, what was taking residing in that area is pushed aside to tunnel the four to six inches in, depending on how much flesh the person possessed to create the neo vagina. Once put into place, the skin gradually grows together, holding the neo vagina in place. That takes care of the outer side, but not the inside.

Without dilation, the neo vagina would shrink and collapse. (Picture a barn, which you watch slowly age and rot and fall in. Okay, maybe not.) By placing a dilator into the neo vagina and holding it there—these first few months, I am doing it five times a day, for fifteen minutes per session—the skin is strengthened and it learns where to remain. (Sessions become fewer to where, eventually, only once-a-week to once-a-month dilating is necessary.)

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These days, orange rhymes with dilating

Within a week or so, I will increase the width of the dilator, and there are two more sizes after that. The trans woman, who desires sexual relations with a male, wants to achieve as much width and depth as she can, so that she has a typically-sized vagina. I am not concerned about size, but I want good health so I will dilate as instructed.

Dilating five times a day means doing so about every three hours. Each time I finish, I look at the clock to determine the next one. I am a terribly time-sensitive person, so each next session is regularly on my mind. Ugh.

Not quite ready for the Indy 500

On Tuesday, April 25, I drove for the first time since my April 11 surgery—exactly two weeks post-op. Driving was not a problem—and our car has manual transmission—but sitting in that position pushed all of my weight to my center, exactly where I don’t want it. Yeah, it hurt.

Julie suggested I take a towel, form it into a U, and sit on it to take off the pressure. I did. It helped a lot. She’s a savvy chick.

Oh, and the reason for my taking Julie to work so that I had the car for the day? I returned to Barb the Impaler, so she can continue working on permanently removing my facial hair. I’ve now had eighty hours of electrolysis on my face. I am over halfway done. Do the math. I have dozens more hours left of painful pokes where the electrified needle is inserted into the follicle, zapped, and the hair pulled out.

One every five or so seconds.

In hour-long sessions.

I must be a sadist.

Call me Gumby, but not Pokey

One of the harder things about the first ten days after surgery was the lack of being able to move about as I am used to doing. Simply getting into a chair and back out was a slow, methodical process, mostly so as to avoid causing myself pain. The very thick dressing that I wore the first eight days further worsened the problem. Besides, wow, I cannot begin to describe the level of soreness I experienced, and it was constantly concentrated at the very center of my bottom.

I noticed, a couple of days ago, how I can now pop up off the couch or out of a chair, just about as nimbly as ever. I can lie on my side, sleeping that way for as long as an hour (though I’ve yet to try lying on my stomach), and I can bring either leg up to my side, bending it so that my foot rests against the knee of my other leg. Also, I can put on socks, and I can bend down and pick up things from the floor.

I feel really good when walking. And though I am several weeks from running, and I can’t walk as fast as when I do on the days that I take a break from running (as fast as 14:00 per mile), I have improved my walking from 23:00 per mile, to 21:00 per mile, to 19:00 per mile, and increased my distance to 1.5 miles.

I had been so concerned about injuring myself, and about breaking open stitches, not to cause myself a setback, and because I was so swollen, that I was leery about doing too much. That leads me to this . . .

Swelling and stitches and black-and-blue, oh my!

How does one speak of sensitive things in a way which does not cause the reader to cry out, “TMI!”?

Here is the best way I can delicately write about how swollen and ugly was the surgical area. It was eleven days after surgery before I could see my stitches.

I use a mirror to assist my inserting the dilator. Last Saturday afternoon, both the swelling and the amount of black-and-blue had receded enough that I found myself calling out to Julie, “I can see my stitches!”

I have a long way to go, but I’ve come a long way. Progress is a wonderful thing. Progress provides hope. And when we have hope, we can cope.

The nerve of those nerves

As the numbness has worn off, the nerves have been waking up. Nerves have a funny way to rise and shine. They don’t simply stretch and yawn and head to the kitchen to put on the coffee. No, they jump out of bed loaded for bear, filling the air full of lead.

They certainly get my attention.

