|Scars on my left hand, six months after I came home from the hospital.|
Tuesday, November 5, 2013
Romantic Strolls Along The Beach
My family and friends watched in horror and disbelief as a University of Maryland Shock Trauma team scrambled to save me. The whole scene was surreal to them. How did the healthy, smiling Susan they’d always known become an unrecognizable blob overnight?
That’s not hyperbole, either. My loved ones tell me I was a radish-red balloon of flesh with yellow eyes kept alive by a variety of machines. There were devices that filtered the infection out of my blood, gave me antibiotics and pain meds, kept me breathing, fed and hydrated me, and forced my kidneys to work. In order to elevate my dangerously low blood pressure, doctors pumped me full of so much fluid that when my brother, Sean, arrived from Upstate New York and rushed into my room he immediately backed out.
“There’s a mistake,” he told a trauma nurse. “That woman is not my sister.”
The nurse gently assured him it was, and sent him back in. “If you want to see her, you should do it now,” she said.
Months later, Sean told me that observing the doctors and nurses as they rushed around my body reminded of a NASCAR pit crew in action. Every second counted.
I recall almost nothing from the first two months in the hospital. I was, literally, “out of it,” adrift in a bizarre ocean of semi-consciousness, floating around the edges of being alive. Occasionally, I managed to break the surface and blink a few times before I’d go under again. What flashes of memory I do have I can’t trust. Whenever I talk about those first weeks in the hospital, my family and friends assure me that half of what I recall is out of chronological order and the other half never happened at all.
My altered state was due to the constant flow of narcotic pain meds into my veins and repeated anesthesia, since I was in and out of the operating room almost daily during those first weeks. It was a race between the nuclear-strength antibiotics and the flesh-eating bacteria, and every day the surgeons had to decide how much more of my left leg would have to be removed to keep me alive.
My best friend, Arleen, would sit for hours at my bedside during these first chaotic days. She would hold my hand, stroke me, and talk to me. I remember feeling her there. My first room in the Shock Trauma unit was so tiny that she could barely wedge her slim body in between the machines and medical personnel. When she asked if she was in their way, the harried nurses told her to stay. Arleen suspects they understood that touch was just as important at that point as removing toxins from my blood.
“I told them all about you,” she remembers. “That you had two kids and two crazy dogs and were a writer and had so many people who loved you. I wanted them to know that you weren’t just a slab of flesh lying on a table – you were a person.”
As Arleen stroked my hand, she noticed that the fluid being forced into me to maintain my blood pressure had stretched my skin until it was shiny and tight. Blisters filled with liquid started to pop up everywhere, my body’s way of trying to make more room to accommodate the liquid. The blisters on my left hand and other sites eventually burst and bled, but Arleen kept touching me and stroking me, even though my blood was teeming with flesh-eating bacteria. She later said, “I was sure I was protected, kind of in the same way you know you won’t get sick drinking communion wine from a cup everyone else is using.”
All the trips to the operating room were necessary because what had started as a fist-sized infection site behind my left knee had spread down the length of my lower leg and up the inside of my thigh. It would be many months before I’d learn how close I came to losing my entire leg, part of my hip, and a section of my abdomen.
Simply put, I got very lucky. I landed in exactly the right place at the right time. Not only was I at University of Maryland – one of the best hospitals on the East Coast for a dire case like mine – but I’d fallen into the hands of Dr. Robert O’Toole, recognized as one of the finest orthopedic trauma surgeons in the country. Each time Dr. O’Toole and his team took me into surgery, they were forced to remove more and more fascia, fat, muscle, and eventually bone, trying to stop the infection while allowing me to keep my leg. One day the news would be good: “It looks like we’ll be able to save the leg.” The next day it would be bad: “The infection has spread too far to save it.”
And some days the news was just plain horrible. My family and friends were told more than once that I wasn’t going to survive.
My son, who was eighteen at the time, said that for the first couple weeks I came to him almost every night in his dreams. Conor said he felt comforted by my presence.
My sixteen-year-old daughter, Kathleen, had a waking vision one afternoon while resting on the family room couch in her father’s home. She said she felt my energy, then watched, shocked, as I appeared in front of her and told her, “I’m sorry, sweetie, but mommy may have to die.”
Seems I was quite the social butterfly for a mostly dead person. In addition to my appearances in dreams and visions, my family and friends say I talked a lot, though I’ll have to take their word for it. I am told I dropped the “F” bomb with abandon during those first days in Shock Trauma, and they say I was alert and talking on December 23, 2011, when I gave permission for doctors to amputate my leg.
I was pretty entertaining that day, I'm told. Arleen recalls that I signed the patient consent form and then announced to everyone assembled in my hospital room that Dr. O’Toole planned to amputate my leg and then take it on a romantic stroll down the beach. Kathleen claims I told the nurses that my next book would be about “two amputees gettin’ it on.”
Under any other circumstance, I would be mortified to learn I behaved so badly in front of my kids and strangers, but I hear my loopy ramblings provided some much-needed levity in those first days and weeks.
There’s an old adage that says a person’s real character is revealed in moments of of extreme misfortune. If that’s true, then I guess I can say with confidence that I, Susan Donovan, will be a romantic comedy author to the bitter end.