Tag Archives: orthopedic surgeon

Flashbulb Chronicles 3 – Turning the Screws

Fresh out of graduate school, I was working on my first ghostwriting job during the summer of 2004. The research was exceptionally engaging and allowed me the opportunity to dust off little-used past coursework like Latin, German, Roman History and Legal Ethics. The return to my hometown allowed me to resume participation in my favorite regular basketball games around town. Saturday mornings before nine in Eastwoods Park near the UT campus I played with a group comprised primarily of lawyers and philosophers who I had met through the record store.

1) “For we must be one thing or the other, an asset or a liability, the sinew in your wing to help you soar, or the chain to bind you to earth. — Countee Cullen

countee-cullen-1-sized

Back at it for most of the summer, I was also in a Sunday evening game and had a couple of friends who met up during the week. A streaky jump shooter at best, I was always eager to set picks and make the extra pass. My true focus, however, was and always had been defensive with an eye towards maintaining cohesion between the five positions and feeding fast breaks off the glass. Defense consists of a lot of habits and choices, therefore the more aggressive we become it follows that our decisions are less sophisticated. And in one fleeting down court inbounds of the ball, I would become another statistical illustration of such a notion.

2) “Eternity is a mere moment, just long enough for a joke.”  — Hermann Hesse

6360918

That moment is frozen in time, the instinctual break on the ball developed over years of staying engaged with the middle foreground and its peripheral spaces, and it would live on in infamy. Everything about my play on the long pass was well executed, the jump and the timing, but somewhere along the way, I’d forgotten to account for my own landing point. The other regular game was in a nicely appointed gym; perhaps the alternating venue had my sensibilities twisted. But ultimately, there are good reasons players don’t often press full court in pick-up games. Regardless, after I broke up the pass, I had to contort my body to avoid toppling into my opponent and as I did so my right great toe met the concrete where his foot was planted.

3) “When you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone in the air. You can never capture it again.” — Eric Dolphy

ericdolphy2

A rookie ghostwriter at the time, I had no insurance to speak of and therefore I did nothing to attend to the painfully jacked-up toe. Having experienced a pair of far simpler broken toes in the past, I kept up with ice and taped the toe for support; years later, I would realize how futile such attempts had been. Though I’d not have thought of it that way at the time, this was the formal conclusion of my basketball playing life, which had begun, in the explosive aftermath of Michigan State beating Indiana State in the 1979 NCAA Championship. The game, however, has lived on within me even though my body can never play again. And, when I watch people play, it can trigger such joy as I recall the lessons encoded in the elements of the game even during years where I relied on a cane or walker and meds to make the simplest trip to the kitchen.

4) “Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.” — Bertolt Brecht

220px-Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-W0619-307,_Bertolt_Brecht

Nearly four years later, my knees forced me into the insurance market as they began to break down (https://theflashbulb.wordpress.com/2017/01/17/flashbulb-chronicles-pt-2-to-seek-better-thoughts/). Throughout this process I lived in the upstairs apartment of a large split house, which had me up and down stairs, limping and generally putting a lot of wear and tear on my lower extremities. Between each of the knee surgeries, usually, as I was rehabbing and getting myself back into shape, that right great toe would flare up and cruelly shut me down again. When I asked my knee surgeon about the very swollen toe, she scoffed at any surgical fix and left me hopeless.

5) “Literature is my utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness.” – Helen Keller

helenkeller2

The process of becoming hobbled was one that came along in phases and delivered me just far enough from normal to dislodge me from any consistent social strata. For years I was at the whim of the crumbling foundations of my poorly engineered body, but books, films, music to carry my restless mind out into the world surrounded me. Reams of paper could account for myriad false starts on my own literary works, which seemed to stagnate alongside my own mood.

6) “It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s how you carry it.” – Lena Horne

A-300050-1285712453.jpeg

A year after my third knee surgery, we moved into to a one-story house on the Near Southside of Fort Worth. Throughout the move and ensuing six months, I’d had only a pair of flare-ups with my foot and was becoming more active riding my bike and shooting hoops solo a couple times a week. But with the New Year came a historically bad decision, which saw me walking bourbon-fueled and in wholly inappropriate footwear just over a mile in the dark of night to see the live music beckoning to us on our porch. Somewhere in the first quarter-mile, something in my foot had busted loose and all I had was more bourbon to offset the rising tide of pain overtaking me. By the time we arrived at the venue, neither my mind nor my body could stand up and there was quite literally nowhere to sit down. It was a long quiet, much slower trip home and seven long painful months before I would find any sort of relief.

