During the month I stayed in the hospital, I changed rooms and beds at least half a dozen times. Patients were constantly being admitted and discharged, and other patients would play musical beds as a result.
When I woke up from my lymph node surgery during that time, I heard the nurses talking about bringing me to room 5614. I didn’t think much of it, even though in my doped-up mind, I knew my room was actually 6614.
I went in and out of sleep listening to the beeps of whirrs of the monitors around me. People puttered around my bed checking my oxygen, dressings, and blood pressure. Then I heard it again, “She’s going up to 5614.”
And that’s when I snapped to. “Don’t you mean 6614??”
“No,” the nurse said, “you had a room change while you were out.”
This information sent me spinning into a panic. They were taking me to the fifth floor, the general surgery floor. Not the cancer ward on the sixth floor that had become my second home.
This was more than just a room change. I was being removed from my safe cancer bubble where everyone already knew my diagnosis. Where I was a cancer patient just by being there. On the fifth floor, no one knew. And I would have to tell them.
The first time I ever told a stranger I had cancer was to a nurse on that floor. She was making small talk while checking my IV. She asked me about my surgery, which led to an explanation about getting my lymph node removed. I remember searching for the right words. My voice dropped a few notes and my mouth went dry. Saying “a large mass in my chest” didn’t sound right. “Lymphoma” was so foreign my lips.
The worst thing about telling people I have cancer is watching their reactions. Everyone is horrified. I think it’s because I am so young and still look healthy. Maybe they think “If it can happen to her, it can happen to anyone!” Or maybe they think “Such a sweet girl to die so young.” (by the way, I want to get a shirt that says “I have cancer, I’m not dying”).
I’m equally horrified watching as their eyes widen, faces twitch, and you can see they’re about to launch into a story about their coworker’s daughter or cousin’s husband who has or had cancer. I actually don’t mind it when people bring this up, because it brings the focus off of me and my diagnosis.
It’s hard when I bump into people I haven’t seen in a while and they want to know what I’ve been up to. How do I drop the Cancer Bomb? Should I even drop it at all? Because shit gets serious once the C-Word comes out.
As much as I complain about my immune system keeping me from crowded areas, it’s also a slight blessing. Most days, I am perfectly content to hide out at home, in my cancer bubble. Because as easy as it is for me to yammer on about cancer on a blog, Facebook, Twitter, or in the newspaper, looking someone in the eye and vocalizing the words is one of the hardest things to do. I can’t wait until the day when I can say “Cancer? Oh yeah, I had that once.”
This is something I have been thinking about a lot lately. Pain. What it used to mean to me, and what it means to me now.
Of all the awful bodily conditions in the world, I have to admit, chronic pain is the one that probably frightened me the most. It began when I was 13 and going through my Nirvana phase. I read somewhere that Kurt Cobain suffered from chronic stomach pain and that was one of the reasons why he did drugs and ultimately killed himself.
I’ve always been a healthy person physically. Even when I was overweight and inactive, my body still felt fine. The idea of having to wake up every single day to pain sounded horrifying. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of people who dealt with something like back pain every day. I was a wimp and hated the odd occurrence when I did experience pain. Even DOMS bothered me, and I knew it would eventually go away. How did they deal with it 24/7?
Then, the accident happened. A little over five weeks ago, I fell skating on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa. I shattered my left elbow and everything since has been a new lesson in pain.
A lot of people ask me if I felt my arm break. The answer to that is yes and no. I had me feet sweep out from underneath me, falling backwards directly on to my elbow. I do remember a *crunch* in my arm. But I couldn’t have predicted just how bad that *crunch* really was. I remember screaming when it happened. But I think it was more out of shock from suddenly being in so much pain, than the fact that I was in so much pain itself. Does that make sense?
I have fallen lots in my life. I’ve banged up every limb, fractured, sprained, and even had stitches in my head. I’m definitely not the kind of person to overreact in these instances. But as I crawled off the ice that day there was only one thought in my head: “I need to get to a hospital, and I need to get there now.”
At that point I was in a residential area. I had skated 7km from the downtown. I had no idea where to go to get to a hospital. I was all by myself in a city I didn’t know well. I tell you this because it was during this time that I experienced a new kind of pain, different from the one that happened when I first hit the ice. For the first time in my life, I was in so much pain and shock that I felt like I was going to throw up. Or pass out. Or both. And I was walking in a strange city with no clue where I needed to go. It was at that point I called a cab. I crouched on the ground until it came praying I wouldn’t black out.
By the time I got set up in the emergency room, things started to calm down. I set up my arm so the pain was at least bearable. My sister arrived and we talked about getting poutine that night once I was done at the hospital. We thought a sling, maybe a cast, then we’d be out of there. However, there were two events that made it very clear I was not getting out of there any time soon.
First, I couldn’t move my elbow whatsoever, but still insisted on not cutting off the two long sleeve technical shirts I was wearing. The ER doctor helped me take them off and I freaked out. Like, totally and utterly freaked out. Crying, screaming, causing a huge scene. I had no control over it, I just knew that no one was coming near my damn arm. The ER doc then returned with a cup full of pills and I happily obliged.
The second instance was getting my first round of x-rays. Not knowing what was wrong with my arm, they asked me to bend it in all directions to get pictures from all angles. There was more hysteria. My sister and everyone in the waiting room outside thought I was being tortured. It was then that we knew there would be no poutine that night. I’ve read about a lot of active people getting injured and about how upset they were not being able to run, etc. But at that point, I didn’t care about what I would no longer be able to do. I just didn’t want to be in pain anymore. A wish that has stuck with me every day since.