A couple of times a day, it seems—midday and evening—they stab at me the most. They are especially bothersome in the evening, when I settle down to relax by watching the Detroit Tigers or something on Netflix. The stabbing jabs are so hard that I jerk my body. Sometimes, I reflexively call out, “Ahhhh!” and have to catch my breath. And writhe. And hope that Julie notices and gives me some sympathy,

I eat up the sympathy.

The pot at the end of the rainbow was a medicine chest

Remember how I told you that so many of the medical professionals commented on my excellent health? Post-surgery, this picture is worth a thousand pills.

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Here’s the rundown of what I have.

  • For my heart: aspirin.
  • Hormone replacement therapy (HRT): two daily pills and a weekly injection.
  • For pain: ibuprofen.
  • For the ongoing bleeding: iron supplement.
  • To ease the swelling: Bromelain.
  • For the granuloma (fancy talk for a growth) on my vocal cords: one pill and an inhaler.

Over the weeks, this one and then that one will drop off the list—soon, I think it will be the ibuprofen—so that, hopefully in June, I will be back to only my trusty aspirin and HRT.

Despite ongoing discomfort, and when the nerves jab the snot out of me, I feel healthy and strong and full of vigor. Age sixty arrives in a few days. Bring it on!

Sex and sexuality questions

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My physical, sexual anatomy transition has prompted new questions about sex and my sexuality, questions which had not arisen since August of 2015 when I changed my profile from Greg to Gina. At that time, I was asked if I now considered myself a lesbian, since I was married to a woman. It was a question worthy of putting before me. Because I had not asked myself about my orientation since I began the process, I then had to once again examine myself.

Did transitioning to female make me a lesbian, since I remained attracted to women? Crazy as it seems, I came up with a no. Here’s how.

I am a genetic male. That I fathered five children proves it. And, because I understand the reason for my gender identity issue to have its origins in my endocrine system’s being disrupted when I was forming in the womb, I consider my desire to be a female to be out of order for the person my genetics say I would otherwise be.

So, no matter how I live or what surgeries I have, my starting point is male. Because I am male and am attracted to females, I consider myself a heterosexual male. Yet, I have an intersex condition, which prompted my gender dysphoria, which then led me to transition.  Now, I identify as a heterosexual male who is a transgender woman.

For some reason, Sesame Street, Electric Company, and Blues Clues never taught me about this!

Now, having actually had my male genitals reformed to female, new questions have surfaced. I am pleased to answer them because this is an excellent, teachable moment, because folks simply don’t know anything about what we trans folks experience, and when they ask logical questions, and do so in a respectful way, I am happy about it and eager to answer.

One friend had trouble grasping how I could now have sex reassignment but remain married to Julie. After we explored this a bit, I came to recognize something which had not occurred to me, that folks naturally equate my having had this surgery with my desire to have sexual relations.

Did I have the surgery because I desire relations with a male? Do I want to experience being a female in this way?

It makes total sense that folks would think that I would want to change my sex organ so as to enjoy sex in the manner in which I identify myself now, as a female. But, for whatever reason, that thought never dawned on me. Why didn’t it occur to me? I suspect it is because it was never the issue.

I have joked that I have no business daydreaming about having sex with a man (or another woman) because I am married! Actually, that is a true statement. I am married to Julie. My heart and desire belongs to her. I long to be faithful to my vows. My first desire is to be an upstanding, highly ethical Christian and spouse.

Now, let’s ask: Does transitioning ever alter one’s sexual orientation? Some folks who transition do experience a change in attraction, but from my reading it is a smaller percentage. Changed desires, along with the inability for one in the couple to cope with transitioning, and much more have split up many couples. Easily, Julie could have said, “I didn’t sign up for this. I am not a lesbian. I married a man and I want a man for a husband.” Thankfully, she has lived our marriage vow, “For better or for worse. In sickness and in health. Till death parts us.”

When my hormones changed after I had been on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for awhile—meaning that my estrogen was higher and testosterone lower to match that of a genetic female in my age bracket—my sexual appetite was all but extinguished, leaving me with little to no sex drive. I was thankful for that, because I could no longer emotionally practice sex as a male. Yet, my attraction to Julie never wavered (nor hers for me), even though I could do nothing more with it than to be affectionate.

