Mama’s op at 95
Granny tells of trial and triumph under the knife
‘Had it not been for that operation, I might not be here today; I might be someplace else. I thank God for that!’
Why would a grandmother pursue radical surgery for cancer at the age of 95?
This was the question ringing constantly in Rosalie Bailey’s ears as she was faced with making the biggest decision in her life.
Just over two years ago, the golden years of peace and rest for Mama, as she is affectionately known, were interrupted by the shocking news that her body was under attack by one of woman’s worst nightmares. She was diagnosed with stage three cancer of the vulva, and worthwhile treatment would call for a radical vulvectomy with bilateral lymph node dissection.
Such an operation is best performed in a single-stage procedure, with emphasis placed on the removal of the entire lesion “with an adequate tumour-free margin”.
Speaking to Barbados TODAY at her Waterhall Land, Eagle Hall, St Michael home this week, Mama recalled that doctors had advised her she needed to have urgent surgery to stop the cancer from spreading –– which was causing her tremendous discomfort and agonizing pain. And despite great opposition from some family members and church colleagues, in October, 2012, Mama became the oldest person in Barbados, and possibly in the Caribbean, to benefit from such a procedure.
This radical surgery was performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital –– which Mama today testifies saved her life.
Leaning forward in the comfort of her favourite chair in her living room, granny raised her hands, looking up to the ceiling, and thankfully declared: “The cancer is now in remission!”
Said she: “Had it not been for that operation, I might not be here today; I might be someplace else. I thank God for that!”
Mama, now 97 years old, was for the first time in the public domain relating her touching and thought-provoking story of trial and triumph.
It all started when Rosalie Bailey, who gave birth to seven, went to her general practitioner for an itching and burning in her pubic area.
“You know, they say when you have an itching down there, you have sugar. It was more than I could bare, because it wasn’t only itching; there was a burning. I was telling him, ‘Doctor, I have a problem there. I don’t know if you could solve it’.
“So he tell me, ‘What it is, Miss Bailey?’. I told him I have a burning in my private part. So then he told me, ‘Let me examine you’. After he examined me he told me that that’s a case he cannot attend to and he going put me on to some person. So he put me on then to Dr Wayne Welch, and Welch give me an appointment to go to the hospital; and there I met Dr Chatrani,” Mama said.
Dr Vikash Chatrani, a gynaecologic oncologist, and clinical director with the Barbados Cancer Society, is one of the leading specialists who performed the historic surgery, along with Dr Welch and anaesthetists headed by Dr Philip Gaskin.
Chatrani confirmed that when the elderly woman visited him for the first time she had had advanced vulval cancer and was unable to sleep at nights because of the intense burning.
“She actually was just putting local anaesthetic gels on the area for some hope of relief,” he indicated.
Chatrani said: “At first we were considering giving her a simple vulvectomy, but when we realize we had the potential to offer her a cure for her condition, we counselled her appropriately –– and she accepted.”
The option offered Mama would not be without its controversy. It would be debated by her loved ones and close friends, many of whom thought she was “too old to have a surgery”.
“I come home and I tell my children. Some tell me go, and some tell me don’t go,” Mama recalled.
“About three or four of the grandchildren tell me, ‘Ma, go long’. Some of the members of the church tell me don’t go with my age. I was 94 then.”
After adequate encouragement, and some contemplation of her own, Mama signed those doctors’ consent papers.
She clearly remembers the moments leading up to her very first surgery in life –– a procedure that would last for three hours.
“The doctors tell me it is not going to be my whole body. It going to be from the spine down. Them tell me, ‘All you are going to feel is a stick in your back’. To tell you the truth, when I get that stick in my back, I was watching them; and they tell me don’t watch them to watch the lights up there.
“I look up at those two lights and, well, I ain’t know what went on after . . . .
“Then I was there on the recovery bed and a nurse come to me and said, ‘Miss Bailey, you know where you are?’. I say, ‘Yes, I in the hospital’. She say, ‘Well, you got the operation and you on the recovery bed’. I say, ‘Thank you, God’. And she say, ‘You came out successful for your age’.
The elderly woman’s vulva was removed completely down to the bone and the lymph nodes in the groin where the cancer had spread to.
Mama recalled: “When he [the doctor] show me it, I say, ‘That is it? It shape like a tree’.”
Rosalie had nothing but good words to describe her treatment during her month’s stay in the High Dependency Unit and on Ward B4 of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.
“Listen, I went in there and I cannot complain for none of those nurses. Them was very nice and very attentive to me. Everybody referred to me as Gran –– Welch, the nurses, the cleaners. The only body that never call me gran was Chatrani, who does call me Gran-Gran,” said Mama, who noted she had developed a special liking for “my boy Chatrani”.
Sitting close by, granddaughter Maria Walcott, who pays special attention to Mama’s well-being, said she never objected to her having the surgery, because “she ain’t no diabetic, she ain’t got hypertension, she heart good, she passed all the tests that you supposed to have before surgery”.
“So what was the problem? If you got something that affecting you, what you supposed to do? Get rid of it, right?” the Maria argued.
The granddaughter added: “Plus, when Mama first spoke to Chatrani, she felt comfortable speaking to him. I believe the spirits really met. So whatever decision Chatrani made for her, she approved and everything went well.
“And it is only at one point in time that Mama was in agony after that surgery, and that was because the time schedule for her getting her painkillers was late. At no point in time for that whole month in the hospital Mama experienced any serious agony.”
Now a proud cancer survivor, who commendably defeated the odds at her age, Mama however confessed she was “getting some problems with the eyes, and the cataract”.
“And I does still got li’l pains ’cross here [private area] like a numbness; but the most thing worrying me is the arthritis from the shoulders right now. And you see this knee, if I don’t be careful with this knee it would throw me down, yeah.”
Reaching perhaps the most serious point in the interview, Mama said, unfortunately, she never saw the need to have a pap smear done.
She paused and went into deep thought for a few seconds.
Then she had some counsel to give those who might be faced with making a decision similar to that she was forced to, to save her life just a few years ago.
“I would advise them to go and get the same operation too if they wanted to, because everybody may not got the same heart as I had. They may be scared. Truthfully, at the beginning I was scared; but then after the children tell me why I don’t go and get it, and I get certain information on how it would work and it would be okay, I had it. And I am thankful.
“As women, should anything so happen with them, I hope that they will be interested and go along with a cheerful heart and put God in front, because without Him we can do nothing, and without Him we will fail.
“I would have anybody that have that problem to put God in front and get it fixed,” advised the brave and free-spirited grandmother.
“I thank God for this life at 97, and hope that amid the aches and the pains that He would prolong my life a little longer,” Mama prays these days.