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A Fresh Start

A Patient's Vow to Improve Himself

 
A middle-aged man, holding a cloth bag, stood in the doorway to my intensive care unit. In a soft voice, he said, "Umm, I was a patient here a couple of months ago. Remember me?"
 
I did indeed recognize him, and a number of scenes flashed through my mind. Of a forty-five year old patient, lying motionless on the hospital bed, still under general anesthesia after emergency heart surgery. Of the ventilator breathing for him. Of overhead warming lights slowly bringing his body temperature back up to normal. Of his blood pressure spiking high then dipping low. Of lethal ventricular arrythmias appearing on the monitor and of the heart surgeon's and the nurses' feverish efforts to correct them. Of lots of IV medications. Of his chest tube cylinders filling up with uncontrolled bleeding. Of wide-open infusions of IV fluids, protein solutions, and the patient's own cell savers to build up his blood volume. Of still more plasma and blood products going in. Of talk about taking the patient back to the operating room. Of the worried look on his wife's face as I told her, "Sorry, you can't come back for visiting hours. Your husband's not stable yet."
 

A Renaissance

"One of these days, someone is going to straighten you out!"

Have you ever heard these words? Have they ever been said to you or someone you know? Never did I expect to experience them late in my life in a different way than their usual, figurative meaning. But thanks to the gifted hands of a spinal surgeon, my severe scoliosis was arrested and I was straightened out, literally, at age seventy-three no less.

The Price of Admission

I had been accepted to an accelerated graduate program in Health Communication and was considering deferring for a year. New responsibilities at work and figuring out what I wanted to do next with my life took priority. 

But then, I found out that my friend, Liz, was sick.

An Attachment to Gratitude


After my lumpectomy, I walked around with a sore arm but also with gratitude for my good report. I knew the pain would diminish as I inched my arm up the bedroom wall each morning, gaining strength and mobility. The sky would be the limit. Even though I was one of those one in eight women who receives a breast cancer diagnosis, gratitude was going to be my mantra.
 
That fresh start boomeranged as my arm became more and more swollen and I discovered I had lymphedema, a chronic condition that became an albatross I carried for over a year.

Turning to the New

 
A former clinical psychologist and sailor, I've had myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) since 1990 and have been almost completely housebound, with both neurological and immune system symptoms, all of that time. ME/CFS is a serious, long-term illness that affects many body systems. While each year has come with more than its share of difficulties, this past year was loaded with extensive dental work, back problems, and extended voice loss (I also have muscle tension dysphonia).
 
I had a small break and hoped nothing further would hit when suddenly a bout of vertigo pinned me down and has left me holding onto things in order to move across a room. My survival mantra is "this, too, shall pass," and I give thanks to wiser teachers than myself in attempting to let that mantra sustain me.
 

The Promise of Possibility

I excel at making excuses, especially when those excuses have to do with exercise. “I’m too tired” leads the list of why I am not outside walking or at the gym on the treadmill; “I’ll do it later” comes in a close second. Ironically, I consciously deprive myself of exercise, even when I know that I feel more energized when I do engage in some kind of physical fitness.  

From mid-April, when I ended the spring semester as a university teacher, until late August, when I began teaching again, I walked every morning for an hour. I either listened to the Broadway music emanating from my iPod or conversed with my colleague from work when she chose to join me. I came home feeling good—alive and eager to start the day.

Then, I returned to work—and to excuse making. As September gave way to October, Mother Nature provided me with wonderful excuses to stay home—rain, cold temperatures, strong winds and even snow and the possibility of icy sidewalks. I quickly returned to my couch potato life. 

Doctor-Centered Care

“I realized with alarm that I hadn’t learned how to save anyone at all, not Dr. Sanders or Lazarus or Jimmy or Saul or Anna O., and that what I was thrilled about was learning how to save myself.” (House of God)

Two years ago my life drastically changed for the worse, and I faced an intersection in destiny. I chose the clinician’s path, knowing it is going to be demanding, hoping it will be satisfying. Life now is harder than I imagined, and every single day is a struggle. I live in a house that is no longer my home, and in a country that is no longer my own. Time has become my most precious resource, and yet the end-goal is vaguer than ever, even for a disciple of existential philosophy. Fighting to stay afloat, there is a light source, almost seen from my house: the hospital. There, constantly bustling with life, and occasionally death, stands the emergency department, young and proud.

An Editor's Invitation: A Fresh Start


The New Year offers all of us a chance for a fresh start--to look at things differently, to act differently, to try new things or to take on old issues in a new way.

Illness can be an invitation to a fresh start. As we slog through the muck of sickness, it's tempting to strike a deal with the powers that be: When I recover from this, I'm going to start taking better care of myself.