This is hardly the case for all. Indeed, I might be in the minority. I know of plenty of trans folks—male, female, pansexual, gender fluid, queer—who continue to enjoy sex with their natal anatomy. As with all of life’s experiences, there is no one-size-fits-all to this.

Am I curious as to how my body will react after I heal from surgery? Will my sex drive reignite? Will I have any change in desire? What things might happen which I cannot predict or know to look for?

How about after I go back on HRT this week, which I have been off for six weeks for the sake of undergoing surgery? When my hormones return to female-oriented levels—hopefully in about a month—and I now have female anatomy, will this new situation give me such a feeling of wholeness and rightness that I experience new feelings, and cause my sex drive to return?

As for Julie and me, we believe that our attraction remained, though neither of us have changed our sexual orientation, because our attraction is built upon our love for each other. Remember, we fell in love through our writing, before we ever saw each other’s picture.

https://eilerspizza.wordpress.com/2015/05/09/wow-um-wow/

I personally know a few couples—in each case, heterosexual couples in which the genetic male transitioned to female—who have not skipped a beat in their love and commitment to each other.

This all has been a grand lesson in sex and attraction and love. Sex is neither reduced to nor confined to one’s genitals. Yes, mine are now different, but I remain the same person. To me, that is the key. The essence of the human does not change even as some significant aspects of that person are altered. The sex act is a performance of the whole person—body, mind, and spirit.

Sex never was my reason for the surgery. Possessing body parts which are correct to my identity was my reason for sex reassignment surgery. Male genitals simply were wrong on me. I neither wanted to see nor touch myself.

If I were not married, other things could come into play for me. Since I am a turning-sixty-years-old-this-month married person, they are out of bounds. I don’t even ponder them. Ultimately, I much prefer my situation in life, because I have Julie and, well, you know how I feel about Julie. I am as blessed a human being as there is.

To me, my marriage lacks nothing. Julie so fills me in every wonderful way that I do not find myself wanting for a thing. I always live in her love. And she in mine. I would not trade our marriage—as much as we have been through, as challenging as it has been, and even as unusual as it became and the spotlight under which we found ourselves—for anything in the whole world.

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Next time, I will address the asking of questions, and how one might know what is okay to ask a trans person and what is not, and what situations can inform a person when a question will be fair play and when it will not.

First post-op check-up

This post is only for those who are okay reading specifics about sex reassignment surgery (SRS) and recuperating from it. I have written in detail because there are some who have expressed a desire to learn, and I have some readers who are contemplating the surgery. If you do not want details, check this out: http://foundmagazine.com/

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You recognize Julie, to my right, and to my left is my super-surgeon, Dr. Sidhbh Gallagher.

My first visit to Dr. Gallagher was on Wednesday, April 19, eight days after my surgery. Of all of the items on my checklist, 90% came back positive. And the 10% negative? The one item that makes up that amount could be better, but is not bad.

Well, wait. There were two negatives, but one of them was only momentary. It was the removal of the catheter. As Dr. G gently pulled it through my urethra, the pain was hot and heavy. I told her and Julie that it felt like I was peeing a fire hose’s worth of water through that tiny channel.

I shrieked pretty loudly. I had to breathe hard as I recovered. Julie held my head and stroked it. Dr. G went for a cup of water. It took a few minutes for me to calm down. If I ever have to have a catheter again . . .

That negative done with, the one that I count as the 10% is the amount of swelling and bruising to the wound area. I asked how bad. Dr. G put it in the 70th percentile. Even with that, she expressed no concern. Though I look pretty rough, there is nothing unusual.

Onto the good stuff.

As I previously reported, my excellent health was an item on which several folks commented before and after surgery. At my post-op appointment, Dr. G remarked that not only am I in tremendously good physical condition for someone turning SIXTY, most of her patients are under FIFTY and are not in such good shape. Few go home after the minimum number of days—three—yet I did.

Can you see me beaming?

Before I was released from the hospital last Friday, Dr. G gave us her cell number and encouraged us to call if need be. I now asked her if she had been expecting to get a call from me. She said that of the nearly ten SRS she has performed, I am the first not to call her at least once. Yes, more beaming.

