Friday, June 14, 2013

Reluctant Phoenix

"Cough, Andrea! Can you cough for us? Wake up! We need you to try! Cough!"
Why are they shouting at this Andrea person?
Why can't I open my eyes. I tried,  but the eyelids were instantly slammed shut by a light so bright it hurt.
Wait ... I think... I am Andrea?
I cough and clear my throat. Cheers erupt. Nervous laughter. "Good girl!" the voices say.
Glad to oblige.
"Go back to sleep now".
Okay. Lights out.

I wake up back in my sunny room. Mother is sitting in the corner reading a trashy novel. Blood pressure 120/72. A rose in a bud vase sits on the night-stand. A cup of water with a straw is offered at my dry lips. There is a gross orange colored, odd shaped stain on the curtain that separates me from my invisible, snoring roommate.
"They chipped my tooth", I report. "Why is my tooth chipped?"
A blue plastic kidney basin that I was not aware I was holding flies to my mouth in time to catch the clear contents of my retching stomach. My bandaged leg feels so heavy as it is bent up and down in the creeking continuous passive motion machine (CPM). I stare utterly uncomprehending at a paragraph of  The Edible Woman, one of a stack of books that I had borrowed last week from the school library for summer reading.

I wake up. It's darker now. Mother is gone. A nurse is giving me an injection in the thigh and telling me I have to ask for the medication earlier next time, before the pain gets too bad. Apparently, I've been moaning.
"Oh, sorry. I didn't know, I though I was sleeping". Have I said this out loud, or just in my head? Who gives a shit anyway, why won't they just let me sleep?

In the dark of night I keep waking up with the sensation of tiny springs wound up much too tight, exploding their uncontainable energy below my bandages, down my calf muscle. I can almost hear the sound. The CPM is covered with a synthetic sheep-skin, and by morning I have convinced myself it's the fake wool sheep swirls I am sensing through the bulky dressings. And this is what I tell Mother on the phone when she calls.

June 26th, 1987. It's the day after arthroscopic surgery to repair my torn anterior cruciate ligament. I'll be back burning up the basketball court before they know it. Back out on my white 10-speed, racing past Dean Clark's family farm out on the Branch Road, praying he waves at me again. Those freckles and  lopsided grin give me butterflies every time, though I can barely allow myself to glance at him each morning on the school bus. Must appear cool and aloof, despite the heat of my face.

Of course I passed Non-Weight Bearing Crutch Walking  101 with flying colors, but my physiotherapist had warned me that this morning I would need to sit up with my legs hanging over the edge of the bed for at least 5 minutes to have my blood pressure stable before attempting to stand upright. Always compliant, I do this for 10 minutes while enjoying the gentle sunshine streaming in through the large drafty windows. Each window has an internal venetian blind sandwiched between its panes of glass and operated by pulling on a small cord. Often the cord had broken, and the blind was left permanently useless, unreachable, forever more.

I feel great! I devoured my breakfast after having fasted for 36 hours as my surgery kept being postponed yesterday. I feel strong again, and most importantly, once I have recuperated and rehabilitated from this surgery, I will be back better than ever. My knee will not give out when least expected, to find myself sprawled on the floor or ground anymore, and I can get rid of the brace I have been wearing for the last few months. I joked with friends that I will be the Bionic Woman.
Nurse pops into the room to see how I am doing and check that I am not dizzy. She deems me fit for the journey and hands me the heavy wooden crutches that were propped in the corner. As she pushes the i.v. pole along side, I gingerly head to the bathroom. I have been holding in my pee since she removed the Foley catheter earlier this morning and my bladder is about to burst. Nurse guides me to the washroom door and tells me to "take it easy" and leaves the room.

Wow, that sun has really warmed up this space. I can feel a few rivulets of sweat roll down my back and ribs. The bathroom is small and dark. I reach for the light switch just inside the doorway, on the left. It's generic white hospital tile with a black rounded border and it smells of cleaning product and old piss.

