MUNICH — I recently had a hysterectomy here in Munich, where we moved from California four years ago for my husband's job. Even though his job ended a year ago, we decided to stay while he tries to start a business. Thanks to the German health care system, our insurance remained in force. This, however, is not a story about the benefits of universal health care.
Thanks to modern medicine, my hysterectomy was performed laparoscopically, without an overnight hospital stay. My only concern about this early release was pain management. The fibroids that necessitated the surgery were particularly large and painful, and the procedure would be more complicated.
I brought up the subject of painkillers with my gynecologist weeks before my surgery. She said that I would be given ibuprofen. "Is that it?" I asked. "That's what I take if I have a headache. The removal of an organ certainly deserves more."
"That's all you will need," she said, with the body confidence that comes from a lifetime of skiing in crisp, Alpine air.
I decided to pursue the topic with the surgeon.
He said the same thing. He was sure that the removal of my uterus would not require narcotics afterward. I didn't want him to think I was a drug addict, but I wanted a prescription for something that would knock me out for the first few nights, and maybe half the day.
With mounting panic, I decided to speak to the anesthesiologist, my last resort.
This time, I used a different tactic. I told him how appalled I had been when my teenager was given 30 Vicodin pills after she had her wisdom teeth removed in the United States. "I am not looking for that," I said, "but I am concerned about pain management. I won't be able to sleep. I know I can have ibuprofen, but can I have two or three pills with codeine for the first few nights? Let me remind you that I am getting an entire organ removed."
The anesthesiologist explained that during surgery and recovery I would be given strong painkillers, but once I got home the pain would not require narcotics. To paraphrase him, he said: "Pain is a part of life. We cannot eliminate it nor do we want to. The pain will guide you. You will know when to rest more; you will know when you are healing. If I give you Vicodin, you will no longer feel the pain, yes, but you will no longer know what your body is telling you. You might overexert yourself because you are no longer feeling the pain signals. All you need is rest. And please be careful with ibuprofen. It's not good for your kidneys. Only take it if you must. Your body will heal itself with rest."