How do you do it? — I mean writing with such creativity, humour and wisdom while being trapped in a collar-thingy that would stop me from moving, thinking or imagining anything beyond getting it off.

The quote above comes from a recent email; my good friend Michael fired this off to me on a day when that very question was all that filled my mind. Sore, frustrated, unable to move, think or imagine anything beyond this collar-thingy, I had spent most of the day trolling the net, trying to find out just exactly why I was trapped within it.

Now, it appears that when it comes to gathering information, the majority of humankind is actually looking for confirmation of an existing opinion. We think we’re out to learn something, but it’s actually rare for us to accept information that contradicts what we think we know – or want to continue to believe. In my case, although I did dig up a stray article that questioned the effectiveness of a cervical collar, the overwhelming bulk of evidence was in favour of carrying out the full sentence. Reluctantly then – two more weeks to go.

So for those of you like Michael trying to fathom how I do it: an exercise. Try this at home! A couple of pool noodle rings hot glued around your neck might give you the idea – or a really thick towel rolled and wedged under your chin maybe? You should not be able to move your head more than a few degrees to right or left or be able to tilt your head up or down. If you need to see your feet or spit when brushing your teeth, you must incline the whole upper body, not just your head. Reaching too far forward will hurt; it might seem that you can crouch rather than bend to pick up an object on the floor or the lower shelf of the refrigerator, but it will involve reaching, I warn you! You won’t be able to look down at the book or computer on your lap, so you will have to perch it on your knees or balance it on a pile of pillows – otherwise, you’ll find that your eyeballs are sore by the end of the day whenever you look up. Need relief? Recline, but the pillows will have to be adjusted so that shoulders and head are supported with no pressure forcing the collar into your neck – a tricky business, let me tell you. Fortunately, there are two collars – the softer one is for sleeping (and showering!) but you still have to arrange your pillows strategically. If, like me, you don’t normally sleep on your side, you will have to wedge yourself in with more pillows so you don’t roll over during the night.  Oh…and eating? Sit up straight and…hmmm…yes, reaching forward without looking down…well, never mind. The collar is great at collecting spills. And dribbles. Lots of dribbles. No worries, the collar is also washable. Too bad about your shirt.

Now for extra fun, walk about in public; taking note of all the double takes will provide amusement. Don’t trip, though – remember you can’t see your feet! It’s only for six weeks.

I find myself strangely sympathetic toward yoked animals these days. Oxen. Haltered horses. And those amusing pictures of pets wearing cones after surgery? Not funny.

cone dog

Healing and humour

I’ve often heard stories of doctors whose understanding of medicine is seriously altered when they, themselves, become the patient. Although I’m not a health professional, these days post-surgery have given me an inside view of the role of caregiver I’ve played in the past, particularly with the issue of pain management.

I’ve seen both my husband and my father through terminal cancer. Both experiences involved wading through a labyrinth of narcotic drugs that allowed them to function normally – awake and aware, but also comfortable. It’s a tricky spectrum between pain on one extreme and unconsciousness on the other. Somewhere in between lies a near normal existence – quality of life – but just a tweak away from that lurk disturbing waking dreams and hallucinations. Now, add in the cautionary tales of narcotic addiction and you have patients who are often reluctant to accept enough medication to treat pain effectively and so are constantly stressed and distant.

Having experienced this from the front lines, if not first-hand, I was determined to use everything I’d learned now that it was my turn to be the patient. At my pre-op appointment I listened intently to the explanation of the pain pump, certain that I’d make proper use of it, determined to accept all comfort offered and not to tough it out.

It’s not that easy.

I have a vague recollection of waking post-surgery, swimming up through a miasma of confusion to the surface of consciousness. It took a few moments to re-orient and realize that this cloud I inhabited was, actually, pain. It took a few more moments to locate the promised little bell-shaped button placed strategically under my hand. I remember a satisfying ‘beep’ and when I next surfaced, I was being wheeled into my room – fuzzy, but not hurting. So I got that step right.

I only had my little bell-shaped friend for two nights. That was more than enough time to realize the complexity of narcotic use. My pain was managed, no problem there; I never again experienced the overwhelming level I had on first awakening. Too many beeps of the precious bell brought on serious nausea. Manage the nausea (more drugs) – good – but I couldn’t help but nod off during a conversation. I finally found the sweet spot: comfortable, awake and no longer nauseous. However, at no point in the four days of my hospital stay was there an end to the relentless re-decorating of my room every time I closed my eyes!

Years ago my father had a kidney removed. When visiting him in hospital, he urgently asked for a sketchbook so that he could draw the tree he’d been watching all day from bed. Looking out his window, we made appropriately admiring noises about the view. Impatiently, Dad redirected our attention toward the blank wall in front of him, vividly describing the spreading branches and the birds and squirrels he saw moving among them. Even after he was persuaded that there was no window there and no tree, his vision persisted for several days. In spite of his acceptance that it really wasn’t “there”, he would look over our heads to watch the unfolding tableau during visits.

Following my husband’s radiation treatments, I rose one morning to find him absent from bed. I followed a trail of discarded tissues to find him ensconced on our basement stairs where he’d kept vigil through the early morning hours, awaiting the arrival of a submarine carrying drugs from Holland – a set-up deal meant to entrap his brother. He’d been waiting until it was late enough to call Matthew to warn him. (An aside here: Matthew is the pastor of a church, not a drug runner!)  It took a great deal of persuasion to convince Craig that no Dutch submarines were due to surface in our bathroom closet. Craig once confided to our daughter that while some people saw faces in the folds of a towel or a wallpaper pattern, with morphine he saw entire movies.

