“You poor thing, you’re so nervous,” she said, looking at her watch while the blood pressure cuff constricted around my arm.
I laughed nervously, like that might have fooled her. I clutched my cell phone to my ear with my free hand, laying in the curtained hospital bed.
“Are you doing alright?” my fiance Brice asked through the phone static.
“No,” I admitted for the first time since arriving at the Stanford Medical Center in Palo Alto, California two days prior. I tried to talk low because the old man the next curtain over was getting made ready for his third knee surgery, and I could hear him breathing nasally next to me.
The nurse began bringing wires and steel surgical tools on shining, wheeled-platters toward me. I looked at her, worried she would make me end my call in preparation for the impending surgery. But she smiled softly to let me know that she understood. For a few more minutes, I could pretend I was anywhere else.
“I think I have to go soon,” I told Brice. It was 6 a.m. in California but 3 a.m. in Indiana where he lay in our queen bed almost as alone as I was. I imagined him staring at the blurry dark of the ceiling with his glasses off, unable to comfort me.
I would have given anything to be on that hand-me-down mattress with its creeky IKEA frame rather than in my crepe medical gown and sterile operating gurney.
“I’ll be right here when you wake up,” he replied.
We both said I love you and hung up. The nurse handed me a tissue to stem the tears.
“Can you bring my mom in for me?” I asked the nurse. Nearly 23 years old and I still needed my mother.
The nurse said of course and disappeared around the curtain again.
As I sat mostly alone in my small cubicle of curtains, all of the thoughts associated with the viscera of surgery crept into my mind.
My mom rounded the corner and pulled back the curtain in front of me, followed by a man in surgical scrubs.
He introduced himself as my surgeon’s resident and said, “I’m going to explain what we’re going to be doing today.”
He started to explain all the intricacies of the surgery I was about to have in the lightest way he could. But it didn’t matter because I had already pored over every facet of what was about to happen for months.
The surgery is called a periacetabular osteotomy. They would be precisely cutting a 6-inch incision diagonally along my pelvis, up to the side of my right hip. After stanching the blood, the surgeons and nurses would then take a bone saw and cut my pelvis in two places: across the anterior inferior iliac spine and iliopubic eminence. They would then rotate my shallow acetabulum to a more advantageous position, allowing the head of my femur a larger bony roof. And finally, they would take three 8-inch steel screws and drill them into my iliac crest to keep the newly cut bone in place. I would be in the hospital for a minimum of three days and immobile for at least 10 weeks.
All of this for the sake that I could someday walk a mile again without crippling pain in my hip socket and perhaps even prevent a total hip replacement before the age of 50.
“So we’re going to go ahead and insert your IV now and give you a dose of medicine,” John said.
“Can I have anesthesia before you put in the IV?” I asked in a shaky voice. My mom came to my side and squeezed my hand. “That’s what they did for my ACL surgery nine years ago.”
John shook his head. “I’m sorry but we have to give you an IV first. The medicine in your IV will make you feel nice and relaxed like you’ve had a few beers.”
This comparison was oddly comforting.
I looked away as the nurse fingered her way along the veins in my arm. My mom stroked my other hand as the needle pierced under my skin and the nurse added pressure with the tourniquet.
Almost immediately, a strong calm flooded over me, starting at my fingers and filling up to the top of my skull, like slowly sinking under water.
I opened my eyes and looked at my mom. “That was fast,” I said. I smiled vaguely at her and began to feel my consciousness slipping.
I watched in a blur as my mom kissed me goodbye on my forehead and another nurse escorted her out.
“Alright, we’re going to go ahead and help you roll over so that we administer the nerve blocker,” John said.
As hands rolled me over, my body shook from both fear and my uncontrollable sobbing. They attempted to inject the nerve blocker in my lower right back. The needle stabbed once. Twice. Three times. Four.
“We need you to try and hold still, or we’ll have to give you an epidural,” John said as comfortingly as he could.
My body will never be the same, I thought as I faded out.
It’s a strange emotion to feel as if your body is failing you. I began to deteriorate the age of 14 when I tore my left ACL in my first game as starting defender on my varsity soccer team. It was a family trait. Both my father and grandfather had career-ending ACL injuries.
I had been living with the diagnosis of my congenital hip dysplasia for a little over a year but had lived with the pain for much longer. I had stupidly assumed it was an old injury from my cross country days. Now, even after the surgery, I would never run again.
