Bestselling author Susan Donovan had a successful career, great kids, health, and a lovely little house -- until she got bitch-slapped by a rare infection that should have killed her. After three months in Shock Trauma, twenty surgeries, and the amputation of her left leg above the knee, she has had to learn to love her life and herself again. It hasn't been easy, but it has been interesting.
Wednesday, January 15, 2014
Ballad of the Fleshy Thigh
We’ve all been there. We wait
breathlessly for that BIG MOMENT, the instant that will change everything. A
wedding, a graduation, the birth of a child . . . these events draw bold lines through
our lives. On one side of the line is the way we used to live, and on the other
is a completely new way of seeing life. Giving birth to my first child was a
real mind-blower.One instant I was writhing
in agony thinking I want; I need; me, me, me . . . and the next a tiny,
pink, screaming human being was placed in my arms. In the blink of an eye I had
become someone’s mother. It wasn’t about me anymore. It was about him
— what he wanted and needed. And two years later, it also would be
about her, my daughter, an even tinier, pinker, louder
human placed in my arms.
Being felled by a killer
infection was another BIG MOMENT, though not a joyful one and sure as hell not one
I anticipated breathlessly. Let’s be real. If I’d known what was coming I’d
have doubled-down on disability insurance, taken a trip around the world, and
dumped the soulless hottie in advance. Plus, I would’ve cleaned my house and
caught up on the laundry, since nearly dying when your house is a mess is akin
to being in an accident while wearing old underwear. But no. Advance notice
wasn’t an option. In fact, part of why mental heath providers came up with the
term “catastrophic life event” to describe this kind of thing is because no one
expects it will happen to them. You know, kind of like the Spanish Inquisition.
So there I was, mostly
dead in a hospital bed, knowing on some level that my life had just been
divided in two: everything that had come before this illness and everything
that would come after. In the beginning, I didn’t worry about the “after” part.
I only wanted to live. Each day was a battle to survive, even if the war was
waged semi-consciously in the depths of my own mind. But as time went on and my
awareness increased, the fears tried to take over. I pushed them back.
Seriously, why worry about the theoretical difficulties of my future one-legged
life when I could barely sit up in bed? Why fret about whether I could continue
to make a living as a writer when I referred to my cell phone as a
“television?” Why get myself worked up about my bills when I couldn’t remember
the name of my bank, my street, or the publishing house I’d been with for a
I remember telling
my loved ones that being critically ill had reduced the million-and-one details
of life into a single pinpoint of truth: I am still alive and so are you. The
rest didn’t matter. Material things can be replaced or released. Situations can
be altered. So what if I wouldn’t be able to come up with my mortgage payment
six months down the line? So what if I missed my next book deadline, and the
one after that – and the one after that? So what if my health
insurance only paid some of my humongous hospital bill? There wasn’t a damn
thing I’d ever be able to do about any of it until I got well.
And slowly – s-l-o-w-l-y
– I did start to get well. After months of hospitalization and dozens of surgical
procedures, I finally got the green light for what I had decided would be the
BIG MOMENT to end all BIG MOMENTS: A skin graft.
In the early hours
of February 12, 2012, the trauma surgery resident and his entourage came into
my room to examine my amputation site. I held my breath. Nearly every morning
for the prior two weeks (since I’d returned from my near-death sabbatical at
Dr. Kevorkian’s Party Palace) doctors had checked the wound to see if it was
healed and dry enough to close with a layer of my own skin. And every time the
answer had been an unqualified “no.”
But on this
morning, the surgical resident’s eyebrows shot up with surprise. “It’s looking
real good. Let’s see what Dr. O’Toole thinks.”
I peered into the
hallway, expecting to see the orthopedic trauma surgeon who headed up my treatment
team. He wasn’t there. I listened, but didn’t hear his voice. I turned to the resident.
“Is he here this morning?”
“Nah,” he said,
pulling out his iPhone. He then took several flash photos of my amputation site
from a variety of angles and forwarded them to Dr. Robert O’Toole.
I kid you not. Which
got me thinking . . . if texting photos of our scantily clad bodies is called “sexting,”
what should we call this? “Diagnexting?”
So as we all waited
for the chime of an incoming text, I wondered . . . could this be it? Dare I
hope? Am I finally on my way out of this damn hospital?
The resident read Dr.
