Some people are so enmeshed in their physical and emotional issues that their ailments become ingrained in their existence, defining everything they do. They wear their injuries like a badge for everyone to see, relishing the sympathies they wrap around themselves like a cloak, further reinforcing their identity as a battered soul, stoically shuffling through life.
“Oh, their bravery. Sloughing ahead through pain and impediments.”
My mother fit this psyche, nursing every sniffle, every ache, every past injury, and every imagined infirmity, the basis for pampering herself. I grew up hearing about her painful neck, having slipped while wearing a pair of platform shoes as a teen. She spent a lifetime, wearing scarves and turtleneck sweaters, sleeping with a heating pad, and making excuses for why she needed to stay in bed until mid-morning, and take it easy for the rest of the day, assigning me to vacuum, wash the floors, cook, garden, and do any activity that was mildly strenuous.
When we moved from Southern California to Oregon, in my late teens, it was me who packed most of the house, while my mother supervised. Later, it was me who primarily unpacked and put everything away, and then repeated the process when she moved several more times.
It was irrelevant that I was attending school or working full-time, and she was home all day. My fatigue or feeling “under the weather” was excuses while her imagined maladies were undisputable.
As she grew older, joining her list of ailments was arthritic hips and joints, which further limited the activities she could or was willing to do. When I moved to Texas, she hired a housekeeper and enlisted people to help with gardening and periodic tasks like replacing lightbulbs and smoke detector batteries.
I never wanted to be like my mother or more aptly, tethered to my ailments. As a child, my brother and I were sent to school when we were sick because my mother didn’t want to take care of us. In his late teens, my brother was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, which became his excuse for why he couldn’t do chores, and reason why my mother rarely asked him to do anything, making me the designated “go to” person for everything from accompanying her to events to taking out the trash, washing floors, and spending hours doing heavy gardening, like wheelbarrowing and spreading mulch and bark dust.
Decades later, just as I’d done when I fractured my pelvis in 2007, as soon as I could put weight on my left leg, I was determined to resume normal activities, despite the pain. After being able to walk reasonably well, I resorted to denial that I’d been severely injured and had undergone several surgeries. Even while confined to a wheelchair, I soldiered ahead, oblivious to the pain and determined not to be restricted by strict instructions to baby my left leg.
Poor Rich had to deal with my impatience and unquenchable determination to return to normal. Every Saturday, I’d wake up angry that I couldn’t pull on hiking boots and storm up a mountain, don gardening gloves and attack my garden with sharpened clippers and vengeful shovels, or simply go for a walk around the neighborhood.
Turning ordinary excursions into momentous outings
Until we could toss aside our wheelchairs, we took a couple of mini trips, primarily grocery shopping on Saturday or Sunday mornings, and then going through the McDonald’s drive-through afterwards. Our first few solo grocery shopping trips were a disaster, with me struggling to steer the motorized cart and not smash into grocery displays or pin myself into corners. Additionally, it took every ounce of energy I had to hobble in-and-out of the store, and later, bring the groceries from the car to just inside the house, stagger across the driveway and up the ramp, and then plop down into my wheelchair once inside. The next task was equally exhausting, bringing the bags of groceries into the kitchen, and then putting everything away in the pantry, refrigerator, and cupboards.
With time, it got easier, especially with our assessing pitfalls, like putting too many groceries in a bag, making it more difficult to schlep them from the car trunk to just inside the house, while balancing with a walker and hopping on one leg.
One of our first solo, non-grocery shopping trips was in early July. Earlier in the week, Stacey drove us to Harborview. Rich needed to have stitches removed on his stump and the incision on his head, and I required x-rays to validate the progress of my leg. Rich’s appointment was first. A half-hour into his appointment, I left to visit the Orthopaedic Trauma Surgery Clinic, which was a building and several floors away. I wasn’t overly concerned because I knew the way. However, as I wheeled down the first hallway, a fire alarm went off, triggering the closure of doors.
No problem. I simply needed to wheel over to the wall and press a button to open the door, and then quickly wheel over to the open door. The button, however, failed to swing open the door, and I didn’t have the strength or coordination to pull the door open—while in a wheelchair—and then wiggle my chair in front of the heavy door before it slammed shut.
