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.

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.


The best laid plans…

Yes, I know. It’s been quite a while since I’ve posted anything.

Life doesn’t always go according to plan. I know that better than most. You never know when the bus is headed your way. When lightening will strike. Or the rogue cell has started replicating. I’m holding out for this being a mere bump in the road.

Here was my plan about three months back: I was enjoying a busy time at my seasonal job at the garden centre, in the glass house, spending sunny, warm days planting green things while a  bitterly cold and overlong winter raged out of doors. Evenings and days off, I was happily honing the sketches for the next children’s book – an alphabet of the West Coast – which fostered a daily mental stroll through the Pacific rainforest and along coastal beaches. Once the gardening season wound down, I  planned to ramp up to full-time studio hours to finish the illustrations, ending up just in time to jet out to Kelowna for a wedding and then off to Turkey for dig season. And then – who knew? – perhaps on to Europe this year? That was the plan.

Instead? The Zincirli dig season was cancelled due to the current Syrian situation. Disappointing, but that opened up an opportunity to join girlfriends for a week on Prince Edward Island in July. It also meant that I could stay longer in Kelowna once the book was done. I would be home to keep a vegetable garden for the first time in years and finally plant the new perennial bed that I had begun preparing two years ago, repaint the front of the house and stain the back deck…the revised plan kept expanding.

The latest plan, though, has me not going anywhere – not Turkey, not Kelowna, not Europe –  not for a while and that will be after a trip to hospital. I’m scheduled for neurosurgery.

Neurosurgery. I kind of like the sound of it, if not the reality. No, a surgeon is not going to root around in my skull a là Dr. McDreamy in Grey’s Anatomy; he’s going to give my spinal cord a little more room. If you want all the technical details, it’s a posterior cervical decompression with instrumented fusion. Look it up! It’s quite an amazing procedure, really –  if it’s not your spine, that is.

How did all this come about? I started noticing some bothersome symptoms last spring – numbness and tingling in my fingers and a feeling that I might faint when I tipped my head back to look up or reach above my head. It wasn’t constant, so I mostly ignored it. I concluded that I probably needed physiotherapy, that it might be related to previous issues with carpal tunnel syndrome and so I shelved it until I had more time – which was never, of course. The tingling got worse, affecting my arms and, sometimes, legs. My daughter remarked that I was walking funny and truthfully, I was feeling unusually clumsy. So I stopped procrastinating and saw a doctor – who immediately sent me on to a neurologist who then sent me on to a neurosurgeon. Arthritic bone and herniated disks in my neck are pinching my spinal cord – due in part to aging, in part to genetics and in part to some mythical injury that both neurologists are convinced I must have experienced somewhere along the line. The surgery will relieve the pressure and reverse most of the symptoms; I may be left with a bit of numbness in my fingertips.

The current plan? I’ve left the garden centre, the book is on hold and I will have surgery next week and settle in for some recovery time. Kelowna was inside the recovery window, so I had to give that up. Prince Edward Island will be comfortably outside the projected recovery and still on the agenda. The garden hasn’t been planted. The perennials will have to wait and so will the front porch repainting. The back deck hasn’t been stained, but has been fitted up with new patio furniture to create a cosy recovery nest. I’ve loaded up my e-reader and there is still time to round up some interesting plant material to sketch while I laze in healing comfort. Perhaps those of you nearby will drop in during the month of June to laze with me? I may even manage a blog entry or two with all that time for rest and reflection.

That’s the plan.