7) “Respect your efforts, respect yourself. Self-respect leads to self-discipline when you have both firmly under your belt that’s real power.” – Clint Eastwood

MV5BMTg3MDc0MjY0OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzU1MDAxOA@@._V1_UY317_CR10,0,214,317_AL_

My personal purgatory became a podiatrist’s office in a strip mall, where for several months I returned only to have no cure but plenty of foam for my shoe and prescriptions for meds to combat my body’s growing revolt against demolished and now rebroken set of bones that made up my right greater toe. X-rays were taken and I was assured that surgery was an option if it were necessary but that my sesamoid bones were shattered and would need time to recover. But alas, when these methods fell short of improving my condition, I took my business and x-rays to an Orthopedic Surgeon specializing in foot and ankle reconstruction.

8) “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.” – Susan Sontag

susanBioImage01

Within five minutes of meeting my surgeon, I felt a deep sense of relief, it didn’t hurt that he was cool, carrying on with the looseness of the leader a big band. Digital x-rays were quite the time travel from the podiatrist’s office and as we looked at them in his spacious office I finally saw the adversary. As we booked the ensuing procedure, he explained the truth about podiatrists, “I wish those guys wouldn’t load people up with meds like this. You know they aren’t doctors, right?” I simply thought mine was incompetent but it would seem I’d fallen into a common error loop.

9) “You can rebel against everything adults say. When I want to find out what the new music is, I find out what parents hate.” – George Clinton

af8827d7c287954f5addad80ba7436a9

The surgeon rebroke the bones and reshaped them so that the right great toe stood straight with the assistance of titanium screws after crookedly crowding its longer neighbor for eight years. Throughout the process, I tried my best to continue covering local music. The week before I went in I caught Loudon Wainwright at The Kessler (https://wordpress.com/post/theflashbulb.wordpress.com/45) and the week after I had a big show booked which I attended. It was a glorious night, the venue was packed and even though I was medicated and on a cane, I still found ways to dance all the same.

10) “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”  — H.P. Lovecraft

H._P._Lovecraft,_June_1934

A year later, I returned to have the screws removed because I could feel their heads emerging beneath the skin. As he looked over the file, he commented quite emphatically, “That toe was quite a mess,” before scheduling the procedure for his main office in Dallas. The screws come out much like one would expect with a medical-grade screwdriver and repeated ratcheting of my foot. As he set to work on the first screw, he asked if I could feel what he was doing. When I acknowledged that I could, he called for another dose of the deadening agent which he applied quite liberally before picking up his tool again.

Advertisements

Flashbulb Chronicles pt. 2: To Seek Better Thoughts

story_page3-2

Prior to my eyes failing, I had already become well practiced in the process of degeneration, procedure, and recovery over the course of a decade. It was another of my birth defects, a pair of bipartite patellae, where the saga of my surgeries began. A dislocated knee during 7th-grade football tryouts tipped us off to the fact that the kneecap had never fused properly; rather it remained two separate bones. Most importantly, as I would mythologize later, I beat the kid next to me on the track, which had just enough of a dip in it to pop my kneecap out.

1) “In most of our human relationships, we spend much of our time assuring each other our costumes of identity are on straight.” – Ram Dass

hqdefault

Ten years ago, while moving a 7-foot couch into my upstairs apartment, something began to break down in my left knee. The process was intensive and involved removing a pair of posts on the screened-in porch; there were a number of casualties on the way to its final resting place at the other end of the house, including my roommate’s scraped up back and hands. Before we got the massive piece of furniture through the kitchen, my knee began to swell to the size of a large grapefruit and I remained on the couch for the next six weeks.

2) “I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.” – Flannery O’ Conner

0711e8806c6eb4afa2fca7b993a5d4bb

Most of the next year was spent nursing the knee before I finally sought an orthopedic surgeon nearby to check it out. When the first x-rays came back, I commented on how the smaller chunk looked like a ship leaving the harbor of the larger chunk. The greatest concern about removing the wayward bone for the surgeon was the 7-inch incision required. Despite my waving off any issues about scars, he wasn’t sure it was a necessary procedure, choosing instead to do a basic cleanup of the damage caused by the kneecap’s split arthroscopically.

3) “Everybody you fight is not your enemy and everybody that helps you is not your friend.”  — Mike Tyson

4b24e6ea35b884cf75f17caa1ab2ac8b

Almost immediately after the first surgery, it was clear more work needed to be done. The first procedure had simply cleaned up the wreckage but did nothing to stymie the patella’s further separation. When I returned with a nearly melon-sized knee, the surgeon simply showed me a series of rather intimate pictures as evidence of how nicely he had cleaned out the joint. Of course, these were images taken during the procedure and did nothing to explain my body’s extreme reaction weeks after the fact. Throughout this frustratingly idle process, my options were mostly limited to reading and watching movies, which allowed my usual quote harvesting to intensify and acted as a welcome distraction from the pain.

