‘You have nothing if you don’t have your health.’
I’ve heard this expression many times before and I believed I understood what it meant. But until I lost my health, it was hard to imagine what it felt like to face the abyss of ill health.
This is the story of how my health slipped away from me one evening, literally in a second. It’s about how life is woven from a fabric of fate and luck and love.
I wish it was a funnier story, but that’s not how I deal with adversity. I get serious, emotional and philosophical. I’ve written this not to entertain, but to explain. And to acknowledge my blessings.
One fateful second
It had been an unusually mild January. Clear, sunny days with temperatures well above freezing had caused the snow to melt, leaving the sidewalks dry and bare. Great walking weather.
My days were full and I had taken to walking the dog in the evening. Foolishly, it turns out, because the warm days would leave puddles of standing water that would refreeze in the cooler evening.
I walked with confidence that Tuesday night, my iPod filling my ears with tunes. The sidewalks were clear right up to the end of the block, so I walked with long, confident strides. At the intersection four blocks from my house, I stepped onto the road, over what I thought was a slushy snow pile left on the road after a day of melting.
In a split second, I lost my footing. Reacting to the slip, my right foot somehow ended up under me and “crack”. I heard it and I felt it.
Landing on my tailbone, I lied back and looked at the sky. My butt was sore, but my ankle was throbbing. Like a typical guy, I looked around to see if anyone had see me go down. Falling is embarrassing.
I rolled over onto my hands and knees and tried to get up. Using my left leg, I managed to get up and tried walking back toward my house, but any weight on my right leg left me cursing in pain.
I reached into my pocket for my phone and called my wife. “I fell. Please come get me.”
After icing and elevating my ankle for an hour, it was clear I needed a professional medical opinion on whether or not it was broken.
At the hospital emergency room, I explained what happened while they collected my vitals. It was clear that slipping on the ice while walking my 5 pound toy poodle was a lame story that needed some enhancement. I’d have to work on that.
“Are you on hypertension medication? Do you feel light-headed or any pain in your chest?” I was asked by the triage nurse with some concern.
This was the first of many times that night that I would be asked about my blood pressure and whether I was having chest pain or shortness of breath. My blood pressure was skyrocketing and I had no idea why. Of course, the trauma of the fall was probably a factor, but something else going on.
Six hours later, I left the hospital with a temporary cast, a pair of crutches and instructions to avoid weight-bearing on my right leg for 6-8 weeks. Oh, and several stern warnings to see my family doctor as soon as possible about the elevated blood pressure.
(See my first attempt at optimism in the post Breaking News.)
Dodging a bullet
The healing period for the ankle corresponded exactly with plans we had in place for a March Break family vacation. If I could just heal the ankle without surgery, we could still do the vacation as planned in 6 and a half weeks.
When I returned to the hospital for a follow-up on the broken ankle, I learned the break was in the joint, right on the line where surgery was a possibility.
Ever since reading Ivan Illich as a much younger man, I’ve generally been a non-interventionist when it comes to medical matters. If the body can heal itself or if intervention is merely for aesthetic purposes, then avoiding the anaesthetic, the scalpel, and the risk of infection in a hospital is the best course of action.
In consultation with the orthopaedic surgeon, we decided to continue to monitor the ankle closely and if there was no movement in the fracture, we could avert surgery.
Non-weight-bearing on my right ankle meant no walking and no driving, so I relocated my life to the basement. I slept in the guest room and worked at the small round table. The microwave and fridge at the downstairs bar came in handy for heating up lunch that my wife lovingly prepared for me each day. I was able to maintain almost a normal workload and even took on a couple of new clients during these first few weeks.
I was experiencing some swelling and strange muscle aching in my right calf and leg, but I put it down mostly to inactivity. I spent more time lying down and elevating my leg above my heart (which is supposed to improve the circulation), but this cramped my style a bit. It’s hard to work when you’re on your back with your leg propped up on a pile of pillows – but not impossible.
I visited my family doc and started some hypertension medication, but the blood pressure was not coming down. Another visit to the ER with spiking blood pressure got me a new prescription for hypertension meds and a referral to the Urgent Internal Medicine Clinic the following week.
The clinic ordered a full work-up on my hypertension, including blood work and ECG, as well as chest X-rays. The medications were adjusted and within a couple of days my blood pressure was settling down to normal levels.
What originally felt like a stupid mistake of judgement on my part – walking the dog at night in icy conditions – started to feel like something that may have happened for a reason. If I hadn’t fallen in that split second and broken my ankle, I would have had no idea that I had a hypertension issue that could now be properly addressed.
With the third week came my follow-up appointment with the orthopaedic surgeon. New X-rays were taken of my right ankle and the doc was pleased to see no movement in the fracture.
“Come back in three more weeks and we’ll get you out of that cast and walking,” were his parting words.
I felt encouraged. I had dodged the surgery bullet and turned the corner. The family vacation was looking good.
Or so it seemed.
If everything happens for a reason, why is this happening?
Toward the end of week three, the swelling and pain in my right leg was worsening. It was moving up my leg into my thigh and even into my groin.
