By Stewart Mandel
The diagnosis was short but no less startling.
“One of your testicles is smaller than the other,” my doctor informed me one autumn afternoon.
As I would soon learn, testicular asymmetry is by no means a life-threatening condition, but it does present a risk of future complications such as sterility, sexual dysfunction and a deep-seated inferiority complex.
The doctor assured me my condition could be easily repaired with a “minor” surgical procedure.
“It’s no big deal,” he said. “You have it done on Monday; you’re back at work by Wednesday.”
Of all the possible surgeries one might endure during their lifetime, “microsurgical varicocelectomy” has to rank amongst the most emasculating. As a sportswriter, I’ve covered more than a few injury-stricken athletes who underwent surgeries — knee surgeries, shoulder surgeries, hip surgeries, etc. They always tell tales of their grueling “rehabs,” months spent on crutches or in casts, 12-hour days spent exercising under the watchful eye of a demanding trainer.
My rehab consisted of peeing, sleeping and icing my crotch.
In the days beforehand, I found it to be incredibly awkward trying to explain to friends and co-workers why it was I’d be disappearing from the world for a few days. The more ambiguous the explanation, the more concerned they became.
“Is everything OK???” a female co-worker asked me.
“Absolutely,” I assured her, assuaging any potential fears about cancerous moles or clogged arteries. “It’s just minor surgery.”
Doctors always understate the potential downside of just about everything. They’ll prescribe a sleep aid like Ambien like it’s some magical panacea, not an industrial-strength sedative that makes you think you’ve acquired vertigo come the next morning. They hand out Viagra prescriptions like tickets to an amusement park, casually dismissing the possibility that your fun-filled boner will be accompanied by a headache, flushed face and maybe even a few heart palpitations.
While having your testicles fixed is by no means open-heart surgery, my recovery experience affirmed my belief that there is no such thing as “minor” surgery.
On the Wednesday afternoon following my procedure, I sat on my couch with an uncomfortable, hospital-issued “scrotal supporter” (translation: jock strap) under my boxers, applying a bag of frozen okra to my surgical wound. My original selection of frozen onions had congealed within the first 24 hours, and my girlfriend, bless her heart, had run out to the grocery store for reinforcements.
“I tried to find something with larger chunks,” she said, offering me a choice of peas or okra. “Also, the bag of corn split open when the checkout girl scanned it.”
At that moment, I was about an hour removed from my second nap of the day, fully capable of nodding off into a third at any moment, and lacked the energy to walk further than the lobby of my apartment building.
Now remember, if I’d believed my doctor, Wednesday was theoretically the day I could have returned to work. I’m not sure what type of jobs most of his patients hold, but even at my admittedly low-stress job — unlock office, turn on computer, open Microsoft Word, write — you do need to be awake, and there is no discreet way to apply frozen vegetables to your crotch.
Like I said, there is nothing minor about having part of your body opened up with a knife. There is nothing minor about wasting a week of your life watching Flight of the Conchords reruns while limping back and forth between your couch and the kitchen.
Most of all, there is nothing minor about being forced to wear a jock strap 24/7 for two straight weeks, even while going to the bathroom. It’s more complicated than you’d imagine.
Coincidentally, during this time, I was not allowed to exercise, the sole activity for which jock straps were invented. I was also banned from having sex for two weeks, though that pretty much became a non-issue as soon as my girlfriend saw me with the okra.
My recovery period had begun roughly 48 hours earlier upon emerging from anesthesia. Shockingly, I had not been afforded the luxury of a private recovery room — I assume these are reserved for any celebs and/or filthy-rich Gossip Girl-types coming out of cosmetic surgery. From what I gathered, most of the people around me had just came out of “major” surgery, nearly all of them elderly and requiring more serious attention.
Me? I sat there casually sipping water out of a paper cup and scoffing down packs of crackers while a smiling, friendly nurse asked how I felt. Strangely, I felt much more alert and functional at that moment than I would over the next several days. I thought about asking her for a dessert menu and a copy of the New Yorker.
I couldn’t leave just yet, however. My release from the hospital was dependent on one condition: They had to be sure I could properly urinate.
Since I was not yet in the condition to walk to a bathroom, I was handed a canteen-shaped bottle and the much-appreciated privacy of a closed curtain. After a few minutes spent figuring out the mechanics of the situation, I went to town on the bottle, then confidently summoned the nurse to retrieve my ticket home.
Unfortunately, it turned out my work was not over.
“You peed 120 milliliters. We need 200,” the nurse politely informed me. “But don’t worry — just drink some more water.”
No one had ever questioned my peeing abilities before, and it threw me for a loop. There were only two possible explanations: Either the surgery had temporarily slowed down my gastrointestinal system’s functionality (the clinical reason why they keep you there in the first place) or, as I came to believe, I had suddenly been hit with a major case of performance anxiety.
By now, it was about 7 p.m., more than four hours since my arrival. My doting, caring nurse had reached the end of her shift and been replaced by an older, hardened woman with a grating Long Island accent. Even worse, this particular recovery room would be closing at 8:30. After that, I’d presumably be carted off to some massive holding tank where all manner of sick and invalid were horded together and made to stay the night.
In other words, it was pee, or else. How’s that for pressure?
Over the next hour-and-a-half, I downed three bottles of Poland Spring and whatever other liquids I could get my hands on (ice chips, ginger ale, my geriatric neighbor’s untouched apple juice). Under normal conditions, this would likely cause a stream of urine more powerful than a fire hose. But every 10 minutes or so, I would close the curtain and hover over that pesky bottle, and every 10 minutes or so … I would dribble out so few milliliters they didn’t bother to count it.
Of all the potential complications one might fret about going into surgery — a previously undiscovered condition, the doctor operating on the wrong body part, internal bleeding, death — peeing had proven to be my biggest snag.
As if it wasn’t enough to be dealt such a strange medical condition, I was now dealing with an even more bizarre aftermath. I pictured some injury-stricken athlete, sweating out another round on the exercise bike in hopes of returning to competition, while I hovered over a urine bottle in hopes of sleeping in my own bed.
Mercifully, a clock-watching doctor making his rounds happened to come by when I was still 30 milliliters short.
“Just give us one more “void” — it doesn’t matter how much — and you can go home,” he said.
Ever since then, when getting up from a dinner table, I tell my friends: “Excuse me for a minute — I just have to go for a void.”
All in all, it only took about a week to fully return to the realm of the living, and I’m happy to report that upon my follow-up visit, the doctor deemed the surgery a success (though I assume he reached that conclusion as soon as the check from my insurance company cleared).
Hopefully, there will be no more surgeries in my immediate future, though I’m sure the next obscure health condition awaits me soon enough. I’m not a hypochondriac, but I’m a realist. My body may be no more or less fragile than anyone else’s, but it’s in my DNA that my particular injuries fall within a certain category.
I’m never going to be the guy breaking my leg in a rugby accident or breaking my nose in a barroom brawl. I’m going to be the guy wearing a jock strap to bed. But that doesn’t mean I can’t have my own tough streak — I haven’t reached for the okra in days.