October 27, 2003

The Story of the Wayward Parotid Gland

All stories have a beginning and supposedly an end. I'm not sure where or if this one ends, but I want to tell it now, twelve years later. It begins in the fall of 1991. I was 19 and a sophomore in college.

I've turned off comments for this post. If you do have something to say or a similar experience, my e-mail is

UPDATE: Since this is now finally all written, and it's been linked to, I'm coming in after the fact to add the links to the other posts. Thanks for reading.

Part Two is located here.
Part Three is located here.
Part Four is located here
Part Five is located here

In late August of 1991, I noticed a bump on the right side of my face, down near the jaw. There was no pain associated with it, but over the next couple of weeks it continued to grow. My fatherss birthday was September 26th, and I was eating dinner with my parents when I pointed out the bump and asked for advice. Brows furrowed, and we decided as a group that I would make an appointment with my mother's family doctor.

And thus it came to pass. The doctor provided a similar reaction to that of my parents. Specialist, she said.

This is how I came to know Dr. James Wolfe, whom I believe has retired now. In mid October of 1991, I met with Dr. Wolfe and he pronounced this bump, which had grown in the four weeks since I had noticed it, a tumor. I was expecting a cyst. My body likes to produce those for some reason, and a tumor was out of the question at 19. The next word was "biopsy," of course, and Dr. Wolfe sent for another doctor or member of the medical staff who returned with a long needle. They performed a fine needle aspiration (several, actually) and sent me on my way. This is NOT a procedure for the needle squeamish.

The offending gland was the right parotid gland, which, hopefully is something you've never heard of. Billy Bob Thornton's character in Bandits actually thinks he has a problem with one of his partoid glands (he's a hypochondriac), but he mispronounces it as PARotid. It's paROTid. Just a bit of trivia. You, normal human, have six salivary glands, three pairs. These are the parotid, the sublingual, and the submaxillary. The function of the parotid gland is to add the water to the saliva mix.

A week or two later, we discussed the results of the biopsy. Benign. Of course, right? Who has cancer at 19? No pain - not even discomfort at the site. At that point we also decided that, obviously, the tumor must come out. This is late October -I believe a Monday. We scheduled surgery for Friday, November 1, 1991.

And then it all became very real. To get to the tumor, Dr. Wolfe would have to make a six to eight-inch incision. I would likely experience several side effects, including limited to no movement in portions of the right side of my face for an unknown period of time, possibly up to six months. Any numbness or lack of movement I was still experiencing at that time would probably be permanent. I had thought this would be a little one to two-inch slice in my face, pop the offending mass out, and stitch me up. No.

That week, I made arrangements with all of my professors to be out for the following week, possibly beyond. All were very understanding save one. My Economics professor said, "well, if you're going to miss more than one class, you may want to drop. I suppose he didn't understand the word "tumor." You'll enjoy what I do to this man later.

I also bought several turtlenecks.

I moved back home for the recovery period. I had been living on campus, but my parents lived in the same city, and coming home only made sense. On Halloween, the night before the surgery, I remembered thinking and knowing that my life was going to change forever on the following day but not knowing at all what to make of it.

Surgery comes early in Cox South hospital for those whose operations might last all day. And I was one of them. I don't much remember the sequence of events that morning, but I do remember the fuzzy general anesthesia haze. It's usually the same - the spinning clock once you notice where you are, the voices of the medical staff in their communications with others. The extreme chill. The first words from a nurse when he or she notices you're fighting the effects of the anesthesia. Nausea. Lack of control.

I later learned, when I was fully conscious, that the surgery took six and a half hours. That the tumor was not just a little bump, but rather it was a mass the size of three-and-a-half golf balls. That it was wrapped all around my facial nerve, and that somehow, some way, Dr. Wolfe managed to save most of the nerve's function. Oh, and that there was a suspicious "section" within the tumor that would require some significant testing by pathology.

One word to well-thinking visitors. The day of major surgery is not the best time to visit. The patient is likely to be highly nauseated, mildly to heavily disoriented, and just plain tired. I had many caring visitors that evening, most of whom were scurried away gently by my mother after a short visit as I needed to take yet another trip to the restroom. Violent retching and facial surgery are not good bedfellows, either.

And it was then that I saw it, of course. Horribly swollen face from all of the trauma. The very non-natural drain positioned in the middle of the incision. The non-moving right side of my mouth when I tried to speak, and the long purple wound starting from next to the right ear and travelling around underneath it to take residence in a crease in my neck, following same to the bottom of the neck. It looked like a worm that'd been washed up by rain. Purple and angry. But, considering all alternatives, not bad at all.


Posted by hln at October 27, 2003 12:00 PM | Anecdote