Taking a Breather
A nose that worked on the company dime
By Cynthia Adams
I leaned close to the restroom mirror, examining my nose. With the company newspaper I edited (the last in the state) going to press, I took a breather. A breather — ironic given my breathing had been permanently altered following a painful childhood swing incident. Nosebleeds and sinusitis became commonplace.
But after 20 years, that would finally change when I decided I’d see a doctor about my nose. A few weeks later, I remained mostly silent while a surgeon studied my X-rays, pointing out the years-old damage that led to a deviated septum.
Merely 2.5 inches of cartilage and bone gone wrong. Easily corrected, he explained.
Seeking out a surgical remedy had been set in motion after a human resources exec visited my office, requesting we publicize a company-wide insurance campaign, specifically to encourage outpatient surgery — not yet commonplace. It would save the company, which was self-insured, significant money. As an incentive, company insurance would cover the entire cost of outpatient surgery — every dime.
“Find someone who needs outpatient surgery and write an article about it,” the HR guy said matter-of-factly.
My mind raced as he stood there waiting to be congratulated for his brilliant idea. Who the heck was going to volunteer for surgery?
“How the . . . ?” I began, but stopped before insulting the same person who okayed my raises.
So I mumbled, “Well, I . . . ”
Then I surprised us both by blurting out there was a possibility of someone: Me!
“Great! Just be sure it’s medically necessary.”
I was already wearing adult braces to correct a misaligned jaw and bite; maybe it was time to address another problem. My constantly blocked nose.
I agreed to a consultation with an ENT who was experienced with trauma surgeries. It was during the second consult he presented my X-rays. Pointing to damaged cartilage and bone, adding sunnily, “There’s complete blockage!” He sounded exactly like a plumber.
With a notepad in hand, I asked nuts-and-bolts questions and made notes. The surgery was called septoplasty. The benefits included fewer infections and nosebleeds, and, with mouth breathing remedied, no snoring.
But I looked down as he spoke and wrote the question, Will he break my nose?, heavily underscoring the last three words.
Mentally, I sketched an enormous mallet, a target inked onto my schnoz, and me, a hapless fool, reluctantly holding still.
But I took a small step back when the surgeon explained the how of the surgery: It would necessitate internal incisions and a tiny flap opened up over my nose in order to clear the passages.
I revised my mental cartoon: not so much a mallet; more like miniature miners excavating a cave with tiny picks and shovels. Except, excavating cartilage. And, perhaps a little bone, he added. I must have blanched.
“You won’t feel the procedure,” he reassured.
How would I not feel that? With fearful misgivings, I shakily booked a date for surgery.
An older friend had a deviated septum corrected years before. She, too, couldn’t breathe properly; she also snored (to the great irritation of her former partner, a cranky artist).
Over drinks she told me about the worst of the aftermath, nearly swallowing the gauze packing her nose when she dozed off once home. Of course, she didn’t choke to death, but she did have a frantic ER trip.
At the pre-dawn check in for surgery, my blood pressure was elevated (terror will do that), but this didn’t halt the procedure. I remember my nostrils being swabbed with something to staunch bleeding. Then an IV was inserted.
Blissful indifference streamed into the veins of my wrist.
Picks? Shovels? Bring them on, I mumbled to the nurse, who smilingly reassured me they would use neither.
I remembered nothing until the nurse called my name, telling me the procedure was over. Still blissed out, she helped me sit and, soon, stand. When my mother met wobbly-legged me in reception, she looked stricken.
“Hey, Mama! I’m fine and dandy!” I chirped with drugged-up enthusiasm. “Actually, I’m gonna bake these nice people a cake!”
The nurses tittered knowingly behind me, according to my mother. I never baked anything more ambitious than box brownies.
Indeed, there was packing extending deeply into my nasal passages, the thing I feared the most. My under eyes were lightly bruised. But, in my happy daze, I was mightily relieved it was all over.
Days later, during a post-surgical visit, I waited with other patients. But this was the A-team, apparently, who had opted for the more thrilling cosmetic procedure: rhinoplasty.
A nose job.
I curiously scrutinized them with a side eye. Some wore tiny casts over their softly feminine, narrow noses. Each had a refined tip.
They had all been given a celebrity nose; specifically, they had supermodel Christy Turlington’s nose. (That was then. Now, Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, has the most requested nose.) Though it intrigued me that ordinary folk could alter their face to look like a star, I was there to report on my less thrilling, non-cosmetic surgery. But — a nose was a key feature! I obsessed with how they would look once all swelling resolved, imagining them on a catwalk, a procession of proud noses, raised high.
After my brief check, I stood stock-still on the sidewalk, inhaling; was that great smell the restaurant a block away?
The corners of my mouth tilted upwards following my gauze-free nostrils. A world of fresh air and sensations awaited; I followed them straight to a lunch spot. The former Ham’s on Friendly was a greasy spoon I’d frequented before — but this was next level. Seems I had never really tasted the deep-fried fries. Bliss again! Pausing to sniff the catsup (a condiment that didn’t smell so much after all, I discovered), I savored my lunch as if it were a Michelin Star experience. What could Christy Turlington possibly eat that could top this, I wondered, happily popping fry after fry into my mouth.
Like my nose, possibilities seemed wide open. OH
Cynthia Adam is a contributing editor to O.Henry magazine.