I told Dr. G that I had not been ready to look down there. I was pleased when she took the lead. “Lots of girls feel that way. Most of them tell me that in the first few days they asked themselves, ‘What did I do to myself?’” I replied that I had asked myself the same thing, and that it was primarily motivated by how lousy I felt and how long is the recovery road.

Using an implement, she touched me in a few spots. I did not feel the first two, and felt the third. She said that my amount of numbness is common. She cleaned me up a bit—I bleed at least a little, most of the time—and the next order of business arrived.

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My new companions.

She took out a set of dilators. I was terribly skittish to begin this process, having no idea how it would feel. Would it hurt at first? If so, how badly? For sixty years, I did not have a vagina, and now I had to learn how to slide a hard plastic rod into it as deeply as possible, holding it in place for fifteen minutes, and do that five times a day for now.

I wanted to watch, so Dr. G retrieved a small mirror. Truly, I was not so sure I was going to be able to look down there—and, ugh, I am as black and blue as anything I have ever seen—but I found myself doing well with it. Besides, I needed to see this process so that I could do it myself.

Thankfully, her effort to insert the dilator went smoothly. After getting it four inches in, she was able to achieve one more, for a total of five inches of depth. That is good depth for post-surgery/pre-dilating. After surgery, she had told Julie she had plenty of material to work with in forming my new genitals.

Dr. G removed the dilator. It was my turn. Julie held the mirror as I went to work. The first trick was to get the correct angle. After that, I found the dilator to insert fairly smoothly. Eventually, I slid it in the full five inches.

Apparently, this went very well, so it prompted Dr. G to suggest trying the next larger size. I was reluctant, but did it. It went in harder, and I felt it a lot more. I only got it in a few inches. Dilating at home, I am sticking with the smallest size for now.

We had a number of questions for her.

  • When may I drive? I may drive when I feel ready. Now is okay if it feels okay.
  • How about mowing and gardening? I can do these as it feels okay, taking care to mind my body, not to overdo it.
  • Walking? The same goes for how much walking I do.
  • Do I have to keep sleeping on my back? Nope. I can sleep as it is comfortable.
  • How about sitting on the inflated ring? Use it if I need it, but I don’t need to.

I ditched the ring.

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Truth be told, I staged this picture.  Old ringy sits on a shelf, just in case.

Last evening, Julie and I went for a walk. Without the catheter, I could walk way faster than I was! I’ve stretched out my walks to three tenths of a mile. As feels okay, I will keep adding to it, and try to walk four or five times a day, as I have been.

I cannot imagine mowing or gardening right now. I suspect those are a week or two off.

Because my mid section is so swollen and black and blue, lying on my side is not very comfortable. When I do it, I put a pillow between my legs, at my knees. As for lying on my stomach? I don’t think so—and that’s always my first position, when I go to bed. I am pleased to report that every night I have gotten into bed, onto my back, and have not had trouble falling asleep. Whew.

As I complete this post Thursday afternoon, I have had three dilation sessions at home. Last evening, Julie was here to help, and I needed her help. It went well. This morning, I attempted it by myself, mirror in my right hand and dilator in my left. After a couple of attempts, I got the dilator in to four inches. Later in the morning, after five attempts I gave up, only being able to insert the dilator about an inch. No matter how I relaxed, shifted my body, and adjusted the dilator, it was no use. It is now time to go give it one more try before Julie gets home from work.

Finally, I am peeing on my own! After she removed the catheter, I asked Dr. G if I should be concerned about not being able to pee (though, typically, folks report the opposite, not being able to control their bladder) and, if I can’t produce, how is it treated. She said not to be concerned. Continuing, she revealed, “If you can’t pee, a smaller catheter is inserted.”

I became one highly motivated pee-er!

Last evening, as the feeling of fullness grew, I sat on the toilet. Nothing happened. By bedtime, I was trying not to freak out, still not having produced. I went to bed.

I awoke at midnight, really feeling the urge. Gently placing myself on the toilet, within seconds I felt the warm flow releasing itself. I cried tears of joy and relief.

