"Gloom, despair, and agony on me; deep dark depression, excessive misery"

I mowed today for the first time this year. I’ll mow once more before having shoulder surgery in late March; then I won’t be able to mow for months. This surgery takes a year for a full recovery, and I will never regain normal strength and flexibility. What’s more, both shoulders need the surgery, but only one can be done at a time. I’ve cancelled it once, and I’m tempted every waking hour to cancel it again. I can’t say I’m terrified, and I can’t say I’m devastated; but I can say I’m close.

Three years ago, I had knee surgery. Before that surgery, I could hike twelve miles up and down mountains, but my knee would swell a little, so I thought, what the hell, knee debridement is a simple and commonplace operation and, after I have it, I can hike without pain. Since the surgery, I haven’t been able to hike at all, and there are even days when I hurt too much to take the dogs for a walk.

Before having knee surgery, I liked surgical options. My thought was: “If something’s bothering you, don’t beat around the bush, get a surgeon to cut it out—what could be simpler?” I’ve since observed that one kind of surgery can be life threatening yet cause little pain and offer a full and speedy recovery, while another can have a low mortality rate but a significant risk of disability and chronic pain. This realization is similar to one I had as a boy when I would get so sick each winter with colds that I would wonder how, if a minor ailment could make me feel that bad, I would ever be able to hold up against something that might actually kill me. I was relieved to learn that people die everyday of things less annoying than a cold.

Now, I don’t know how I am going to hold up to months of being unable to use one-arm followed by the same thing all over again when I have surgery on the other. A local woman survived having both arms ripped off by a gasoline auger last October, and I tell myself that I should be thanking my lucky stars I’m not her; but reminding myself that I could be worse off never seems to make me feel that much better about how bad off I am. If it were that easy, few of us would ever be put out by much of anything, there being few things so terrible that they couldn’t be worse.

By day and by night, fear rolls over me like a fast train. If it were any greater, I would be hysterical. I say to myself that I am not six but sixty, and sixty is plenty old enough to have become a barbican of strength. I say to myself that I should be limpid, ataractic, eudaemonious, and there is no excuse that I am not. So I say, but berating myself for being afraid only makes me less able to summon my strength.

I feel damned if I do and damned if I don’t have surgery. I’m in pain when I am awake, and pain often awakens me at night. Sometimes, it’s terrible in its intensity, and can stay that way for weeks making it almost impossible to think of anything other than how much I hurt. There have been times when I could scarcely bear to walk because even the gentlest steps were too jarring, and sleep would only come when I was exhausted and would only last for a few minutes before the pain awakened me. Yet, I’m fairly functional most of the time, and the pain is tolerable if I don’t use my arms much.

If the surgery works, I’ll eventually be without pain. If the surgery fails, I’ll be partially disabled, and there’s a 10-25% chance (estimates vary) that the surgery will fail. But if I don’t have surgery, my tendons, which are 80% severed, will eventually break, and the ends will pull apart, making repair impossible.

I had three surgeries last year. Two of them involved biopsies. In the second biopsy, the surgeon went through the front of my throat to get to my vertebra. My fear when I had to get out of bed at 4:30 in the morning to go have my throat cut is beyond my ability to describe. As it turned out, I didn’t have cancer, and I was almost as good as new the next day. Even though my worry then was that I might die, that was preferable to my present fear that I might be permanently disabled and in pain.

Last week, I met an athletic looking man twenty years my junior who had the same surgery in November. He said he was in so much pain for the first two weeks that even Percocet didn’t kill it, and he still can’t raise his arm high enough to shake hands. He looked utterly beaten and demoralized, the living image of my worst fears. Sure, my own surgery could turn out worse than that—I could die—but he represented my worst-case scenario of that which seems easily believable. He even had the same surgeon, not that I’m jumping ship now, this being my fourth orthopedist and the only one I like and trust.


Natalie said...

Oh, I really feel for you, Snowbrush.

I would be hysterical I think, if it were me.
Sending a prayer for great result.x

Anonymous said...

Your fear is totally normal and understandable - we always fear things that we have never experienced before. One of the things that I learned through my journey however, was to understand that my journey was MY journey - I would not necessarily have the same experience as someone who had gone before or after me. I am sorry that the man you spoke to had a negative experience. I pray that yours will not be the same as his.

Nick James said...

