This is not going to be a typical blog post for me. It just seems too odd to return to these posts without explaining why I haven’t posted since Sept.23 when I wrote about the Homer Hanky.
I am a transparent person by nature. My wife has always said “Tim will tell his deepest, darkest secrets to the postman.” I buy into Jeff Jarvis’ belief that personal transparency is important. I admire his candor about his prostate cancer.
Where I struggle is my 33-year-old daughter Tracy’s constant complaint about TMI—too much information. Personal medical details can get boorish quickly.
I am going to be candid about the incredibly bizarre events that beset me, but in hopes I can provoke a bit of reader reflection.
I had major ankle surgery on July 23 to fuse my left ankle. As friends know, I was born with a congenital birth defect that necessitated 13 surgeries before I was 16 years old. All those surgeries created massive arthritis in both ankles. At 61, even after losing 55 pounds, the pain begged to be relieved. On July 23 I had the first of two planned surgeries. By Sept. 23, just two months later I had survived a knee stroller and a motorized cart and I was walking in a regular shoe.
On Saturday night Sept. 25, I felt a throbbing pain in my back. As a seasoned veteran of kidney stones I was certain of the problem. By the next morning I was horribly ill and I couldn’t walk. That began a 23-day journey with four surgeries, two for the kidney stone and two on the ankle.
The most popular medical theory is that the impacted kidney stone created a massive bladder infection which made me ill. Then the infection traveled to the most vulnerable place in my body, the surgical site. The intricate pins and screws from the first surgery collapsed and my ankle was not fused. There are other theories including my ambitious desire to walk, the instructions the first surgeon gave me and the first surgery itself. No matter the cause, on Oct. 5 I had surgery to remove all that hardware and to take bone biopsies because massive infection was feared. That came after a surgery the week before to put a stent in the kidney. On Oct. 12, the ankle fusion was reconstructed using a dramatically different technique. On Oct. 18 I had the kidney stent and stone removed. On October 19, after a three week absence from classes, I taught my ethics class just as I had promised Cronkite School Dean Christopher Callahan I would.
Four surgeries, nine days in the hospital, massive infections, even more massive antibiotics, vague conversations about amputation and anemia can conspire to create an emotional maelstrom. Here are some of the thoughts I had during the siege and after.
Most people I encounter want to place blame or want me to place blame. When you try to sort out the various opinions and conjecture it becomes obvious quickly that assigning blame would be a futile, mean-spirited exercise. The best guess now is that I suffered really lousy luck. Lots of things went wrong for lots of reasons. Assigning blame doesn’t make anything better. I am reminded of a barbeque an ASNE delegation to South Africa had with Nelson Mandela several months after he was released from prison. After an hour or so of conversation I asked the gentle, peaceful man why it seemed he so lacked any bitterness toward his captors. He gently responded, “what good would it do me?.” Those words have never lost their meaning for me.
Lots of people have commented on my positive attitude since I returned to the Cronkite School Oct. 19. I have been my bright and shiny self since my return, but there were dark moments. One particular night in the hospital I was scared, depressed and sleepless. I sent out some emails that concerned some people who cared. Mobile phones and Ipads are bad tools for hospital patients!
Through all of life’s trials and there have been a few, I have desperately tried to avoid asking, “why me?” I am not proud to admit that a couple of times during this trial I asked just that. Like the temptation to blame, it passed when I concentrated on all my incredible blessings in this life including all those people who rallied to help.
I could write a chapter or more on how the medical system works during a crisis like this. I was never satisfied with the level of coordination between the various doctors on my case. I got the terrible feeling I had to prove myself worthy of being dealt with straightforwardly.
The cost of this ordeal was huge. Despite good insurance the out-of-pocket price tag would devastate normal families. Without insurance the catastrophe is too horrible to think about. I was blessed with good coverage but something has to be done to bring costs under control. I did not suffer any terrible indignities at the hands of my insurance company, but there is one trend of which I was unaware.
Home health care is an expanding option and that places an incredible burden on family caregivers. My wife Jean is a little bitter that our insurance company decided she was qualified to administer antibiotics through what is called a PICC line. As she says, “15 minutes of training did not make me a nurse!” She did an amazing job, but it creates a ton of pressure on a layperson.
The real delight medically for me was meeting all the men and women who do the important nursing and technical jobs. Customer service and comfort seem high on their list. I constantly felt that these people were my advocates and at a time of trauma that’s incredibly important. I engaged a lot of these folks in conversation and I was impressed with how many are continuing their medical education so they can move up the chain.
There are several personalities I won’t forget like the 61-year-old male nursing tech who is completing nursing school. Or the x-ray technician who tries to convince you he’s a doped out hippie, but is actually tremendously professional. The proliferation of “physician assistants fascinated me. Some of them will tell you becoming a physician in the current environment is just too much of a hassle. They think they have the better part of the deal as an assistant.
The next time you hear a friend is in the hospital go see the person or at least call. Illness is a profoundly lonely time. Visiting, calling or even a note, are valued more than you know. I am incredibly grateful to the people who visited me and for much of my various hospital stays, all I could think about was the friend who was very sick this past spring. I never visited him. I felt bad about that every time a visitor came to see me.
Support goes so far beyond visitors. I do not understand how anyone without a loving partner and spouse like my Jean could deal with something like this. I think I would have just curled up in the fetal position. My reappearance at the Cronkite School only happened because of the attention and efforts of Dean Christopher Callahan and his executive staff.
And then there were my students. Private notes, group cards and random tweets all made me want to get back to them as soon as I could. Work has been a safe place to be as I recovered. Again, the question becomes can you say the same thing about your workplace?
I have always been a fairly introspective person, but this misadventure has forced me to reflect on a issues from life to death to spirituality, to friendship, to love to hope, and to faith. That reflection is a very good thing and it’s something I wish I had done more of as a journalist..