I am pleased to report that, looking at my new anatomy, it is what I was hoping it would be.  This feels correct on me, where male genitals did not.  I will be grateful for full physical healing as I am very happy that the emotional healing is well under way.

Now, where’s that orange dilator . . .

SRS post-op-servations

I wasn’t nervous. Talking with me, one might have thought it was just another morning.

I enjoyed a marvelous peace in the days leading up to surgery. I never came close to a meltdown, and one was virtually expected as every major transitioning step had brought one. A few days before surgery, Julie said that she had been waiting for it. The only thing I experienced came a week-and-a-half before surgery, when for half a day I felt pulled apart. That arrived soon after I sensed my hormones shifting. Even as my testosterone had risen, causing me extreme physical discomfort, it still did not affect my mental and emotional stability. That it did not was, in a word, astonishing. I have thanked the Lord innumerable times for this.

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Waiting to be taken into surgery.

The morning of the surgery, I remained at peace. I did not even have the kind of nerves one gets when highly excited about something—and I had a bit of that the morning of my January vocal cord surgery. I was as calm and collected as can be. My blood pressure even reflected it, sitting right on what is normal for me. You could have knocked me over with an IV bag.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The operation lasted something over six hours. One can easily imagine that it is a serious surgery. The area in question, the amount of restructuring, and the possible complications all play together to put this near the top of serious scale.

Dr. Gallagher has quickly gained a reputation as a skilled surgeon. Before surgery, and especially after, those on the surgery team raved about her work. One scrub nurse, who paid us two lovely visits afterward, marveled at the quality of Dr. Gallagher’s talent.

Indeed, I suspect her fine work is why I have experienced very little bleeding post-surgery, and why things progressed perfectly in the three days from surgery to dismissal, so that I had the shortest possible hospital stay. My thankfulness is through the roof.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Coming out of sedation was crazy hard and very weird. I spoke to Julie about it as soon as I could, so that I might retain some memory of it. That I can write the following is only because I told Julie; otherwise, it has been wiped from my memory.

Waking up from surgery was as if I were at the same time trying to break through a door which was impossible to open, as if I were busting apart the most infuriatingly intertwined vines, as if I were doing this while standing in thick mud, as if dozens of hands were pawing at me, and as if something were trying to suck me away from my task.

I came out of anesthesia only very briefly. After I awoke a second time, the nurse told me that I had been crying when I came out of it the first time. I know that I was talking, and I even remember thinking at the time that I wanted to be logical in what I was saying so that I might be taken seriously. What did I say? Sadly, that is lost.

When I awoke a second time, I asked for Julie. When I told her what had happened, she said, “It’s no wonder what you experienced. It sounds like the summation of your entire life. Trying to break through. The total frustration you experienced. The many ways things held you back.”

I find it impossible to disagree with her.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

As I write this on Saturday and Easter Sunday, four and five days after my surgery, I am pleased to report that nothing unusual has transpired. This easily is the biggest surgery I have experienced. When I say that I am doing well, it means that everything is as it should be, and as expected. But, wow, I sure have not felt good!

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The hall felt long on Thursday, when I first was allowed to walk.  It felt great to be on my feet, even as it hurt like crazy.

My constant discomfort is only very gradually easing.  This begs the question: how much should doctors, or those who have gone through the surgery, discuss the pure misery which is the recovery period, what one experiences in her body, how it can deeply impact one’s emotions, how this is just plain hard in every way?  On the one hand, a person doesn’t want to keep from something so important to her because of some very challenging days or weeks—goodness, no one would take on any of life’s huge challenges, like having a baby, or getting a college degree, or marriage—yet, one should never enter into things like this with any naivete, whatsoever.  I was not naive, yet no one could have adequately explained what I have been experiencing.

My bodily functions have been completely out of whack. The bloating, which continued for three days, was easily the worst, most painful which has ever plagued me. I could feel hungry one moment, and the next moment nothing sounded good. Thankfully, I was able to consume a decent amount of calories, and have gotten back to eating at my regular breakfast, lunch, and supper times. Since Saturday afternoon, the bloating has ceased.