O’Toole’s response and then smiled at me. “He says you’re ready. We just have
to reserve the O.R.”
I wanted to dance.
I wanted to cry. I wanted to call everyone I knew to tell them the BIG MOMENT
had finally arrived! I was so freakin’ excited!
started giving me the particulars of the surgery. I learned exactly where
they were going to get this so-called “skin flap” and exactly how
they planned to get it. My enthusiasm came to a screeching halt. It turned out
the “split-thickness skin graft” procedure required large segments of skin of
varying thicknesses to be peeled off the top of my healthy thigh with something
resembling a cheese slicer.
Oh, holy shit. That
The resident added, “Unfortunately, many
patients say that the skin harvesting site is more painful than the surgery
Now, that was hard
upper thigh is quite large.”
“Excuse me?” I wasn't sure I could handle any more of this conversation.
Not only had I just learned I’d be carved up like a Virginia ham, but I had
been informed that I was built like one, too.
“Uh.” He laughed
nervously. “What I meant to say is that you have ample flesh on your thigh. We’ll
be able to harvest the entire flap from one location. Patients with smaller
thighs sometimes have to have segments removed from other locations as well.”
Well, damn. I knew
there was a reason I’d always been blessed with fleshy thighs!
My Sliced-Up Fleshy Thigh, at the Gym
Four Months Post-Surgery
Two days later, on
Valentine’s Day, 2012, I had my final surgery at University of Maryland Medical
Center. When Dr. O’Toole checked on me the next morning, he said everything went
extremely well and the graft looked perfect. But he cautioned that skin grafts don’t
always take. Healing can be uneven and additional surgeries are often required,
thinking – not this girl, Dr. Bob. That graft is going to hold and I’m gettin’
the hell outta here!
It wasn’t long
until I found myself in a familiar pickle. My insurance company wanted me moved
from Shock Trauma, and they were going to ship me off to a nursing home unless
I could prove I was ready for physical therapy at my local hospital.
I remember sitting
on the edge of the hospital bed talking with my sweet and kind University of
Maryland physical therapist. Despite the meds, my pain was so severe I thought
I was going to throw up. And though what remained of my left leg was swaddled
tighter than a Russian newborn, lightening-hot flashes of pain raced through my
body. But that was nothing compared to what was going on with my Virginia ham
thigh. The surgical resident had been correct – that sucker hurt worse than
anything I had ever experienced in my life.
I glanced down at my
right leg. The top of the thigh was covered in a rectangle of sticky, yellowish
gauze rimmed in blood. Nurses had already explained to me that the substance
was called “Tagamet,” and it accelerated healing by bonding to the exposed
flesh beneath. As the wound site healed, the gauze would dry out and peel away,
the nurses told me.
All I knew was
that every time I inhaled or exhaled – every time I coughed or moved or got up to use the
bedside commode – the substance would tug at the raw flesh underneath. The pain
would leave me breathless. Blood would seep out around the edges. It would hurt
so much I thought I would faint.
And now my
insurance company wanted me to get up and jump around on this excruciating mofo?
I looked at my
physical therapist. “Exactly what do I have to do to qualify for the rehab unit?”
She smiled at me
apologetically. “Well, I have to be able to document that you stood up, held
onto the walker, and took one step forward.”
I was having Déjà
vu, big time.
I had a choice to make. I could admit defeat and let them ship me off to
another nursing home, or, I could just take a deep breath and get up, grab the
walker, and get this shit over with. But my mind would have to be stronger than
the pain, at least for a few seconds, and I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. This
pain was the real deal, and everything I’d been through had left me physically,
emotionally, and psychologically depleted. But maybe if I reached deep enough,
I’d find just a little more strength left.
It was a very BIG
MOMENT. I grabbed onto the walker and hoisted myself up on a numb and weak
right leg. Rivulets of blood ran down my shin. I trembled from head to toe. The
pain was so awful it knocked the wind from me.
But I did it.
Nearly two years
have passed, and I look back on that version of myself with bittersweet compassion.
I was brave. I was stubborn. I would do anything to get out of the hospital and
through rehab so that I could go home. That had become the BIGGEST MOMENT of
them all, because I believed that once I got home the worst of this nightmare would be behind me.
It’s a good thing
I was naïve. If I’d known the truth – that getting “the worst” behind me would
be a minute-by-minute, day-by-day battle that would continue for years – I
might have chosen the nursing home.