I reach around behind myself to close the heavy wooden door and catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I lean in closer to examine the damage I can feel on my teeth, but I suddenly can't find my face, all I can see is an ever growing grey then black blob obscuring my vision. Then the faintness and nausea hit like a rogue wave and I start to fall into the blackness. The crutches crash silently against the floor, for now my ears are filled only with the roaring of that tsunami trying to pull me under. I feel the pain of freshly cut flesh and drilled bone as my knee slams first into the wall, then the floor. I slide helplessly down into the narrow crevice between tiles and porcelain toilet, stopping only because that is where space ceases.
Thankfully, for I couldn't have done it intentionally in such a blind stupor, part of my flailing rag-doll body has set off the emergency call button above the toilet-paper holder, which is wailing inaudibly to my blood deprived ears. Vision slowly returning as I lie on the disgustingly refreshing cold, damp floor. Three alarmed faces at the door, nurses responding to the distress signal relayed directly to the nurse's station. Their mouths are moving in talk but I can't understand what they are saying over the thunderous surf in my head.
They manage to unwedge me from my ever so undignified throne and return me to bed where I am presented a cold cloth as my crown. As my sense of hearing returns I can catch snippets of their conversation. "Are you feeling better now, sweetie? Your i.v. ripped out.  Oh well, we were going to remove that soon anyway. Why are you crying?"

Am I crying? But I don't cry!

"Emotional teenager", discerned with a sigh and a roll of the eyes.
"You got up too fast, don't do that again!"

They take my temperature, blood pressure and get me some cold water to sip.
An injection of pain killer soon quiets the throbbing in my knee and the embarrassment in my head. Lights out.

Time to change the dressings. My nurse is gentle but rushed. She probably has too many other things to do before the end of her shift. The ACE elastic bandage is unraveled, the white mummy bandages are cut and the thick compression pad is tossed aside. She examines the incisions and sutures, irrigates and washes away the blood and yellow Proviodine antiseptic with sterile saline from a big bottle. I ask why one small spot the size of a dime is black and insensitive when she scrapes across it with the long Q-tip swabs, and she says it's just dried blood. From somewhere deep inside myself, I know this is not so. But I am 16 and this is my first surgery, so what do I know?
As she suspends my leg by the back of the ankle, ready to re-bandage one-handed, I catch a glimpse of a bright color along the back of my calf, peeking out from the remaining criss-crosses of white gauze.
I ask, "what is that?". She takes a quick look, ready to dismiss my concern, but instead does a double take. She peels off the remaining gauze to reveal what appears to be some of my own body tissue hanging off the back of my leg, from the knee right down to almost the heel. Whatever it is, it's a beautiful amber color, golden ambrosia.
"Holy shit!", the nurse exclaims. "I think it's a huge blister", she finally makes her slack jaw articulate. "Don't move, I have to call someone about this!", she orders as she rushes out of the room.

A few minutes later, an orthopedic resident in his blue scrubs calmly enters my room, escorted closely by my freaking out R.N. who is babbling, "you won't believe the size of it".
They both don sterile gloves and the nurse gently raises my leg for the Rez to have a better look. His eyes grow wide and round and he now also utters the words-of-the-day: "holy shit!". I am now also inclined to be thinking: "holy shit!"
Rez admits that he is not sure what to do, and leaves to call for advice. I am left with my nurse who is staring at my leg, shaking her head in disbelief and telling me, "everything will be ok. We'll take care of this, alright?" I think she may wet her pants. Soon enough the Rez returns saying that he has contacted the surgeon by phone and was told that he was not surprised as small blisters appeared in the O.R. during the surgery and that I was having an allergic reaction to the Proviodine antiseptic solution. They were simply to drain the fluid from the giant blister using a sterile technique and bandage me back up and check on it again the next day. Mystery solved...until I ask why there would be such a reaction in one spot when the blood-orange solution is painted on from foot to hip. Silence.

On closer examination we discover that part of the fluid filled bubble had already burst spontaneously. The nurse is still able to draw off a cup of clear yellowish exudate with a large needle and syringe, which she and the Rez decide should be sent for culture "just in case". While the Rez keeps me distracted with a one-sided conversation of his sporting feats, she wraps me up again in layers of gauze and ace bandage, good as new.  The 3 of us, inexperienced surgeon in training, experienced but time-harried nurse, and clueless 16-year-old patient having her first real experience of the health care system, all heave a simultaneous sigh of relief.
That was our first mistake.


  1. Fantastic Andrea! I know the story but long to hear you tell the rest...

  2. I'm on the edge of my seat!