Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Stump

“My Stump, My Stump, My Stump
My Lovely Lady Stump (Check it out!)”

One of the ways in which I’ve always entertained myself and others – ok, mostly just myself – has been singing popular songs while intentionally mangling the lyrics. I think I inherited this talent from my mother, though her lyrical mix-ups were anything but intentional. My personal favorite was her take on Barry Manilow’s most heart-wrenching of love songs. You know the one. “Oh, Mandy, you kissed me and stopped me from shaving . . .
     “Why would someone write a song about that?” my mother asked one day. “What’s so romantic about bothering someone while they’re trying to shave?”
     Flash forward to the early 1980s, to a warm spring night in Chicago. I was on a double date with my college roommate, sitting in the passenger seat of a guy’s convertible as we raced down Lake Shore Drive. My big hair whipped around in the wind. The radio blasted out some awesome Tom Petty. And I stretched my hands overhead and sang, “No baby, you don't . . . have . . . to live like an amputee!”  Big laughs all around.
Yeah, well, irony’s a bitch. As I’ve discovered – the hard way – if you want to continue living after you’ve lost one or more limbs, then you really DO have to live like an amputee. You’ve got to find a way to keep going.
With that in mind, I think it’s time to get all Dr. Phil up in here and address the elephant in the room: My “stump.” The detail-oriented among you might have noticed that in all these essays I haven’t turned to that word to describe what remains of my left leg. Nor have I described in detail what my leg now looks like. I think it’s time.
Like all relationships, the one I have with my chopped-off leg has evolved over time. While hospitalized, I refused to look at the strange, misshapen bandaged blob that was once my sturdy, muscled leg. I was horrified and disgusted by the nothingness of my knee, my calf, my ankle, my foot, and my manicured toes. Whenever doctors or nurses had to change the bandages of my open wound (and later my skin graft site) I would put a sheet over my face and squeeze my eyes tight. I couldn’t look at it. I did try a few times, but I felt sick and started trembling with grief. Honestly, it gave me the heebie-jeebies to even glance down at that alien thing, the swollen, mummy-wrapped rump roast dangling lifelessly from my left hip. I decided if I didn’t look at it or touch it, maybe it wouldn’t actually be there. Because, really, there was no way that thing belonged on my body. Clearly, there’d been some sort of mistake in the unfolding of the grand scheme of the universe.
I wasn’t supposed to be an amputee. That was for other unfortunate people who had endured motorcycle crashes, cancer, a crushing avalanche, or stepping on an IED in Fallujah while serving in the Marine Corps. Not someone like me. I didn’t ride motorcycles. I didn’t have a serious illness. I didn’t climb mountains and I wasn’t in the military. I was a divorced, middle-aged, romance-writing mother of teenagers living in a small town in Maryland. Losing my leg wasn’t even a radar screen blip in the control tower of my normal little life.
It happened anyway.
Lounging with R.L. in snowman PJs 