Fortunately, a Harborview employee came to my rescue, pushing me through the propped open door. To get to the Orthopaedic Clinic, however, I needed to take a sky bridge, but the doors to the sky bridge were closed. My only option was to take an elevator, which deposited me in a mystery location.
After obtaining the assistance of several more employees, I made it to the clinic. While my bones seemed to be healing, Dr. Nork was concerned with the pronation of my left foot. He explained that when they initially operated, they tried to make my foot point upwards, and had correctly aligned the bones, but the foot still turned outwards to the left.
He wanted me to have a CT scan to determine if my bones were the same length. I scheduled the scan for the following week. In the same timeframe, Rich’s neurologist at Harborview wanted him to get a cranial CT scan to assess the success of his aneurysm surgery. His insurance, Kaiser Permanente, however, wouldn’t authorize having the scan done at Harborview. Instead, he needed to have the procedure done at Kaiser, and then have the results sent to Harborview.
After getting the order from Harborview, he spent over a week calling Kaiser to determine where the order needed to be sent. He’d been communicating with the imaging department at the Kaiser Everett Medical Center, which is a short drive after getting off the ferry. After numerous calls, a scheduling clerk said they don’t do cranial CT scans at their Everett facility.
Rich was back to square one and the miasma of Kaiser bureaucracy. When he finally tracked down where to have Harborview fax the order, he was told that the person who receives and sorts the faxes at the Kaiser Permanente Downtown Seattle Medical Center was out.
In this day-in-age of astonishing technology, including inconceivable therapeutics like operating on babies in utero, it’s incomprehensible that fax machines are still used to transmit orders, and that clinicians are at the mercy of clerks to retrieve, sort, and forward faxes.
For several days, Rich called Kaiser to ask if they got the fax, and their response was the same, “The person who oversees the faxes is out.”
Finally, the necessary information was conveyed to the radiology department, and Rich was given a time slot in which to have the CT scan. Because I needed to drive him, since he wasn’t cleared to drive, we scheduled the appointment for a Sunday morning at 7:15. We’d take the first ferry and zoom down to Kaiser.
Saturday afternoon, around 1:30, Rich received a call from Kaiser, asking if he could arrive by 4:30 that afternoon since they had an opening. With the appointment three hours away, we said “Sure.”
After throwing on some clean clothes, wheeling out to the car, and loading our wheelchairs and walkers into the car, we set off for the Clinton ferry.
Did I mention it was July?
July is prime-time tourism on Whidbey Island, with upwards of four million visitors per year. Fifty-five miles in length, Whidbey has three “escape” routes: A ferry at the south end in Clinton, another ferry in the middle in Coupeville, and Deception Pass Bridge at the top that connects to Fidalgo Island, which has an elegant, curved bridge onto the mainland. Outside of the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station on the north end, the island primarily relies on tourism, small-scale agriculture, and the arts.
On the sunny, Saturday afternoon when we ventured down to Kaiser, we faced an even bigger issue. The Ragnar Northwest Passage race was taking place with caravans of vans and over 5,000 support personnel and athletes, running from Blaine near the Canadian border, across the Deception Pass Bridge, and then down the entire length of Whidbey Island, where the race concluded in Langley, east of Clinton ferry.
There were over 400 teams, each with two vans, meaning there was dozens and dozens of vans filled with runners either parked along the sides of the road or racing to the next checkpoint, along with hundreds and hundreds of people running. Adding to the congestion was race officials, volunteers, and residents directing traffic, handing out water and refreshments, and cheering runners.
The typical 45-minute drive to the Clinton ferry, therefore, stretched to over an hour. When we finally arrived, the line onto the ferry was backed up the hill. There was no way we were going to make the 2:35 ferry but were hopeful we’d make the next one at 3:05.
Adding to my consternation was the sticky heat with the summer sun bearing down on the car and fumes wafting from the pavement and idling cars. Additionally, Rich was behind the wheel. Stacey told me—several times—because of Rich’s aneurysm surgery, he needed medical clearance before he could drive. However, none of Rich’s paperwork from Harborview or Swedish mentioned limitation on what he was permitted to do. So, Rich got behind the wheel and patiently negotiated traffic, while I fumed.
