I did not return to work this Monday as planned. Prior to my surgery, I had requested for three weeks off from work, believing that I’d be ready to get back into the swing of things in three weeks. A few days prior to my return, I decided to walk over to our local library as a test of my strength. At work, I am usually expected at 8 different places, with clinics located in two buildings on the same campus. I reasoned, if I can’t even walk the three blocks to the library, I am definitely not ready to get back to work. Sort of like my pre-work clearance, if you will. It was April 4th, a Taiwanese Combination Children’s and Women’s Day. I would walk the three blocks to the library to borrow a book that Plum’s been meaning to get to surprise her. Let it be known that I had not ventured out of the house by myself post-operatively prior to this day. I gathered my cross-body purse and my courage, and stepped out the front door.
I gingerly shuffled along the sidewalk. I caught myself with my hands wide open to the point that if I had webbing between my fingers, I’d look like a flying bat. I did this subconsciously to catch my fall should that happen. As I shuffled along, my breath started to get shallow. Looking back, I realized now that I had forgotten to breathe as I concentrated on balancing and propelling myself forward. My stubbornness kept me going. By the time I shuffled the three blocks over to our local library, I was breathless and exhausted. I rested my hands on the counter and took a much needed deep breath.
Unfortunately, they did not have the book that Plum wanted, but I cannot go home without borrowing something! I shuffled along and remembered that they’ve been doing plants and swamps at school and she’s talked to me about how cactus stored water and about the Everglades National Park in Florida. From the Science section, I took out five books. But after scanning them, I thought to myself, “What are you doing? How are you getting these hard cover books home?” Ever the stubborn one, I returned one book and kept four.
Eventually I realized that there was no way I could make it home by myself. Monkey King was busy at work, already stretched thin from having to do both the drop-off and the pick-up of little Plumster. I simply cannot walk the three blocks home. This realization was humbling. Insulting even. I went from a long distance runner to a barely-able-to-walk-three-blocker. My late night clubbing experience back in NY kicked in, I called the cab to take me the three blocks home. The cab fare was four dollars, which I rounded up to five. It was worth every penny.
Once home, I dissected the situation. Why was it that I could take care of a newborn immediately after a C-section five years ago, but cannot take care of just myself now?! Sure, I had more complications this time: I was hypotensive and anemic (myomectomy is a bloody procedure), but I was deemed healthy enough to be discharged, wasn’t I? I contemplated this question over and over in my mind.
The answer came from a friendly mother from Plum’s piano class last Saturday. She inquired my health and asked what kind of Chinese herbal remedy I am currently on. “Oh…. hummm… I am on nothing.” I was immediately ushered aside, to be educated about the various Chinese approaches to post-op healing. Then it dawned on me, I had Mom here with me five years ago after Plum’s birth. We practiced “Taiwanese Sitting Month“, and Mom made me five delicious meals a day, all with its own medicinal purpose and values!
Out of desperation, as I was due back to work on Monday, we spent the rest of Saturday hunting down various Chinese herbal medicine and groceries, gathering ingredients to make Silkie medicinal soup. In addition to the soup, I also visited with a Chinese doctor to get prescription Chinese herbs. “They look like mulch to me!” declared Monkey King when he saw them weighing out the Chinese herbs. That night, I made the “mulch” tea according to the doctor’s instruction: brew the entire package of these fragrant herbal medicine from 2 finger width of water down to just one cup. It took about two hours, and the entire house smelled piney, like cozy wood burning fire place. It tasted disgusting: bitter and sour.
The next day my health did not feel miraculously improved: I was still physically weak and now mentally discouraged. And because I had been shuffling all over the place treasure-hunting among unfamiliar Chinese stores, I plunged into fatigued, dreamless sleep most of Sunday with MK trying to get to the house chores and Plumster working on her Get Well card for Mommy. Monday came along, and I called in for another week off with defeat and a heavy dose of guilt.
People at work emailed and texted me with unanimous encouragement and approval of my decision to take more time off. “Three weeks is too little for major abdominal surgery!”, or “Don’t come back too early before you are healed!” Some even volunteered their own history to let me know that they took even more time off for a similar history.
