Last spring, I consented to a surgical face-off with a medical condition that had left me with no other options. Still, it had taken serious convincing for me to overlook the risks and pin my hopes on the procedure’s life-changing potential.
I’m generally brave, yet my resolve crumbles on a gurney. There’s also nothing like a flimsy, open-back hospital gown to spotlight our vulnerability. But it wasn’t the surgery I dreaded. It was the anesthesia, a fact I openly confessed to the anesthesiologist. I nodded at her reassurances, then begged her to promise I’d wake up.
Fear of anesthesia is common. In the weeks before the surgery, I read through endless webpages that attempt to debunk the myth that anesthetized patients enter a death-like state of unconsciousness. I wasn’t swayed. After all, the Talmud refers to sleep as 1/60th of death. Recognizing this, we recite bedtime blessings asking God to safely escort us through the night so that we can close our eyes without worry. And when we rise in the morning, we transition from the dream world back into the physical one by saying the Modeh Ani prayer. We thank God for “returning my soul within me” and for granting us another day of life.
These prayers are among the scripted ones I recite regularly. The words are familiar and comforting on my tongue, tumbling out of my mouth to remind me that going to sleep and waking up are a gift, not a given.
They also differ in more ways than their timing. One requires us to seize the day and make the most of the light-filled hours we have ahead of us. Though we are not entirely in charge, we are at least at the wheel. The other asks the opposite. We must cede all control, distancing ourselves from our conscious reality as we head into the wee hours of the night.
Anesthesia-induced sleep, I knew, would require an even deeper level of letting go, and that is likely what was driving my phobia. Yet I knew I needed the surgery and had already agreed to it. I looked forward to it recalibrating my body and making me healthy. As for my soul, I would have to pray it would still be with me when the anesthesia wore off.
Dressed in a paper gown and hospital booties, my vitals taken, I shared my angst again with the anesthesiologist, who was checking out my veins. She tried to calm me. “It will be over before you know it! It’s just like taking a nap!” I wasn’t buying it. Besides, the pre-op experience felt a lot more like the rituals before a full night’s sleep — the changing of clothes, the ablutions, the leap of faith — than an afternoon siesta. So I decided to recite the evening Shema right before she put me out, hoping the bedtime echoes would ease some of my anxiety.
I walked into the OR, one hand on the arm of the nurse escorting me and the other holding my robe closed to preserve what was left of my modesty. Avoiding eye contact with the tubes and sharp objects, I suppressed a sudden urge to ask my wonderful surgical team to pray for me. Instead, I prayed for them — for their acuity, focus and steady hands — because I recognized in that moment that the Master of the Universe ran the operating room, even if He wasn’t the one wearing the scrubs. Then I, the patient, took a deep breath and placed my faith in all of them: in God, in my surgeon and in his team.
As I lay on the operating table, the anesthesiologist engaged me with questions about my boys. Smart doctor, because the next thing I knew I was groggy yet awake in the recovery room. I had no time for a last-minute panic attack about the anesthesia, but alas, no heads-up to say the Shema either.
I hovered in that exquisite place between unconsciousness and complete awakening, touching one hand with the other to confirm I wasn’t dreaming. I mumbled the Modeh Ani, grateful with a full heart that my soul had returned to my body. But I might have also sung the uplifting anthem of Rabbi Nachman — Lo lefached klal, that the main thing in our precarious world is to have no fear. Thanks to the healing powers of faith and modern medicine, I’d left mine behind in the operating room.
Merri Ukraincik is a regular contributor to this space.