After that, I was given a steady stream of pain meds. Every four hours I was asked to rate my pain on a scale of 1 to 10. I hate this scale. I hate being asked to rate my pain. I hate thinking about my current pain, comparing it to my past pain, and then trying to determine if it’s better or worse.
Anyways, the initial pain of the fall was not the worst pain to come. Turns out I completely shattered my elbow, obliterating the cartilage in the left radial head. I was immediately admitted and operated on the next day. A two hour surgery turned into a five hour one. I learned afterward they had to remove my elbow and reassemble the small shattered pieces on another table using screws and glue.
The post-op pain was a whole new kind of pain. I was heavily medicated for a week after. But in the times when the meds began to wear off I could begin to feel the 14cm open incision that ran along my arm, or the three metal screws holding my elbow in place. The pain would come in waves. So just as I thought it was getting better, it would come back in full force seconds later. My sister would sit with me as I writhed and moaned in pain, unable to do anything but just live through it.
Over the last 5 1/2 weeks, it seems my worst fear has come true. I’ve learned to live with chronic pain. Generally, it has gotten a little better each and every day. But a whole new kind of pain has begun with physiotherapy. Unlike the pain of the initial fall, or the pain right after surgery, the pain of physio is self inflicted. My joint is actually able to move, it’s the pain that’s keeping me from moving it. The muscles along the upper left side of my body have completely seized up in efforts to protect my arm. That stiffness has only contributed to the pain.
Now when I get asked where my pain is on a 1 to 10 scale, my perception of it is totally different. I have experienced a lot of 10s. So while my elbow still hurts with every waking and sleeping moment, it’s bearable knowing that it’s nowhere close to the pain I once felt.
Learning to manage chronic pain has turned into a huge life lesson for me. It’s humbled me. It’s made me more sympathetic. Of everything that’s happened over the course of these last several weeks, dealing with the pain has by far been the trickiest part. I can live with the use of one arm, but it’s hard to live when you feel crippled by pain.
The other thing I’ve learned is that I shouldn’t be stubborn and make myself suffer. My instinct is to be tough and try to get through this without pain medication. But my physiotherapist has instructed me to take painkillers to get through our exercises. I can’t very well do much when I’m breaking down into tears on the the physio table. Meanwhile, Tylenol has just become a part of my daily routine.
Overall, I’d say yes, living with pain everyday really does suck. It doesn’t get any easier or feel any less painful because it’s constant. But I’ve learned to manage it. I’ve learned to continue on despite the knives constantly twisting into my arm. Being in pain is actually quite exhausting. But the only thing I can do is just deal with it and take it as it comes. Because, what other choice do I have?
Not going to lie, this recovery business is a little boring. I’m by no means a “go getter” type person. But I like to feel like a productive member of society. At the very least, I need to get out of the house everyday.
I honestly don’t remember if I got out of the house the week after my surgery. I was stoned on pain meds. But this week I’m feeling the itch. The view of the Ottawa sunshine from my sister’s balcony lured me out. I felt ready to be amongst my people again.
I took a bath, put on mascara and adorned my cape.
I think I need a proper one to fit over my sling…
What’s a good blog post without a Seinfeld reference? ;)
The weather was just at freezing, which in my opinion is the perfect winter temperature. However my elbow throbbed in remembrance as I walked over the “Carnage Canal.”
In case you’re new, I fell skating on this canal almost two weeks ago. I shattered my elbow and had reconstructive surgery. I wanted to yell out in warning to the skaters down there!! Dontdoit!
Instead I kept far, far away from the ice and walked around the university. It was nice to be amongst TREES again. Where I live in Toronto is barren of any plants or wildlife. Hell, I hardly ever even see grass.
A nice professor stopped and asked if I wanted my picture taken while I had my camera out snapping shots. Sure!
I look like I have three arms. Such a stark contrast from my last visit to Ottawa in June ‘10.
I wasn’t just wandering around for the hell of it. Nor did I accidentally wander into Quebec like I had in the above picture. I was off to the mall!
I just broke my third laptop adapter and had to go to the Rideau Centre to pick up a new one. While there I also got a few pick-me-ups for myself. I NEVER spend money on myself besides restaurants. Funny how a few new items can perk up my poor injured spirit :)
Two new stretchy t-shirts I can fit over my cast. Concealer, mascara and lipstick for a little oomph. And delicates that are noneofyourbusiness!
Walking around Ottawa is funny because almost everyone gives me a “look” towards my arm and half the people ask me what happened. All I have to say is “canal” and they immediately understand. Apparently the Carnage Canal strikes frequently. Stories usually follow.
Here’s what my full arm cast looks like:
Mind the peejays, I snapped it before I ventured out! I have a fibreglass splint running the length of under my arm, then all wrapped up with bandage. My elbow has to stay bent and my hand pronated because of how I injured the joint. The pronated hand is unique, usually a person has their palm facing their torso. This position is SO awkward. I always feel a pulling in my wrist from the rotation. Hoping I get it off at my next appointment on Friday!
The requisite x-ray shot. Not that exciting since I smashed my elbow into little pieces so you can’t see anything… All you can see are the screws. Although, you could see a floating bone in the pre-op shots.
Well friends, that is all she wrote! My adventure today has left me exhausted. I still feel like recovery is going slow, but it’s nice being able to do a little more with each passing day.
Question of the Day: What’s your favourite thing to spend money on when you want to treat yourself? I’m thinking my next splurge may be a massage or manicure. I’ve never had either and I could really use both right about now!