It was a huge relief when we got on the 3:35 ferry and were directed to the front so we’d be first off. We immediately called Kaiser, informing them we’d probably be a bit late since the ferry takes 20 minutes, once it leaves the dock, giving us just 30 minutes to make it to Kaiser, park, and find our way to the radiology department. Even though we were under the impression that they closed at 5:00, their response was “No worries. We’re taking patients for several more hours.”
The next stressor was contending with Seattle traffic. Being it was late afternoon and a Saturday, traffic was light, and we arrived within 20 minutes. The next challenge was where to park since we’d never been to the medical facility or more aptly, campus. There were numerous buildings and parking lots.
We finally settled on a place to park in a handicapped space in the North Building and noticed two wheelchairs by the elevator. Instead of taking our wheelchairs out of the car—an exhausting endeavor—we decided to use theirs. We took the elevator up to the first floor and asked directions to the radiology department. We were directed to a courtyard by the Main Building. We wheeled over to the first door, but it was locked because it was the weekend.
Signs on the door indicated we needed to go through the main entrance by urgent care, which was at the opposite side of the building, up a couple of gentle slopes, along the sidewalk, and then down a walkway where ambulances pull up to drop off patience.
Rich had an easier time with the journey. I was exhausted because the wheelchair was too large for me, making it difficult and painful to propel with the insides of my arms whacking the armrests of the wheelchair. Happily, as we approached the emergency entrance, two paramedics noticed our sluggish advance and rushed to our aid. They pushed us inside, and then down a long corridor to the elevators. Once we reached the correct floor, it was a leisurely trip down several short, polished hallways to the radiology department.
Within fifteen minutes of arriving, around 5:30, Rich was wheeled away for his CT scan, and I made my way to the nearest bathroom, inside the women’s dressing room where they change into gowns prior to having a mammogram or other radiological procedure. The door into the bathroom was located off a narrow hallway. It took me several minutes to open the door and then spin the extra-large wheelchair so it could be wheeled through the standard-sized doorway. Once inside, there wasn’t much room to turn the wheelchair, so I resorted to hopping on one leg, grasping the sink and then the bar on the wall, until I was within “plop down” range.
I reversed the process to return to the wheelchair, which was wedge between the sink and the wall, opposite the toilet. Getting out of the bathroom was much easier because I could use my right leg to kick open the door, as I herky-jerkied back into the hallway. As I emerged from the dressing room, a nurse appeared, asking if I needed help.
Returning to our car was less demanding. Two nurses wheeled us through underground tunnels, using their badges to open locked doors, and then pushed us through the garage to our car. One of the nurses then raced to the toll booth, several floors above to ensure we had no issues, leaving the parking garage.
Before getting on the ferry, we stopped at a Mexican restaurant. While we parked closed by, it was a monumental effort to hobble from the car to inside the restaurant via walkers. Once seated, we eagerly ordered. But neither one of us had much of an appetite. Rich complained about the quality of the food, and after noshing on several tortilla chips, I wasn’t hungry.
We got to-go boxes, visited the bathrooms, and then hobbled back to the car, tired from the exertion of eating out for the first time by ourselves. Our ferry trip home was uneventful. We were both happy to finally pull into the driveway around 9:30, dog tired, but elated with our determination and independence.
A break that couldn’t be overlooked
A few days later, with renewed confidence, Rich and I loaded our wheelchairs and walkers into the car and drove down to Harborview for my CT scan. They taped my legs together so they could compare the bones in each to understand why my left foot was tilting to the left, despite the broken tibia having been plated and screwed together correctly.
The trip was uneventful with our having mastered where to park at Harborview near the elevators, and knowledgeably navigating to the radiology department. And a CT scan is painless and quick.
I was scheduled to chat with Dr. Nork, my orthopedic surgeon the next day, and fully expected to be given a sterling report on the progress of my bone breaks. Instead, Dr. Nork was flabbergasted by the results of my CT scan. I had a fifth break, a femoral neck fracture, which required immediate surgery to stabilize.
