Monday, November 18, 2013

Say 'Yes' To The Meds

Drugs – in concert with the expert hands of my surgeons – saved my life. It’s that simple.
When I showed up at University of Maryland Shock Trauma, the doctors pulled out the big guns of antibiotics and hooked me up. Drugs allowed doctors to keep me alive in the short term while they figured out how to keep me alive in the long term. Drugs made it possible for me to go into surgery as often as needed and remain knocked out afterward, when I couldn’t have handled the pain. So I am deeply thankful for pharmaceuticals. The problem is, the drugs seemed to be never-ending, even for the small stuff.
Throughout my hospitalization and into my home-based care, drugs were the go-to solution for nearly every problem. Anemic? Take iron. Does the iron make you constipated? Take this industrial-strength laxative. Does the laxative cause your innards to explode like a number-two volcano? Here’s your potent anti-diarrheal. Does the anti-diarrheal make you constipated again?
You get where I’m going with this.
About midway through my hospital stay, once my infection (and my leg) were history, I remember being on a veritable truckload of meds. On the menu were four different pain medications, two daily injections to prevent blood clots, medicine to lower my blood pressure unless it was too low that day and they had to do something to raise it, medication for my hypothyroid condition that I explained had never worked for me but no one listened, an anti-depressant, a multivitamin, Folic acid, Vitamin C, intravenous magnesium, intravenous antibiotics for a urinary tract infection I acquired while hospitalized, plus a whole bunch of other stuff I’ve forgotten because all those drugs ruined my memory. But listen, even as I scoffed at the stranglehold Big Pharma had on our health care system, I’d be thinking, don’t bogart those opiate-based painkillers!
     Those of us who have experienced debilitating pain know that we will do anything to make it stop. When you are in agony, nothing else works in your favor. You can’t sleep or eat or talk or think. Your body can’t heal. So whatever they wanted to give me for pain, I was on board. But the same drugs that dulled the pain turned me into a zombie. (Not a flesh-eating zombie. I will never again use that adjectival phrase with anything but reverence.)
The drug they gave me for nerve pain made my hands and arms twitch and jump without warning, not helpful if I wanted to hold a drink or dial my iPhone. (I think I once called a very nice person in China.)
One drug made me so sluggish I couldn’t wake up, which irritated nurses’ aids charged with bathing an entire floor of patients before breakfast was served. Another drug made me stare out the window – or at the TV – in a complete stupor, which certainly helped to pass the time. It also helped me become a huge fan of “Keeping Up With The Kardashians.”
     Some drugs made my fingers numb. Some drugs made my mouth unbearably dry. Some drugs made me so squirrelly I couldn’t remember my kids’ names. Right about then, I was almost sure I’d never be able to write again. I told Arleen to take my laptop home because I wouldn’t be needing it.
     Then there was the Xanax Pusher.
     I’ll talk more about this incident in future blogs, but here are the basics. The rehab unit of my local hospital sent me home too weak to care for myself and before my house was retrofitted for my needs. When the social worker said there was no plan to provide home nursing or therapy, I said that was unacceptable and told him to arrange for those support services. He told me that I had issues with anger and anxiety. Within the hour, a psychologist was prescribing me Xanax, a drug for panic disorder and anxiety. I refused to take it.
The day I was discharged from the hospital, I came home with sixteen prescriptions, including, no kidding, two industrial-strength laxatives and a big-ass vial of generic Xanax. Of the sixteen prescriptions, I took only six. I see that as a major achievement.
     It was a joyous occasion when I weaned myself off my only remaining narcotic painkiller, a patch I wore on my upper arm. The process was a balancing act between how much pain I could stand and how much I hated not being clear-headed. I would cut back on the painkiller, let my body adjust, and decide if I needed to go back to a higher dose or maintain for a couple weeks. Then I’d begin the cycle all over again.
It was important to me. I’d heard too many stories about people who had been through a similar trauma and never emerged from the narcotic haze. I was determined I wouldn’t be one of them. My life was too important to me – my writing, my children, nature, music, conversation, ideas, beauty – and I refused to spend the rest of my life high on painkillers, existing but not fully present.
My mind-fog began to clear about two weeks after my last dose of painkiller, but it took many more months for my brain to heal. Trying to write during this time was an exercise in frustration. Often, I couldn’t access words or remember how to structure sentences.
There were many days that I allowed my ultimate fear to dig its claws into me. Was I brain damaged? Were the doctors right when they cautioned my family that I might never be the same? How would I go on if I couldn’t write? What would I do for a living?
I haven’t seen many “help wanted” ads seeking brain-damaged, middle-aged, one-legged romance writers.
The prescription drug frenzy hadn’t been limited to me, I would soon learn. Though I really wanted to visit my mother in the nursing home, I had to wait until I had recovered enough that she wouldn’t freak out upon seeing me. Finally, I was well enough to go.
About halfway into the visit, my 83-year-old mother informed me that when I became ill, her physician prescribed our old favorite, Xanax, to address the panic and anxiety my illness caused her.
          “Oh, Mama, I’m so sorry you panicked like that,” I said.
          She lowered her voice to a whisper. “I didn’t, but don’t tell the doctor. Turns out Xanax is a great sleep aid.”
          I was a little surprised. “How long were you on it, Mama?”
          “Oh, I’m still on it!”


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