The twists of my medical misadventures became even more bizarre in a saga that lasted for several months and once again would change the course of my life, bringing me further into the family of my close friend Yinka Ogunro. A close confidant through thick and thin, our shared love of music has been a beacon over time. Since I met him, nearly twenty years ago, I’ve been enthralled by tales of his inventive Nigerian namesake father – an upper extremity orthopedic surgeon known by most as “Dr. O”.
When we finally met, Dr. O spent twenty minutes trying but failing, to dislocate my shoulder, which I had always thought was the source of my recurring pain and nerve impingement. With natural, conversational curiosity, he administered a battery of tests with the loose focus of a jazz drummer setting up his kit. He referred me to a nerve specialist, who electrically tested the nerves in my arms. We crossed the shoulder off the list and I took my films to a spine guy who set me up for a series of neck injections, which proved helpful but left me with residual pain. For this, I was given a TENS or transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, a unit that uses pulses to alleviate pain.
When I returned to Dr. O weeks later, the pain doctor had already denied that the electricity provided by the TENS machine could have possibly been connected to the constant pain now engulfing my right arm. In his first analysis, Dr. O didn’t know what to make of it. Knowing what I know now, I believe the hemangioma – a sort of vascular cluster – had always been there. But there was no way for me to know that not everybody’s funny bone shot lightning into their pinkie finger. I imagine further that all of the steroids I had taken for previous maladies had helped it gain size.
Fitted for a brace that locked my arm at nearly a right angle, and, which necessitated the use of a sling. I was prescribed awful large red anti-inflammatory pills to keep jagged, inflamed pain at bay until the good doctor could get a better insight into what was going on. Seemingly without warning, I could be overcome by extreme jolts downward from the elbow of heat, electricity or even icy cold. There was an upheaval of every activity in my daily life. There were frequent office visits – including sensation tests which demonstrated that I was losing significant feeling down the arm and into the outside fingers.
As a writer, my hands have always been instrumental in processing the ideas at the heart of whatever words I may endeavor to write. First seen as black ink scribbles on loose-leaf pads of paper, the second more intensive stage takes the rotational engineering of the radiocarpal joint and advances it to the more precise gambit of the keyboard, where each finger contributes in an enigmatic flow which inherently expands and deepens what the pen began.
I don’t know if the area in question was discovered by Broca or Wieneke, where the complications originate for my terrible issues trying to adapt from my long-established process of working to the use of dictation software as my arm became worse. The speaking, voice-hearing part of my brain collided with my overwhelming dependence on music to train my focus on the task at hand. Where I could modulate pace, volume, and intensity of my tunes to suit my writing needs, my voice invariably made me more anxious and unresolved.
A group of us were standing on my cousin’s porch when my girlfriend pointed out a protrusion beneath my elbow that “didn’t look right.” It was like a push-button of pain and her noticing it changed the course of treatment dramatically. When I showed Dr. O the mass, he curiously manipulated it, moving my arm into different positions, and finally suggested an MRI might reveal our culprit. Back in the tube, the arm was isolated, which kept me in an awkward position. I was, however becoming adept at mentally slipping my mind out of my body as the machine blurrged around me – the hint of a popular country radio station fluttering beneath it.
Two months before my imminent surgery to remedy the worsening situation, my girlfriend and I rescued a little black dog with smoky grey bits. He was six pounds and eight weeks old, a little dirty but full of love. Immediately, I called him “Mingus” after the composer and bass player, Charles Mingus, who’s Beneath the Underdog has been hugely influential. With one bad arm, I did my best to keep up with my new friend, fighting off the isolation that can accompany pain from an unknown source.
The mass had grown into the ulnar nerve and its presence was causing all sorts of confusion. As Dr. O explained it, the nerves are like the bundles of wires used in suspension bridges and the hemangioma would have to be teased out tediously. With this in mind, he booked us as a surgical center with the best optics and brought in Yinka’s younger sister, Shade, to handle the four-hour procedure with her young eyes and small hands, with which she left an elegant scar along the curve of the joint.
The next year, as my eyes were beginning to fail, the problems of the ulnar nerve returned. Every couple of months I’d have another MRI to monitor its progress. Eventually, he referred me to a Radiation Therapist at the Cancer center, ultimately prohibited by the proximity to a major nerve prohibited. It remains in a happy medium near the nerve but not choking its internal circuitry and I’m sure Dr. O and the rest of the family will ask how the arm is when I see them over the summer in Nigeria for Yinka’s wedding.
He described the nerve as a bundle of wires that required the surgeon to tease the growth out very carefully to minimize damage. There’s no way to avoid a lengthy period of time for the nerve to recover any sense of normalcy, five years was the expectation I was given. And that would be if the hemangioma didn’t grow back, which it eventually did.