A few days ago I received an email from my Penzu journal saying “Here’s what you wrote a year ago.” The post I’d written was from just after my hospital stay last year. I’d had two toes and about a third of my foot amputated because of a severe infection, I couldn’t walk, and was sliding up and down the stairs on my arse(ass) to get to bed. It was painful and miserable and I felt wretched as I was still fighting off the infection and was on constant intravenous antibiotics.
All of that was bad enough but then as hard as it is to believe, things actually got worse.
As well as the regular nurses’ visits at home for dressings changes. I also had to attend follow up appointments with the Ambulatory Care Unit (ACU). And it was during one of these visits they hit me with the news. My foot wasn’t showing any signs of healing and they felt the best thing was to give me a lower leg amputation — cut my leg off just below the knee.
To say I was in shock at this would be an understatement. It was something so surreal that it felt like I was trapped in a nightmare. What was so bizarre was the curious pressure I was put under to make a decision on the spot . I was made to feel there was no option and that I needed to decide at that very moment. I was scared beyond belief and couldn’t really take it in at that point. That said I’m always a pragmatist, so after some thought I decided that if my leg was in such a bad state then “twere well It were done quickly.” An appointment was immediately scheduled for a few weeks later for the surgery and I returned home to wallow in self-pity.
Truth is, I’m not actually very good at wallowing. After a short period I almost inevitably start to think about options and consequences. One thing was certain, this would be a one-way trip like none I’d ever imagined and would completely change everything in my life. You don’t just lose a leg and walk away (pun intended) from it.
Actually there’s a funny thing about how the mind works. While dealing with this I came to realize just how much of the English language is foot /leg centrist; best foot forward, one step at a time, standing on your own two feet, standing tall etc. The list goes on and my mind latched on to each occurrence with all too much eagerness.
Once the immediate fight or flight (there’s another leg fixation) had stopped making my brain flap around like a Dodo on acid trying to fly, I started to consider things more analytically. I started questioning if the amputation really was the “best thing” for me. Maybe it was just the path of least resistance for a number of people (which happens a lot more than we imagine). I’ve always been a very active person. I love swimming and hiking and although I’ve not done quite as much for a few years, I’d started to push that side of my life again just before the foot troubles started. I wanted that back again if at all possible. From my research I found that people can achieve incredible things with prosthetics, but it also became clear that any foot, even one that was very compromised, was significantly better than no foot.
I started to search for other ideas on wound care, not really expecting to find anything but more in desperation. None of the healthcare people I was dealing with discussed anything other than amputation and it seemed strange that with all the medical progress we’ve made that it was the only alternative. Kind of like getting a headache and being told the only cure was decapitation.
I did find some alternatives — bariatric oxygenation therapy for one — which looked as though they offered non-surgical possibilities. It seemed at least worth exploring those before taking the irreversible step (another of those puns) of cutting off my lower leg. That was when I found out an unfortunate truth.
When I asked about it I was told that the treatment wasn’t available where I live. THAT was why no one was talking about alternatives. All we had here were surgeons, so the only option was the knife. When all you have is a hammer…
That idea got me angry and frustrated. I could understand that the other treatments weren’t offered locally, but to not even discuss them seemed deplorable, almost criminal. Toronto is only five hours drive south, not the end of the world. Post/Zip code health care at its very worst.
I took matters into my own hands and with my wife’s help endeavored to contact one of the doctors specializing in such care. The early discussions made it sound at least worth looking at and we tried to get my records sent to Toronto. Suddenly, my surgeon was nowhere to be found. Not literally, but despite many calls, messages and emails, we could no longer get any response from him or the hospital. They were all so very busy — unless I wanted to talk about surgery.
At this point I made a decision. I was not going to go through with the amputation unless the records were sent and the Toronto doctors at least had a chance to do a remote assessment as to whether what was left of my foot was salvageable.
At the same time, my home nurse was telling me that, despite the poor initial recovery, the wound was actually starting to show some positive signs of healing. This bolstered my confidence. To my way of thinking it was clear; unless my foot was immediately life-threatening, if it was fighting to heal then it should be given a chance to do that.
The day of the surgery arrived and I was admitted into hospital. Despite all attempts I’d been unable to contact my surgeon, and they were proceeding on the basis of making the chop.
I was actually prepped for surgery, lying on the gurney waiting to be wheeled in. They hadn’t accounted for my stubbornness though. I told the nurse that I wanted to see the surgeon before going in to the operating room. My request was simple; I just wanted him to take another look at my foot and tell me there was no other alternative than amputation.
Initially I was told he would come and see me, but then I was suddenly and summarily sent home with instructions to attend the ACU clinic a few days later. I did that and a second surgeon was attending. He looked at my foot and said, “Well, I’ve seen worse.” Words which were magic to my ears. The direction of the conversation changed entirely at that point,;suddenly they were talking about treatments and dressing types and processes to save my foot. It was like stepping up to the gallows, having them place the noose around your neck, and getting a last minute reprieve.
Since then, nobody has been discussing the amputation option. My foot has healed slowly (something I knew would be the case) but I’m happy to say it is very near to closing up fully. Something I would never have believed seeing the ragged mess that was left after the surgery.
I don’t have any bad feelings over this, the medical staff has been for the most part very supportive and helpful. They advised what they could on the basis of what resources were available directly and knowing the odds. But I’m pleased to say that the odds aren’t everything and I’m still standing on my own two feet (pun definitely intended!)
My enforced convalescence has also had a somewhat unexpected benefit. All of these months bedridden and unable to do much gave me an unprecedented opportunity to fully focus on my writing and as a direct result I published my collection of short-stories “Dead Reckoning.” It’s safe to say that without being able to focus on my writing I’d have been climbing the walls and probably gone crazy (though there are some that would argue that happened a long time ago!)
One thing that I can say after going through all of this is that one-size doesn’t always fit all. If you ever find yourself in such circumstances, don’t just accept what is offered to you blindly. Do your own research, make sure that you’ve explored every possible option and then make your decision on the basis of that. And question everything.