I hope everything goes well. I have full faith and hope that you will be back to your normal, hand shaking, self. I will keep you in my prayers.

Strayer said...

Make your decision and live with it, is all I can offer as for advice. I know when I went in for neck surgery, down at sacred heart, I had no choice. I had a disc compressing my spinal cord by half. I didn't even think about the dangers, just wanted the pain gone, and if I died in surgery, then it would be gone that way too. The surgery was a success, although I still have pain if I work arms overhead. You said surgery takes a year of recovery. That man had surgery in November. He may be just fine in another nine months.

Do everything you're told as far as recovery, nothing more, nothing less. My neurosurgeon for example told me, in order to have a quick fusion of the donar bone put into my neck, I needed to take 2000 mg of calcium every day. My PCP thought that was nuts, but I stuck with what the neurosurgeon advised and was completely fused in only a few months, much less time than it takes most. I credit this only because I did what he told me, including all the excercises. You may have the best outcome possible for the surgery. If you decide to have the surgery, believe that you will and believe it even if you are in severe pain afterwards. Just keep believing and doing what you are supposed to do and maybe it will work out just fine. I found that ice works far better than any pain meds and is very good at reducing inflammation.

Lisa said...

wow- you certainly have a lot going on my friend. From what i see, you have no other option really besides having the surgery and repairing as best you can the damage that has been done.
Fear is a normal part of any surgical porceedure, and by imagining the worst, you may end up pleasantly surprised.
I am sending my wishes for a safe surgery and an easy recovery xxx
Lisa xx

Christine Orchanian Adler said...

It is incredible how far medicine has progressed in just the last 50 years. Fear of the unknown is perfectly normal; indeed, we'd be foolish to not feel it. But the fact that you have an opportunity to be healed, that many before you did not have, is wonderful. And as you point out, the alternative (not having the surgery) foretells only more pain and misery. By choosing the lesser of two evils and facing your fears, you are taking a leap of faith that the surgery will help in the long run. Hold on to that hope, do your physical therapy exercises, and know that we're all thinking of you and sending healing thoughts.

KC said...

When I hear stories like yours the cliche' "Life is not fair" rings true. I am so sorry about your pain and hope that your surgery will be a success.

Reasons to be Cheerful 1,2,3 said...

I feel for you Snowbrush. I am pondering whether to have foot surgery. It's a real dilema. You've made your decision, which was impossible I'm sure. So now is the time to do everything you can to maximize your chances of a good recovery - whether that be rest, alternative therapy to help the body cope with all the drugs (anaesthetic, pain killers etc.), extra rest, good diet, blah, blah. Put your mind on helping yourself through the surgery, it might help take your mind of the risks etc.
All the very best of luck.

JOE TODD said...

Just got back from Indiana and read your post and have been thinking about it for awhile. I don't have any "feel good" advice. I would probably feel about the same as you do if I were in the same circumstance. I hope things work out ok for you. Sometimes the sun shines and sometime life sucks, now thats real encouaging isn't it Joe Todd

All Consuming said...

Good Lord, I'm sorry to hear of your painful dilemma. Only you can decide of course, "if I don’t have surgery, my tendons, which are 80% severed, will eventually break, and the ends will pull apart, making repair impossible." knowing this was the eventuality would probably make me try the surgery I guess, but ultimately it comes down to what you can live with. I remember the hell you wrote about when you had the throat surgery, when they say 'these things are sent to try us' they really aren't messing about are they. Thinking about you with warmest wishes sent. xx

Pouty Lips said...

If it is "for sure" that the tendons will eventually break and the ends will fall apart, then I cannot see any other option for you. When I was in an accident and had to have an emergency elbow replacement the one thing I kept thinking was this and it seemed to comfort me somewhat: I imagined that this had happened 100 years ago and pictured what it would have been like at that time. After the accident my arm was bent across my stomach with a bone sticking out of it. Did people live like that or did they die because of it? I think the fact that this is irreparable in the event the tendons sever is a green light, at least to me.

I will pray for you that you are given peace about the decision you have made; and then I will pray for your full recovery.

I predict that you will get VERY good at typing with one had while you are recovering. It's amazing what we can when we have to.

His kajirah said...

I can truly understand living in pain. I'm on Morphine and several others and have been for years.

It hurts my feeling to know so many endure it for one reason or other.

I hope this surgery helps you and that one day you will feel no more pain and will be able to be active once again.