One evening, I was in a dance club with two friends. The three of us had been on a crowded dance floor for hours when I suddenly felt… strange. For a moment, time just stood still. I was sure it was nothing, but nonetheless, went home. Several months later I “celebrated” Christmas Eve in the hospital. My endo ordered an immediate angiogram to examine my heart function. My cholesterol was within the desired range for a chronic diabetic, but his order for the test CHRISTMAS EVE meant something was wrong. Terribly wrong.
The angiogram was performed on me as an outpatient. I changed into one of those stupid gowns. Note to self: talk to Cynthia about designing a collection of more stylish models than the crappy, blue cover-ups they give me and everyone else. That’s a lot of gowns. Wouldn’t something more fashionable lift a patient’s spirits? Which, in turn, might help them get better faster?
During pre-op, I signed an informed consent. The doctor asked if I had a Living Will or Durable Power of Attorney “in the event of death”. The word “death” is used all too often in the hospital. It’s not very reassuring when you’re the one on the gurney. After being shaved beneath my belt line, and anesthetized – the radiologist inserted a thin hollow tube into a large blood vessel in my leg and guided it through the arteries. Contrast dye revealed advanced heart disease resulting from diabetes and my control – make that “lack of control”. I was 38 years old. Two of my three arteries were so clogged they could not be opened. However, good news. The remaining open artery wrapped itself around my heart delivering oxygen-rich blood to the muscle. When the test was completed, I laid flat for several hours enabling the site (where the catheter had been inserted) to clot. On discharge, the medics instructed me to avoid anything strenuous for the next 10 days. No lifting. No squatting. Nothing. No one wanted my incision to open so I could bleed death.
The next morning I schlepped my luggage through the airport and escaped to Palm Springs. I needed to leave my fucked up real world behind and go to a place filled with blue skies and sunshine. I called Aunt Bea and told her I was on my way. We always have crazy good times together and I knew my depression would quickly disappear. And it did. But when I returned, my visits to the hospital seemed endless.
The fifth toe on my left foot became gangrenous. Fever and chills warned me something else was wrong. The skin covering the toe started to break down. There were multiple wounds between the toes, smelly necrotic tissue, and exposed bone. It was like something from a horror film. I also had ulcers on the right foot. Dr. Giegerich ordered an IV and more antibiotics.
Why are surgeries always in the morning? I wondered this enroute to another operating room. It would have been nice if I could have slept in but researchers at Duke University concluded problems increase greatly with operations performed later in the day. Patients were more likely to develop complications from surgeries beginning after 4 p.m. as opposed to those starting at 8 a.m. So visiting the OR in the early morning was better than lying awake in my room worrying about the meaning of all this. I had a PICC line. Giegerich explained that a “digital” amputation, if necessary, would not impact my walking. Another ankle block. The doctor didn’t think I needed to be put to sleep. Listening to them talk among themselves as if I wasn’t there unsettled me.
I counted lightbulbs in the ceiling and prayed a bunch of “Our Fathers” and “Hail Mary’s”. Just in case. After completing a left toe incision and drainage a still-gowned Giegerich approached me. He was sorry but the toe had to come off. Debridement would not fix the osteomyelitis and advancing soft tissue infection. Not performing this amputation would only make matters worse. He was trying to save the rest of the foot.
I went home with a bunch of antibiotics. Like my other drugs, they too had side effects. Some were like the symptoms I experienced before they cut off the toe – fever, chills, sore throat, headache. It was difficult to know if I was improving. I had to go to work. After being so grossed out by what I saw every morning while changing bandages, I went to the office.
One-month later Claire (we were finally on a first name basis) said my osteo was healing and I no longer needed the PICC line. Sternly he recommended I go directly to an orthopedic shoe store for wider shoes that would not squeeze my feet. Within weeks I was back in his office. Wearing orthopedic oxfords my right foot developed a collection of ulcers. Not on purpose. More osteomyelitis and septic arthritis which likely came from germs traveling through my bloodstream. Germs I probably picked up in the hospital. An increasing number of hospital infections are caused by hard to kill superbugs which developed resistance to antibiotics. My foot needed to be debrided AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.
