For me, the two days I spent in this new unit were tough. Not only was I making no discernible (to me anyway) progress with my voice, but now I was more lucid and better able to think about what was going on.
By far the most powerful feeling that I struggled with was regret. What I now call “Surgical Buyer’s Regret.” All of us have at one time or another made a purchase that we soon came to wish we had not made. Hopefully it was something like a pair of shoes or a new wallet that we really didn’t need. But what if it was a surgery?
Properly speaking, my attempted surgery – the microvascular decompression of the ninth cranial nerve, was elective. It was not a “life saving” surgery. I had been limping along dealing with severe outbreaks of intense pain for over three years. In the months leading up to the surgery, I was taking as much Tylenol number 3 (with codeine) as my physician would permit (every four hours) and had two fairly potent epilepsy meds I took every day because of their nerve blocking properties. The second half of July, despite what was by then a constant uncomfortable chemical fuzziness, was relatively pain free.
So now I was laying in a hospital bed after the elective surgery had, from my perspective, failed. While the glossopharyngeal nerve pain that was so debilitating would be gone for good, it was so hard to accept that the surgery had been a good idea in light of the lost swallowing and speech functions. I was not prepared for these types of thoughts. Who is?
My wife and I know of two people who have in the past several years had similar intra-cranial nerve related surgeries – both of whom ended up losing significant parts of their fields of vision as a side effect of their procedures. Would they have gone forward with those surgeries had they known in advance that they would be trading their visual fields for freedom from pain? For my part, I would never have willingly undergone my surgery had I known that I would be trading the ability to eat comfortably and speak freely for my pain relief. These kinds of regrets quickly become irrational -they are not particularly susceptible to reasonable reflection. These feelings are like a panic attack – they roll in like a tsunami and carry all before them.
Kerrie was a trooper. On Sunday morning as I hoarsely whispered my fears and regrets through the gaps in the hospital bed rail she mostly listened. But she did remind me of two things. First, this past April had been so incredibly bad – the pain would make my eyes lose focus – that I had actually said, “I wish they would just cut the nerve.” And second, the doctors and therapists here at the hospital were guardedly optimistic that despite the changes in my condition, I would see improvements in swallowing and speech function.
I am almost never the patient. I am almost always the pastor or the coach giving the encouragement to work one more rep, seek grace one more day, trust God in this new situation… Thank you Lord for a wife who faithfully helps me in all of these things.
Sunday in the Neurological Care Unit was also the first day that Kerrie says I actually slept. In the ICU it had been constant cat naps – with interruptions every half hour or so for doctors, nurses, meds, repositioning due to pain, etc… Sunday is also the day I got to use the practice steps – a small flight of five steps I could walk up and down to build strength and restore balance. The physical therapists were constantly riding me for letting go of the handrails and trying to keep my own balance. I am a caustically stubborn Norwegian American and would try to let go of the rail the minute those guys looked away. I might barely be able to swallow my food, but handrails are for sissies…
The only visitors we had all day were the family. After church, Kerrie’s folks, and all four of the kids were able to spend over an hour with us in our new room. They brought one of our old laptops and a DVD from the fifth season of the sitcom Psych. Crowding around the end of my bed, we watched an episode together. It was sensory overload for me. I zoned out and fell asleep.
This inability to focus was an additional source of dismay. For twenty years now I have been in the habit of reading two books a week. I have a personal library numbering thousands of volumes of history, theology, philosophy, art… I have a near phobia of Alzheimer’s, so I try to keep my mind sharp by doing diagramless crossword puzzles in ink. Kerrie believes me to be excessively weird. I knew I would be bored in the hospital, so I had books to read and several thin penny press volumes of my diagramless puzzles. And I couldn’t use them at all. I couldn’t read a sentence without forgetting the subject. I stared at my blank puzzle sheets with complete mental exhaustion… where would the first word go? The logical challenge of breaking the puzzle was too much. Having never been a patient before, it was one more discouragement. It is horribly easy to feel dreadfully sorry for oneself in the hospital. And it can’t have been easy for my wife to have to supply all of the strength and optimism when these darker moods would crowd into our little room.
Monday morning the doctors said I could go home. Of course that meant that we would be there until Monday afternoon, so we had to find ways to pass the time. First, Kerrie and I cruised the new floor until we found a place from which we could view the partial solar eclipse. The nurses of the pediatric wing of the neurological unit were very kind to let this big overgrown kid crash the children’s courtyard!
Back at our room I asked Kerrie what she was reading. She had an old Regency period novel by Georgette Heyer – “The Reluctant Widow.” And so my wife read to me the first of several books I have now experienced through the dulcet tones of her sweet voice.
For all of you who are struggling through your own sets of unintended consequences to decisions you may regret to one extent or another, may God bless and comfort you. I have replayed the decision process leading up to my surgery a thousand times. Getting the surgery was absolutely the correct choice. But in an imperfect world, sometimes we must embrace the difficult challenges of recovering from a lot more than we thought we were signing on for. And maybe there will be things we will never really recover from at all. But that does not mean that we cannot experience a renewal of purpose and identity that take us differently down a new path.
I thank God for the tears of Jesus Christ. There is nothing grand or even particularly strong about stoic denial of unhappy results. But there is something shockingly real and beautifully powerful about acknowledging the brokenness around us and in us, yet trusting that even in our own worst case scenarios we can and we will overcome: “we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” 2 Corinthians 4:8-10.
May God himself sanctify to you your afflictions, perplexities, persecutions, and wounds. And dear friends, may you never be crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, or destroyed as you find your soul’s deepest rest and peace in the life of God revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Next Up: On Missing Nurses and Being a Bad Patient
N.B. There are two pics in this file. The first is a picture of me sleeping on Sunday the 20th – under a quilt that my mother and my daughter made for me from some of my old lacrosse tee shirts. Some are shirts from teams I coached – like Oakland Mills, St Albans Phantoms, and Oak Park… Others are from colleges I have cheered for and or had student athletes attend. I love that quilt! The other picture is of me and the eclipse. Would you look at that hair! Absolutely disgusting. It would still be over a week before I would be allowed to wash it.