At first I didn’t know what to think or how to feel about “it”  -- what remained of my left leg. Though I never wanted to look at it, I had touched it a few times when I felt especially brave. I never dared go near the ripped-open hole where my knee should have been. But I did find all these strange, jagged incisions on my thigh held together with inch-long metal staples. One major incision ran up the inside of my thigh, then curved into a “Y” that wrapped around my groin area, front and back. I had no idea what that was all about and didn’t have the courage to ask. I think I was protecting myself. Somehow, I knew I wasn’t ready for the answer.
On good days, I’d joke around with doctors and visitors, saying that if they thought my leg looked bad they should see what I did to the shark. (Humor is my go-to coping mechanism.) We even talked about getting a custom T-shirt made that said, you should see the shark. My real feelings weren't so entertaining, so I decided to keep them to myself. Who wanted to hear that I would never – ever – accept the ugly, disgusting, useless thing that was once my left leg. Period.
For additional yuks I started a contest among family and friends to come up with a good name for it. Yes, “Stumpy” was a favorite. As was “Shorty,” “Sharkey,” “Peg,” “Lego,” and “Legolis.” (Get it? “Leg-o-less?”) My son wanted to name it “Bob.” Since none of those seemed to strike a chord with me, I decided I’d hold off on a name. I figured I’d know it when I heard it.
But all this was just distraction and for the benefit of others. I went on secretly being disgusted by it and scared of it, right up until about a couple weeks after I’d been home. That’s when my physician ex-husband, John, came over to help me change the bandages on my skin graft, and . . . .
(I really must interrupt the flow of this essay to say that, yes, there is a story to be told about my quasi-friendly, post-divorce relationship with John, and someday I’ll get to it. But now is not the time. For now, just know that he was helpful and kind during this ordeal. I was grateful for his personal and professional assistance, and made sure to tell him so. But that story has more than a few twists and turns, and it will remain a tale for another day.)
Anyway, so John came over to the house to help change my bandages. I needed his help because the home care nurses couldn’t be there every day and I was too freaked out to do the job myself. On that particular day he carefully spritzed the site with sterile saline solution, applied a wrap of non-stick gauze followed by one of standard gauze followed with three elastic bandages. After he was done, he sat in a chair near the bed and told me the whole story.
I almost lost my entire leg, up to the hip, and there was even a time when my orthopedic trauma surgeon was prepared to amputate the hip itself and part of my abdomen.
I was stunned. My ears buzzed and my head felt like it weighed five hundred pounds. What? I wasn’t sure I heard John right, so I made him repeat it, with all the details.
John explained that the bacterial infection was quite far gone by the time I reached University of Maryland’s Shock-Trauma Unit. Despite the big-time antibiotics and repeated surgeries, the necrotizing fasciitis continued its death march up the inside of my thigh. But Dr. Robert O’Toole chased the infection inch by inch in his effort to salvage what he could. He went back many times, cutting away more dead flesh, bone, and muscle with each procedure. But he did it. He kept it from spreading. He saved my thigh.
So that’s what all those jagged, shark-attack scars were?! They were the reason I still had most of my upper leg and would one day be able to walk with a prosthetic?! At that moment it dawned on me that Dr. O’Toole had performed a miracle, that the thing I hated and didn’t want to admit was part of me was, in truth, a miracle.
After John left, I sat quietly and stared at the bandaged thigh, overcome with wonder, relief, and grief. At that moment, I took my first tentative step toward something other than self-hatred and denial. I felt my heart begin to soften. I realized that it could have been a lot worse. I could be dead. No, I should be dead. And I could have no leg at all, no hip, and nothing left of that side of my abdomen. Given these alternatives, I actually began to feel grateful for “it.”
That was the moment I named my leg. I suddenly remembered how I had laughed a few days earlier when my friend Pete, the medical equipment supplier, referred to it as “the residual limb.” I couldn’t help but be amused by the politically correct euphemism for “stump.” We had a winner!
I decided on R.L. for short. (Even its name was amputated.)  I began to talk to it. I thanked it. I gently patted it and held it in my hands, understanding that only the inside and underside of the thigh was mangled – the top and outer thigh were perfectly smooth and free of scars. After that, I began to change my own bandages. And I even started to take tiny peeks at it, figuring I needed to understand everything that brave and strong leg had been through.
Slowly, I began to see R.L. as a symbol for all of me, my own battered and scarred but miraculously surviving self. I stopped thinking of it as “it” and knew in my heart that if R.L. was part of me, she was a “she.” It would be months before I dared hold up a mirror to my shark attack scars and more than a year before the sight didn’t make me nauseous and panicked.
These days, R.L. is a trusted friend. She doesn’t hurt much at all. She’s healed flawlessly, and I’ve never faced any additional surgeries, which is quite unusual for my kind of ordeal. She’s given me no problems with bone spurs or broken skin. Knock on wood. And she has the joint and muscle strength to allow me to stand and walk using my prosthetic leg. 
R.L. is a survivor. She’s a warrior. She's a bad-mamma-jamma.
           She is me.


Liz Flaherty said...

Still amazed. Do you have--and I'm sorry if I'm jumping ahead here--phantom pain?


Liz -- I used to have horrible phantom pain, but today the twinges are few and far between. And yes, you're jumping ahead!!!! :)