With my mind feeling more at ease, I concentrated on getting myself back on track. While I was at the hospital, I had only myself to focus on and I worked on myself around the clock with the spirometer and assisted ambulation. With the Spring Break and the comfort of home, I became too distracted: watching Plum and playing with her maybe a bit too much; cleaning the floor when I shouldn’t but it was bugging me; cleaning the kitchen because I felt guilty that I was home with dirty dishes; organizing Plum’s desk because it was in disarray; folding laundry because they were in front of me, etc etc. With what you called a Type A personality, there was really no slowing down. Even when I had to just sit during the first couple of days, I started this blog, talked to various people looking for ways to refinance our home, and started working on the next research proposal.
“YOU NEED TO REST!” Mom’s voice finally hit it home for me. I decided to sleep in the next morning. I woke up at 9am, feeling rested: my mind was clear and I was on a mission. I sauntered into the kitchen and had the oatmeal that MK left for me. After breakfast, I took out the Silkie we purchased from a Chinese specialty store, along with ginseng, dried wolfberries, and abalone, and started my Silky soup in the slow cooker. How could I waited for so long to prepare this deeply aromatic, amber-colored elixir of life? I was so well taken care of by Mom after my C-section with her effortless style, that I had completely undervalued their medicinal value and healing power.
The Silkie is called “wu gu ji” in Mandarin, which literally translates to “pitch black-boned chicken”. With various color of fine, fluttering silky feather, these chicken are often raised for show. Underneath those showy fluttering feather, they have bluish gray skin and pitch black bones. In Asian culture, they are prized for their medicinal value, said to restore energy. Post C-section five years ago, there was always a Silkie in the slow cooker and I was constantly given a bowl of Silkie soup or a cup of ginseng tea to consume for my health. I nursed and napped around the clock with Plum and Mom forbid me to do any house chores.
Being trained in the U.S. medical school system, I knew how to get myself discharged from the hospital. I also knew what my numbers meant: I was hypotensive with a systolic pressure dipping down as low as the 70’s and anemic with a big drop of hemoglobin post-operatively. However, that did not stop the U.S. trained physicians from discharging me, because we were trained to discharge patients as long as they could eat and use the bathroom without falling. Western medicine focuses on efficiency, and does its fixer-upper jobs well. Eastern medicine, on the other hand, focuses on gradual healing and energy restoration. In the pursuit of quick fixes, such as surgery as we should, it is perhaps even more paramount that we supplement our good surgeon’s handy work with nutritious ingredients that’s been known for their healing power for centuries. Sure, I don’t know EXACTLY how the ginseng, the mulch herbs and the pitch black-boned chicken work, but wasn’t aspirin derived from the leaves and barks from willow and birch trees? Must we wait to extract and analyze the exact active ingredient and know the mechanism of action and the pharmacokinetics before we use what others have known to work for centuries? Heck no, I don’t have time to wait. I’ve got to feel better soon.
I cooked the soup for 12 hours, extracting all the active ingredients. With the aroma dancing in the kitchen, I scooped up the amber-colored warm liquid into my bowl. I tasted it: flavorful, deep, soulful, reminding me of Mom’s home-cooked meals. Did I feel better? Absolutely!
After I consumed a whole bowl of this delicious soup, I felt stronger. I gathered my cross-body purse and newly mustered courage, and headed out the front door once again. This time, I reminded myself to breathe with every step I took. Breathe in, breathe out, slow and steady. I walked to the end of the block, turned right and continued onward. When I walked to the end of three blocks, I was tired yes, but not breathless. I did not need to throw my hands up and admit defeat. More importantly, I was able to retrace my steps and walked home.
I called Mom when I got home. “Mom, Silkie did work!! I exclaimed excitedly, “I walked for three blocks and walked back! I am stronger!!” “YOU NEED TO REST! Drink some ginseng tea and promise me you will REST!” Mom reassured me that resting is not a form of laziness and is actually essential in healing. In our busy, hectic lives, we often don’t get enough sleep, resorting to solve our sleep deprivation with caffeine. We do this to cram in as many activities as possible, so that we can be as productive as we can. There is a Chinese saying: “Rest so that you can walk longer.” I asked my martial art master the other day about what I can do at home now that I am taking a leave of absence from my martial art training. “Breathe. Do your breathing exercise. Seize these moments to work on slowing down”, was what my master instructed me.
The vision of monks meditating in the Buddhist temple from my childhood came to mind. In their monotonous chanting, they achieve serenity and clarity. Perhaps instead of focusing on a quick fix, I need to learn to slow down in order to discipline my mind. For a career woman who grew up in Taipei and New York, that is no small endeavor to be taken lightly. Such as the silver lining of this healing process: lesson learned.