Relay: Welcome, Mrs. Barnett

It turned out that I had Graves disease — hyperthyroidism, an overactive thyroid gland

So you think your operation was bizarre? Let me tell you about mine.

In the middle of an otherwise uneventful yearly checkup, with that little hammer thingy in his hand that doctors use to test your knee-jerk reflexes, mine frowned. “I’m going to push down on your thigh,” he said. “Try to push it up against me.”

I couldn’t. Half an inch, maybe. 

“Have you felt tired lately? Fatigued?” 

Well, I said, it was taking a lot longer to climb up the two steps onto the bus, but I’d just turned 50, so that was to be expected. Wasn’t it?

It turned out that I had Graves disease — hyperthyroidism, an overactive thyroid gland. It isn’t fatal — Barbara Bush, wife of George, mother of George W., was diagnosed with it in 1989 and died five months ago at 92 — but it’s certainly not one of life’s pleasures. 

Swallowing radioactive iodine is the most common treatment, but for more people who go that route than not, the pendulum will swing 180 degrees and they’ll become hypothyroid and have to keep taking pills for the rest of their lives to stave off lethargy, weight gain, mood swings, exhaustion, and more. Or, there are two kinds of pills you can take. “Side effects of both include rash, joint pain, liver failure, or a decrease in disease-fighting white blood cells,” says the Mayo Clinic website. No thank you.

The doctor advised surgery. I agreed. It seemed to have the least scary after effects. 

The hospital where the operation was performed was under renovation at the time, and some of the operating rooms had been moved temporarily to the basement. After a very long ride on a gurney, down one elevator, through murky passages where dementors could have been right at home, down another elevator, we emerged into a very long, very cold, subterranean room where all of the hospital’s infrastructure appeared to be housed. The ceiling of this cavern was lined with water pipes, which kept up a steady drip as we passed beneath. The sheet covering me got wet; so did my face.

They’d given me something upstairs that was making me drowsy, but what with the cold and the damp, I was still half-conscious when we stopped, which, as you shall see, was providential. 

People were talking above me but I couldn’t make out what they were saying. Eventually the gurney started moving again, and as it did somebody in one of those shower caps they wear in operating rooms leaned over and said, quite clearly, “Welcome, Mrs. Barnett. Everything is going to be just fine.”

I could feel myself about to give in to whatever I’d been given and slip under, like an exhausted swimmer who’s fought a riptide for too long, but somehow I found my voice. Well, my mumble.

“Not — not — Barnett.”   

A different voice: “What’d she say?”

“Not sure. Now don’t you worry, Mrs. Barnett, everything is fine.”

“Not — Barnett.” The gurney was still moving. Inspiration, born of desperation, struck. I eased my left wrist, with the hospital bracelet on it, out of the sheet and flapped it at them weakly. Somebody took hold of my hand. The gurney stopped.

People began talking in hushed voices on both sides of the stretcher. Now I really was losing consciousness, but I felt it being turned around and then starting to roll again. The last thing I heard as I drifted away was, “You’re very lucky, Mrs., uh, Silverman. This is neurosurgery.”


Irene Silverman is The Star’s editor at large.