I was having a hard time managing my diabetes because I couldn’t exercise. I blamed Giegerich. He constantly reminded me to stay off my feet which resulted in higher blood sugars. Desperate to return to my office so I could worry about work instead of my feet, I hobbled back and forth to it in shoes I detested. I detested everything. Being a diabetic. The drugs I took for my kidney transplant. Not knowing how long my heart was going to hold out. And, the “old man’’ shoes that did not compliment my super model outfits. Why doesn’t someone make stylish ortho shoes?
Often overcome with a high fever and chills I couldn’t cover myself with enough blankets to stay warm. I shook violently. My teeth chattered. I felt like shit. I would go to work every day chewing Tylenol. When I finally left my office, I was exhausted. After microwaving a bag of peas for dinner, I’d fall into bed. Would this never end? I battled cellulitis and osteomyelitis for years. Finally, I agreed to wear a “Cam Walker” on my left leg to hopefully heal the open wound. (It is a boot allowing patients like me to walk by restricting movement at the ankle thus protecting the sore.) I would take it off at night using crutches to maneuver around my home and was told the Cam Walker wouldn’t be needed when the problem healed. If it healed.
My medical team repeatedly talked about amputation. Either removing half of my foot or more aggressively cutting below the knee. Between the foot and my heart, all the procedures and news scared me more than coming face to face with Jason Voorhees from the movie Friday the 13th.
After a lot of self-control, an endless amount of prayers and many visits with my doctors the open wound on the bottom of my foot healed. It was hard to believe it got better. A miracle! I was ecstatic and felt deserving of some time away. Despite the unbearable heat (it was Summer) I returned to Palm Springs. And even though I was missing parts of different toes, I was not too embarrassed to lay poolside barefoot. I was proud of the battles I survived. My scars were like a badge of courage!
One afternoon, after splashing around in the pool for several hours I climbed out and onto my chaise lounge which was barely 10 feet away. Placing a towel over my head, I instantly fell asleep. I thought I was having a nightmare. When I awoke there was a pool of blood surrounding me. The 118-degree temperature made the pavement hot enough to fry an egg and burn the bottoms off both my feet which my neuropathy prevented me from noticing. I wrapped towels around them and hobbled to my room. I did not do a skilled job with the primitive wrapping because the carpet, from the door to the bathroom, was covered in blood. With the sterile gauze and antibiotic ointment I packed, I disinfected my feet and wrapped them like a valuable Christmas present.
On hands and knees, I crawled around my room attempting to remove the stains from the carpet. A dozen four letter words went through my head. When finished, I climbed onto the bed and passed out. I tried to sleep but roaring noises in my head kept me from doing so. Half-awake I thought it was background music to a bad movie playing in the room next door. The following morning, I felt awful. The racket persisted. Something was wrong. I had to get to a hospital but couldn’t stand. It was as if I’d been slung from an enormous sling shot. My instability was violent unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Crawling on my hands and knees I saw remnants of blood still staining the carpet.
Outside I tried to walk, but I fell into a sharp prickly pear cactus. Fuck. I crawled to my rental car. In a hospital, stripped down on a gurney with an IV, I recited my life’s medical history to half a dozen nurses and doctors. They kept asking me to stick out my tongue, looked at my eyes, and inside my ears. After several hours of inspection and a shot of Antivert, the diagnosis was vertigo. When the drug kicked in, I was released with a prescription for the pill version. I felt immeasurably better! But they insisted I return to Chicago IMMEDIATELY and see my own physicians.
I thought vertigo was a psychological disorder – a fear of heights as in the film noir directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Who knew it could be so physical? At home, I knew how to bandage my feet but didn’t have a clue what was going on with my head. The otolaryngologist ordered tests. The exams confirmed what I already knew. I could not hear anything with my left ear. Blind in my left eye, now deaf in my left ear, no working kidney on that side – my left half had become my shitty side. Real shitty. An electronystagmogram tested my balance. I flunked. The doctor concluded the vertigo resulted from Meniere’s Disease, a cause of dizziness that usually takes months or years to become evident, let alone permanent. Of course, mine was permanent in one weekend. Autoimmune illnesses have been found to produce Meniere’s disease. Diabetics with peripheral neuropathy and other circulation disorders are candidates for this. The ulcers on my feet grew out of control! Doctor Geigerich was unhappy I couldn’t stay off them. With my responsibilities: clients, employees, subcontractors, etc., it was impossible. He warned the infection could contaminate my bones and was doing everything conceivable to save my foot. I had to do my part.