When you break and rebuild the body, the doctors prescribe repetition. At first, it was morphine every 15 minutes. Then generic versions of oxycodone every three hours. Breathing exercises every four hours. When the exercises made me cough, I could feel the muscles pulling at the screws in my side. The physical therapists came by the room precisely at 3 p.m. every day for the six days I was in the hospital.
Even after I was sent home to my parents’ house, the repetition never left: physical therapy twice a week, a daily walk around the block in the wheelchair, medication every four hours, daily inject in the stomach of blood-thinners, nightly phone calls with Brice. I began imposing repetition on myself to make the minutes alone go faster. I kept a daily list of the things I wanted to do every day: read for one hour, write for two hours, practice piano for an hour, eat a 100-calorie snack every two hours. Eventually, all of these routines, except for the doctor-mandated ones, fell away to knitting and rewatching the entire House M.D. series for the fifth time. I related to Hugh Laurie’s characteristic limp more than ever as I obsessively purled one line of yarn over the other.
The doctors tried to make the time feel faster by giving me milestones. At four weeks, I could put 25 percent of my body weight on my leg. This is barely a toe touching the ground. At eight weeks, I could put 50 percent of my body weight on my leg and move from a wheelchair to a walker, which my mother decorated with a bike basket and a cup holder. At ten weeks, I could put 75 percent of my body weight on my leg. I upgraded to crutches. It took a quarter of a year to be able to walk again.
The stillness scared me more than the pain. I had been an athlete once. I was never an all-star, but I had become accustomed to running when I needed to vent my frustrations or calm my nerves. My father had taught me to overcome obstacles by physically pushing my body until it ached. Even when I began to realize something was wrong, I would run until my hip hurt all the way through my bones. But this was a new kind of pain. As my bones slowly fused back together, I began to realize I had never truly been still. Wedding planning and
As my bones slowly fused back together, I began to realize I had never truly been still. Wedding planning and graduate school filled the last two years. I was too busy and dare I say too happy to write, to read, to take long, solitary walks, to swing dance, to run, to paint, to play guitar, to do all of the creative things that require a sort of calm, a sense of knowing yourself.I thought I was a writer I hadn’t truly written for three years. The reason is that writing and art require a conversation with yourself, and I had grown afraid of my own voice.
I thought I was a writer. I hadn’t truly written for three years. The reason is that writing and art require a conversation with yourself, and I had grown afraid of my own voice.
I had grown afraid of failure and judgment, of rejection and self-consciousness. But mostly, I was afraid that I had nothing to say. I could only remember writing when I was unhappy, when I was in love with someone who couldn’t love me back, when I left everyone I loved behind at the age of 17, when I felt like the world was too small to have a place for me.
Over the three months I spent healing at my parent’s house in California, I kept asking myself when exactly I had forgotten what it felt like to run.
I stared at the black and white X-ray on my surgeon’s screen. It had been six months since the surgery. The bright metal screws stood in sharp contrast against the porous bone and black emptiness.
“You can see the bone growth here and here,” she said, pointing to the jagged edges of my acetabular region with her pen. “It’s going really very well. There’s more coverage over the femur head, and you can see your socket is way more congruent than it was before the surgery.”
I nodded. “But no running?”
She shook her head. “I’m afraid not. Though it looks much better, you still have narrowing here.” She moved her pen along to the very top of my femur. “The cartilage was just too damaged.”
I continued to stare at the spot where my femur and hip socket nearly touched. So the surgery, the pain had been for naught. My cartilage was still degenerating. My osteoarthritis was still progressing, albeit more slowly now.
“How’s your pain?” she asked.
“It feels much better,” I said, “for now.”
She nodded in understanding. “Your surgery is what we call a quality of life surgery. You’re not in any life-threatening danger, but your quality of life was significantly declining. And I can tell just from comparison where you were six months ago that you seem… happier.”
My limp had finally worn off. I was beginning to weight lift to bring back my muscle definition. My pain was nearly gone. I would often find myself planning future hiking trips in my head. And I was giving myself the space to listen and remember how to write. It was progress, but there was a gnawing in my mind that this was all temporary. I might still need a hip replacement at 40. I might stop my daily writing exercises again. The things I wanted for myself and my passions might being to fade again when I filled all the stillness with busy work just to keep the fear from creeping into the edges of my mind.
“Just take it one day at a time,” my surgeon said.