In the dark days of Craig’s illness, I whisked my children and their friends off for a day of respite at the beach. Coincidentally, both of the friends were also dealing with cancer in their families. At some point, the submarine story emerged and for the rest of the ride the kids exchanged tales of the effects of morphine – a cathartic, therapeutic and totally unexpected bright window of hilarity during a difficult time.

So, for me, narcotics brought bizarre décor. The best variation was a post-modernist room with an extended recessed window, the facing wall painted a tasteful aubergine. The worst was a room draped entirely in chocolate-coloured satin. Consciously, I knew the actual dimensions and colours of my room, but, opening and closing my eyes, could flip between one and the other. In memory, all the versions seem equally “real.”

Nearly three weeks since the surgery, I’m drug free, save for an occasional Tylenol. I’m grateful for the efficacy of analgesic medicines – for my own comfort and also for the ‘normal’ time granted my husband and father.The advice I was constantly relaying to them held true. Get on top of the pain early, don’t be a martyr – it will be easier to control. Then deal with the side effects until you find the balance. Match the meds to the pain level, and the spectre of addiction needn’t materialize.

Meanwhile? Enjoy the hilarity – and the bad décor.

Novels, naps and Netflix


Optimist: someone who figures that taking a step backward after taking a step forward is not a disaster, it’s a cha-cha. ~Robert Brault

I’ve been reflecting on a possible change of sub-title, something that more accurately reflects my current circumstance. “Adventures in strategic pillow placement?” Sounds more like an interior decorators blog than a post-surgical quest for comfort. This too shall pass; I’d best leave things be for now.

It’s nearly two weeks since the surgery. My forearms are still bruised from the iv lines. It took most of a week to detect all the electrodes taped to my body and longer still to erase all the sticky left by surgical tape. I have to say though, I’m making progress! I’m awake most of the day and able to negotiate the house and basic tasks. Still no reaching, bending or lifting allowed; it’s surprising how much of daily life is curtailed with those simple restrictions. I’m strapped into a cervical collar 24/7; the more elaborate of the two inspires Darth Vadar sound effects when people first see it. My movements are circumscribed by these contraptions and the discomfort that arises from moving outside the prescribed ‘zone’. Life would seem very small if it weren’t for the array of friends and family looking in on me – in both real and virtual space.

Although I confess that I thought I might skip ahead, I’m exactly where i should be on the predicted path of a six week recovery. Fatigue is my main complaint; who knew how hard it would be for the this stalk of bone and muscle – my neck – to hold up the mass of bone and brain above it? I’ve never fully appreciated just how heavy my head was. Now I get half-way through a day and struggle to sink into my collar or re-arrange multitudinous pillows to achieve relief from carrying the weight. I’d been expecting to get some drawing done – but it’s not as easy as I imagined to work from a reclining position. Meanwhile I’m bingeing on novels, naps and Netflix – throwing in a TED talk whenever I feel that this isn’t enough to justify my existence. Now that my laptop has been rehabilitated, I’ll be re-adding blogging to my activities – there are tales to tell!

The good news – actually, the great news – is that I experienced the results of surgery almost from awakening! The fingertips that had been numb for months now have nuanced sensation – I can actually pinpoint the margins of the numbness to a relatively small area on the sides of my thumbs. The strength of my grip is restored – I can twist the top off a water bottle again! And open those annoying plastic packages with separate layers!  Peel back the seal on a tetra pack! The doors of modern life have re-opened. I’m still not sure about the large motor things – my gait and balance – because the cervical collar constrains my vision (of my feet, mostly) but I’m feeling solidly connected to the ground again. It seems that I go where I’m headed now, instead of drifting off in unintended directions.

So – all good for now and each day a little better.


Tomorrow at this time…

…it will all be over.

That’s been my strategy for dealing with stressful events for some years. It might be a speaking engagement that strikes terror in my heart, a dental procedure that has me cowering or some other dire circumstance. Instead of focussing directly on the thing I fear, I picture the period post-trauma and imagine, ” tomorrow at this time, I will be ______ (fill in the blank with something enjoyable) ” And the something I don’t expect to enjoy? It will all be over and well behind me.

So, tomorrow at this time I will be sleeping off the effects of anaesthetic, comfortably medicated and on the road to recovery. I’m seriously looking forward to finding out what the new ‘normal’ might feel like once I’m back up to speed. It’s possible that many of my recent physical limitations – things I have come to accept as part of aging – might actually have been consequences of the spinal stenosis that I’m about to be treated for. So, bring on the surgery!

I’ve been taken to task a few times since my last post for playing Pollyanna and downplaying my condition or the seriousness of the surgery. In conversation with my hairdresser yesterday (we had to make sure my hairline wouldn’t be disrupted by the incision!) Mel put it in perfect context. She’d asked why I was having the surgery – and when I told her, she said,” so…you’re lucky.” I thought I knew what she meant, but I asked her to clarify. “Well, when the surgery is done, it’s over.”

“Exactly!”, I thought. I was immediately mindful of family members and friends dealing with illnesses and limitations that won’t go away in a morning, that don’t respond to treatment, that offer no hope or respite.  Tomorrow morning I will have the surgery –  and it will be over.

So, yes – it’s a serious surgery.

Yes – I’m going to experience some discomfort.

But, yes – I am so, so lucky.