Today marks five weeks since the surgery to remove cancer from my body, and about three weeks since I wrote a blog about it foolishly including “part one” in the title. In the eyes of some, this meant that a part two should follow. My capacity to obligate myself is quite impressive, if I do say so myself. We’re way past life-and-death, medical curiosities and gamma rays now, so feel free to skip this one.
Where were we? Leaving the hospital…
As you may recall, my right arm was thickly bandage-wrapped from fingertip to elbow, with a rigid custom forearm splint bound around the entire apparatus. There was a large spongy pad covering my right thigh, air-sealed to protect the site where skin had been taken to cover the hole in my arm which was made by removing flesh to cover my hand. Last, but not least, there was a two-foot-long tube jabbed into my side below my armpit where my cancerous lymph-nodes had been cut out. Connected to this tube, and safety-pinned to my shirt, was a clear plastic bulbous container that vacuum-sucked a viscous pink fluid from my body cavity 24/7.
Oh, and I had no more cancer. Is that important?
Climbing in to the passenger side of my father’s SUV gave me my first realization of what outside life would be like with only one functional arm. I couldn’t quite contort to cross-body reach the open door with my left hand. Similarly, extending and buckling my seat belt took a long succession of small awkward movements. But we were on our way on the freshly snow-covered streets.
Suffering primarily from debilitating pain and fatigue, finding a way to sleep without hospital-grade medication was a priority. With my body positions limited to standing, sitting and slumping, and the requirement to keep my hand elevated above my heart, my penchant for dozing on the couch served me well. The sleeping and semi-conscious states alternated every few hours regardless of the state of the sun… punctuated by anti-inflammatory drugs and emptying of the crazy drain.
Mom and Dad took great care of me during those first days, ever patient with their delirious, limited-mobility son on forced caffeine withdrawal. Many soups were made, easy-to-reheat foods stocked, pots of decaf brewed and a quest for a one-handed method for opening cans was undertaken. Movies were watched, sports were tolerated, wounds were dressed and redressed, fluids were measured and recorded. I couldn’t bath or shower… that part can’t have been fun.
Someone told me that it takes 24 hours of recovery for every hour being under general anesthetic. That seemed true in my case, because it was six days after my six-hour surgery that I could finally feel my brain forming coherent thoughts. (My apologies to anyone who interacted with me in my fog before that point.)
By day seven, I felt like a dog with one of those huge cones around their head. I was beyond ready to tear off all the dressings, restrictions and tubes… and nearly did at night. I was feeling mentally confidently ready to return to life-as-usual by the weekend. This was shattered by my first confrontation with the reality of my wounds.
My reconstruction surgeon sat close beside me with her laptop open showing me images and data while a resident aggressively cut off my inch-deep fluid-encrusted bandages… some literally sewn to my flesh. She admitted it was a distraction tactic as many of her patients react poorly to the sights of staples being pulled with no more delicacy than a reupholstery project.
First to my eye was the missing chunk of flesh near my elbow joint. The thin layer of leg-skin stapled over it was nearly transparent with the muscle, flesh and veins underneath clearly visible creating a gruesome purple oval window into my body. An unexpected slit from there to the base of my thumb gave a visual trail to follow to my hand. They call it a muffin-top as flesh that was once on my arm (with goosebumps to match) bulged enormously, bursting off my hand and held in place by a hundred near-popping stitches to my remaining red irradiated flesh. No depiction of the Frankenstein monster could look less naturally conceived.
As a small parade of doctors who had been in on the surgery took turns nodding at my limb with pride and approval, I realized that my goal of ditching a splint that day was laughably off the mark. I felt like The Princess Bride‘s paralyzed Wesley being praised by Fezzik for the slight wiggle of a finger when a castle is waiting to be stormed… but with startling deformation as an added bonus.
The next day, I met my physiotherapist for the first time. Fortunately, as I’ll be seeing her more than any other human for a while, she turned out to be quite pleasant with a soothing hum. She laughed at my thought that we might be starting with exercise. Wound care and debridement (scab picking at a professional level) would be all I could handle yet. Putting velcro straps on my splint was the only concession to my sanity.
Later that day, I was attempting to return to work email when my shirt became instantly soaked wet. After a second of panic that somehow I’d lost bladder control on top of everything else, I discovered that the fluids from my torso once content to leave via a tube had now found more direct exits… and so Dad and I returned to the hospital we had just left. In a procedure I feel confident I could have performed myself on a deserted island, my tubes were indelicately yanked out by the hospital’s lead oncologist and patched unceremoniously with a gauze and tape craft project.
The next day would mark the last day my father was with me and the first day my kids would be here. I nervously took my first drive using only one hand, just to make sure I could do it. (Really makes it difficult to text and stay on the road… kidding. Just kidding. Sheesh.) The night included pizza and card games, with my youngest figuring out a rig for me to be able to hold and play the cards. They proved to be great help to me as I asserted normal life — opening jars, flipping inside-out socks, draining pasta, carrying laundry baskets, checking motor oil, shredding cheese and many other things you just don’t think about as a matter of course.
Week by week, the pain has subsided gradually, though I am still on Advil multiple times a day. The leg bandage came off, revealing an unnaturally perfect rectangle of red scabs, like a highly specific third-degree sunburn. I’ve returned to regular work duties, though with the immense frustration of half-speed typing. I can drink caffeine and alcohol again. I’m going to physiotherapy twice a week, where I’ve worked my way up to excruciating finger flexing and wrist twisting. My hair is returning, though ridiculously unevenly. I can shower. I’m allowed and encouraged to walk for exercise, though paranoia about the damage I could do in a fall is high. I was the topic of a medical lecture and the research paper about me is on-going.
The team has been mentally preparing me for at least six months of active work before my fingers are functional again, and probably over a year before my wounds have a near-human appearance. The road ahead is long, but painful and boring. I trust the same will not be said about my life.