Saturday afternoon, I was unable to nap.  I felt crappy in every way.  Recovery felt like a road that wound around the world a dozen times.  Lying on the couch, I cried.  Hard.  It took more than an hour to come around.  When I did, Julie was, as always, there for me. I poured out my heart to her.

Julie’s marvelous love for me is on constant display. She hesitates at nothing on my behalf. Jumping into nursing duties has come naturally for her. When my dressing needs changing, she’s on the task like a seasoned veteran. My love for her continues to grow to a level I never knew possible.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I have always been an emotional person. That has intensified the past four years. I thought there was a high chance that when I came out of anesthesia I would cry profoundly from a sense of relief and joy that I finally had completed the surgery which I never could have imagined for myself.

I did not cry. I did not experience anything profound. I have remained very even keel. I think I know why.

A year ago, when I got my name changed, I did not walk out of the courthouse bouncing with joy. It was a relief to have it done, but I had wished I had not needed to come to changing my name. When I left the courthouse, a lot of work remained regarding my name—every place my name exists, from drivers license, to credit cards, to you name it, had to be changed—so instead of having accomplished something it was more like I was only beginning something.

That’s how I have been feeling, post-surgery. My recovery is so long, and so intense, I cannot yet experience it with joy. As I did after vocal cord surgery, I have asked myself, “What did you do to yourself?” because the road to recovery is so steep and long.

I am confident the joy will come—it did with my name change, and with every other step in transitioning—but it is many days to weeks off.

I am thankful for the gift of patience, even as I have fallen into tears a few times because of the general misery which is my existence right now.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Wednesday brings the next step.

Surely, it will come as no surprise that a Foley catheter was inserted, a first for me. On Wednesday, that will come out. Because there is a lot of swelling, and the swelling will take months to reduce, I am told that urinating will be an adventure. Woo hoo!

Read the next paragraph only if you are okay with learning a bit more specific info. If not, skip to the paragraph following.

After Dr. Gallagher created my neo-vagina, she packed it. On Wednesday, she will unpack it. She will teach me how to dilate. Dilation’s purpose is to gradually increase the width and depth of the neo-vagina. Dilation will be a rigorous exercise at first. The size of the dilators increase over time. Eventually, the need to dilate will level off and be required less frequently, but will need to continue to keep the skin healthy. Though she said it will not be painful, dilating will be uncomfortable. I cannot say that I am excited at the prospect of it, but I knew what I was getting myself into.

Assuming I get a good report, which is what I expect at this point, it will only be a few days after Wednesday that I will be permitted to drive. I will remain on low-impact activity for four weeks. (Julie has already mowed the lawn.) By the first week of May, I hope to feel good enough and to be allowed to get out and walk as fast and as far as feels okay, and want that to also mean I can mow and work at the garden as feels okay to do. Dr. Gallagher has told me that I might be jogging again at the six week mark. That is my goal.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I am not a worrier, and am thankful to be a logical person. Even so, two complications were very real possibilities for me during or after surgery: infection and blood clots. I ran a low grade fever for a few days, but it never became a concern. My temp has been good the past few days. I remain on an antibiotic for a few more days. Infections can rear their ugly heads at any time, but my confidence is good that one will not bring me down.

Blood clots can be peskier. Two years ago, they nearly took the lives of my son and my sister. In the hospital, I had compression sleeves on my calves. They felt like blood pressure cuffs. Every minute, one calf, then the other, were constricted and eased. Since I was allowed to walk on Friday, I have gotten up and out many times, at least every few hours. I don’t go far—and I wonder what our neighbors are thinking about my short jaunts at such a slow pace, especially when they’ve always seen me as the runner!—but the regular movement is vital to keeping any blood clot from forming.

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The weather has cooperated wonderfully, helping me to want to get up, get out, and get walking the street in front of our house.

Finally, the thing that I loved hearing the most, both before and after surgery, from both nurses and doctors, was that I am a very healthy person. Though I carry too many pounds, Dr. Gallagher said that she found me very physically fit. I beamed each time someone took note of my good health! Taking care of myself is paying off big time as I move through recovery.

I am quickly approaching sixty years of age. Bring it on! I intend to grow into a fine specimen of an old person!