There was no way I was mentally (or emotionally) braced for having to scramble to get ready for surgery the next morning. It was three o’clock in the afternoon, giving me just a few hours to assemble what I needed, including having to rush to the pharmacy to get a bottle of Hibiclens, a skin cleanser, put clean linens on the bed, pack some clothes (for both Rich and me), receive and acknowledge instructions by email, and chat with a surgical nurse about the preparatory instructions. All of these activities were made more difficult because we were both operating on one leg with limited strength.
Read about the joys of my second surgery in Time Out!
Even though this surgery set my recovery back several weeks, it enabled Dr. Nork to further tweak my “whack-a-doodle” tibia to get my left foot to point upwards. He “re-sliced” open my left leg, adjusted one plate, and added another. When I woke up, my left foot pointed straight-up, even when not sequestered in the metal boot I wore round-the-clock.
Trips (and trips) with family
A few weeks after coming home from our initial hospitalization, Rich’s daughter Stacey and her husband Shawn visited from Bremerton and took us on a mini excursion. We drove around Deception Pass State Park, and then stopped for lunch at a sandwich shop.
Eager to show my walker dexterity, I dashed out of the car, plunked the walker onto the sidewalk, and hopped up. However, I wasn’t properly balanced and started to fall backwards. It was a good thing that Stacey was standing behind me to push me forward onto my good leg.
I think she breathed a sigh of a relief when I made it inside the sandwich shop and plopped down onto a chair without any further incidents.
In early August, Stacey visited again. This time, taking Rich and I to Anacortes, 45 minutes east on Fidalgo Island. She chose not to take our walkers, so we wouldn’t be tempted to hop around and potentially fall. Instead, we were both in wheelchairs, which was a bit challenging when we chose to eat at one of our favorite restaurants, Calico Cupboard. There’s often an hour long wait to get a table at the eclectic café and bakery, which specializes in homey foods made from local produce, such as thick slices of freshly baked toothsome bread, served with ramekins of locally produced jams.
After squishing our wheelchairs between the tightly situated tables, so awkward, we ordered one of their homemade cinnamon rolls to split, along with breakfast fare. I had their Greek scramble with black olives, feta cheese, and other goodies… along with fresh baked bread and jam. Delicious!
After eating breakfast, Rich wheeled over to the bathrooms, but the men’s room was occupied. Impatient, belligerent, and convinced his wheelchair couldn’t fit inside the men’s room, Rich wheeled to the women’s room.
To hell with following convention. He needed to pee and no sign with “wo” proceeding “men” was going to stop him. He was in full-blown obstinance, during this junction in his recovery.
Bellies full and bladders empty, we decided to wheel down to the marina. Stacey, meanwhile, relocated the car, so we wouldn’t have to wheel uphill after visiting the marina.
I was always a maniac in my wheelchair, making it go as fast as I could, so every block, I had to wait for Rich to catch up, making him more cantankerous and intractable. Seeing Stacey park, we stopped our incensed race to the marina, and struck up a conversation with the owner of Dockside Dogs, a small sidewalk café that serves traditional and funky-themed hotdogs, like a “Dog named Reuben.”
We told the owner that we’d soon be walking and would stop by again. Sure enough, fifteen months later, on a clear winter day, we paused at Dockside Dogs to say “hello” to the owner.
After going down the steep ramp onto the marina, Stacey snapped our picture. Six weeks later, she took a picture of us, just starting to walk, me with a three-legged cane, and Rich, using his prosthetic leg with arm crutches.
Six weeks later, in November, she took another photo of us at a local Mexican restaurant. We’d spent most of the day, engaged in our annual cookie baking marathon with Rich doing most of the work of taking cookies in-and-out of the oven, and putting them on cooling racks, and me assembling the unbaked cookies on trays. Stacey arrived in the late afternoon to assist with the last few batches, and help us clean-up, before accompanying us to the restaurant.
This photo, more than any other photo, illustrated our perseverance and realization that we could return to our previous way-of-life.