4) “Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.” – Albert Camus

albert-camus-9

After three frustrating meetings with the first surgeon, my mother encouraged me to track down Dr. Barbara Bergin – the orthopedic surgeon who had diagnosed the malady twenty years earlier. Of course, my visits became frequent because my insurance refused surgery on the knee for another nine months, which meant my only recourses were Hydrocodone and regular draining of fluid build up. So I had time to learn about a cowboy trading her riding lessons for hand surgery, which led to competitive cut riding, and, eventually, a novel she based around her experiences. By this point, I rarely left home and when I did it was with the assistance of a cane; my interpersonal skills deteriorated further with each passing month as I became more consumed by what was happening.

5) “I never make stupid mistakes. Only very, very clever ones.” – John Peel

peel

Between the first and second surgeries, I had signed on to develop story ideas for an upstart production company. However, hovering somewhere between pain and painkillers left my mind lacking clarity and I became increasingly difficult to be around. Emotionally frazzled, I left a trail of questionable choices and confused dealings as I lived in a perpetual state of limbo. Unsurprisingly, I was giddy as a schoolchild when Dr. Bergin finally asked, “Are you ready for me to pull that thing out yet?” In less than a month, I was wearing my gown getting the low down on my cocktail by an anesthesiologist before being wheeled into the OR.

6) “You can tell how smart people are by what they laugh at.” – Tina Fey

f14b05a492adb4254d613d7de1fd35f6

Before I undressed, I had asked the nurses if I could take the chunk of kneecap they extracted home and when I awoke there it was like a new potato on the table to my right. That first laugh was a very long time coming – almost like seeing a defeated adversary – the conclusion of the nightmare saw a return of a more sociable version of myself. Many of my friends, even a couple of their kids, asked to see the bone, which I kept in the freezer – I would always indulge them by pulling it from the freezer and saying, “You can touch it if you want.”

7) “I am neither especially clever nor especially gifted. I am only very, very curious.” – Albert Einstein

45f6865a8cbe8fe5afd0e90af12bf037

Those three years initiated a period of personal transformation driven by the breaking down of my body. In my early 30s I expected to spread out and challenge myself, but instead, I was comparing notes with my mother about her knee replacements and researching pain management. A large percentage of my energy was spent doing mental health upkeep, at times I could trick myself by focusing like a sommelier on ways to describe the various types of pain stimulating my central nervous system. At times, it was as though the pain’s intensity overwhelmed my visual field, where I would see blobs of color. Tracing the dynamism of the pain along the nerve could have jagged electrical bolts or feel heavy and sludgy like lava.

8) “Humor is laughing at what you haven’t got when you ought to have it.” – Langston Hughes

1000509261001_2105665572001_langston-hughes-house-in-harlem

 

With each recovery came a renewed sense of vigor, I bought a stationary bike to help me get back in shape. Activity during the periods of regrowth accounted for over a hundred pounds of weight loss, a curve that would fall off a cliff when a step felt a little wrong and my body would once again stage a revolt. With each new round of swelling – when gravity and mobility become far more adversarial – life moved towards an Olympic level of absurdity. I am the sort of person who refuses assistance as a way of life; many of my falls, tumbles, close calls and near misses were due to an irrational pigheadedness. But I found it helped to laugh as often as possible upon unintentionally finding the floor.

9) “The monster was the best friend I ever had.” – Boris Karloff

10499535_1

Only one procedure was needed to care for the issues in the right knee. Through all three knee surgeries, I lived upstairs in an old house, which meant I was hopping up and down; my bedroom was a loft in a converted stairwell, which meant I took a few tumbles. As a result, my spine had taken a beating at either end. In addition, all of the limping had awakened a big toe pulverized years before I had obtained insurance, and soon after that same toe would become an ordeal all its own.

10) “Simplicity is the most difficult thing to secure in this world; it is the last limit of experience and the last effort of genius.” – George Sand

george_sand_age_60_photo_1864

For more than three years, everything revolved around my problematic patellae and it became clear I was missing out on a great deal of life. My friends were getting married, having children and starting businesses while I was stuck in third gear, a moody shell of my former self. At times I certainly found myself feeling despondent, but for all that was lost, I gained the appreciation of simple glories, like the moment you successfully regain a normal gait and return to walking without limitation after not knowing if such a thing were possible.