Tiring, but worth it
In August, having reach maximum stir crazy, we ventured to Mount Vernon for breakfast at Denny’s. We both enjoy choosing our own Grand Slam breakfast items, especially over-easy eggs, which are impossible for me to prepare using metal pans on our induction cooktop. I love having induction but miss the glory of non-stick Teflon.
As expected, it was exhausting hobbling with walkers from the car to inside the restaurant, but the breakfast was worth each huff and puff. Afterwards, we shopped at Fred Meyer, which we don’t have on Whidbey Island. Not realizing they had electric scooters, just inside the door, we schlepped our wheelchairs out of the back of the car, and wearily struggled to get them back into the car after shopping.
Rich then went to get gas, which is always a frightening experience with him standing on one leg and maintaining his balance by leaning on the car and gas pump. I was relieved when he got back into the car.
The first day of September, the week before we were both expected to get clearance to move to the next stage of recovery, me being cleared to walk, and Rich getting his initial prosthetic, we toddled out to the car, and drove to Hovander Homestead Park, northwest of Bellingham, which had a paved walking path through a small botanical garden.
It was a pleasant drive, and the garden didn’t disappoint; although, we had to stop and rest every 15 minutes or so to catch our breath. It was also satisfying from an emotional point-of-view. We chatted with quite a few people and received lots of “high fives” and kudos for our determination.
After our jaunt around the paved garden, we drove through the park, which has a historical farmhouse and barn, and several well-tended gardens, full of vegetables, fruits, flowers, and herbs.
Just months earlier we would have been able to traverse the entire park, so it was heartbreaking to observe people out-and-about with us confined to the car. However, being confined had at least one advantage, an excuse to go to a Sonic Drive-in. There was one a short distance away in Ferndale where I had a Chicago dog and decadent hot fudge shake, and Rich opted for two chili dogs and his usual fresh banana shake.
We were euphoric. When we lived in Texas, we’d regularly go to Sonic, sometimes in scruffy clothes after gardening or doing home remodeling projects or in our pajamas on sweltering summer evenings.
A few days later, on September 4, we ventured down to Harborview. I had x-rays and then received the exciting news that I could start putting weight on my left leg. Best of all, I didn’t have to wear a hated metal boot any longer.
I was fed up with taking it on-and-off when changing clothes and trying to sleep with it on. I constantly had to wiggle my ankle throughout the night to ease the twinges, aches, and stings that erupted from the top of my hip down to my ankle and turning over was a monumental effort.
During the day, I wasn’t excessively uncomfortable, and was disciplined about gulping down extra strength Tylenol every six hours. But when lying motionless in bed, with my leg strapped into the boot, rebellion broke out every few hours. And being a light sleeper, I alternated between tossing-and-turning, wiggling my ankle, rocking my entire leg, and snoozing for a few hours. Even though I was taking over-the-counter sleep aids, I rarely slept for more than a few hours.
The boot was also difficult to don. When I was first injured, I didn’t have the flexibility—and was in pain because of the incisions and massive damage to the bone and soft tissue—to easily reach the hooks on either side of my foot. I’d end up covered in sweat with tears streaming down my face after fastening the hooks and tightening the straps. Releasing the hooks and straps was significantly easier.
Two days after I was cleared to walk, Rich received his first prosthetic. The weeks prior, he’d been venturing down to Cornerstone Prosthetics & Orthotics in Everett to get fitted. It was a lengthy process that started with making a cast of his stump, and then creating an initial socket, the part of a prosthetic that fits over the stump. The next steps were creating a fiberglass socket, ordering, and putting together the other components, including an artificial knee, foot, and pylon, a rod that attaches the knee to the foot.
Rich was part of a University of Washington study for new users of artificial knees. The participants were given either a mechanical or microprocessor knee. Rich luckily got the latter, which was incorporated into his prosthetic. For the next year, he was expected to periodically visit the University of Washington to evaluate his progress in walking, climbing stairs, and other activities. In the meanwhile, he was in the infancy of using a prosthetic, needing arm crutches to balance, and only being able to wear the prosthetic a few hours per day.