I left a message for the helpful nurse at the internal medicine clinic with my concerns. I was worried the swelling might be a side effect of the hypertension medication I was on.
When she called me back, she was unequivocal: go to emergency immediately and get an ultrasound. You may have a blood clot in your leg, she said.
Eight painful hours later, I was home with a diagnosis: deep vein thrombosis (blood clot) in my thigh. The pain was considerable. I was prescribed blood thinners which, I learned, is really all that can be done for treating blood clots. The blood thinners prevent worsening of the clotting while the body naturally breaks down the clot.
It was a long week before the pain was under control and I could stop taking the Percocet. Gradually, the clot seemed to be receding and circulation was returning to my leg. Progress each day was tiny, but I was grateful to be heading in the right direction.
Bad things are supposed to come in threes
The broken ankle, discovery of hypertension and the blood clot had left me hoping, praying really, that bad things only came in threes.
Then, the internal medicine clinic called me. Deep breath. The nurse told me that the chest X-rays that were done as part of the hypertension workup had revealed that my heart was not enlarged. Big exhale of relief. But the X-ray showed a vague shading on my lung. I would need to go back and have the chest X-rays redone.
The second chest X-ray confirmed something on my lung. The report recommended a follow-up CT scan of my chest.
We were now 2 weeks away from the departure date for the family vacation. I desperately wanted to be able to go on the trip. My family was so excited to get away and we were meeting up with my brother and his family. If I couldn’t go due to this new medical situation, then we would all stay home.
That’s when the shit got serious.
What could be in my lung and how much of a threat did it represent? All of a sudden, my mind was going to the worst possible diagnosis and I was trying to imagine how I would react.
But in my gut, I felt I couldn’t be really sick. It just didn’t seem like my ticket was being called. I don’t know how to explain it. Hadn’t I endured enough? Didn’t I deserve a break?
The more I thought about it, the more I thought: Isn’t that what everyone feels? This can’t be happening to me. It’s basic denial. So, maybe it was happening.
I had many conversations during those days with friends and family. I was fine talking about it, until the person on the other end of the phone offered to come and be with me if it turned out to be the worst. Then, I broke down. When loved ones far away offer to drop everything and come and take care of you, you know it’s serious. And you feel their love. Then, the tears come.
The vacation was still looming and I did not want to disappoint my kids. One conversation really helped me get my head around this. The conversation was with my hair stylist who told me the story of her own bout with cancer and how she processed the news. What stood out for me in her story was her strong conviction that she needed to be ready – physically and emotionally – before she agreed to the procedure, in her case surgery, that would save her.
I was not ready for what might come next. My ankle had been in a cast for 6 weeks and I could not yet walk. My clot was starting to feel better, but I could sure use more recovery time. I wanted to take this vacation with my family. I wanted to enjoy the time with them before subjecting myself to whatever I was conjuring might be next.
After all, whatever was on my lung would have gone completely undiscovered if I hadn’t fallen on the ice, broken my ankle, discovered my hypertension and developed a blood clot. How much a difference could a week or two make? I just wanted to postpone the next stage for a couple of weeks and live my life, be with my family.
The sixth week came and the cast was indeed confirmed to come off. Recovery would be slower due to swelling from the clot, but the cast was off.
However, an earlier meeting that same day with the internal medicine clinic was sobering. The doctor(s) sat down in a chair and looked me in the eye when he told us he didn’t want to alarm us, but he was concerned about the golf ball sized “mass” on my lung. As my wife pointed out, they don’t sit down unless its serious.
Resolved as we were at this point to get on the plane in 5 days, I wanted to know what the CT scan would tell us. Rather than wait, we scheduled a CT scan for the next day and paid for it privately.
Waiting for the call
Private diagnostic testing is a bit like going to a spa. They take you into a VIP waiting room and offer you free coffee and cookies while you wait. It would be much more pleasant if I wasn’t there to have dye injected into my veins and be radiologically scanned.
The CT scan prompted a conversation with the kids. It was time they understood the new threat and concern, so they could prepare. That’s a terrible conversation to have and I had avoided it for as long as I could. I didn’t want to scare them, but I didn’t want to lie either. It’s a fine line to walk (or hobble, in my case).
But it’s the waiting for the test results that’s the worst. Awful.
Every possibility races through your mind. Trying to prepare for the worst, while hoping for the best. It’s brutal.
Then, my brilliant wife had a brilliant idea. Get them to fax us the report, she suggested. We paid for it, so we should get the report.
The clinic faxed the results to my wife. She called me and read the report: “Recommend follow-up CT scan in 6 months.”
That’s good news, right? If they were worried or uncertain, they’d want to biopsy something and do it quickly, right? This sounded like the BEST NEWS EVER!
The next few hours were spent trying to get doctors on the phone to confirm the good news.
So what is that thing in my lung? Turns out it’s a remnant of a previously undetected clot that migrated to my lung. Now, it’s a pulmonary infarction. It’s presence in my lung is no longer likely a danger. But I will have to be much more mindful of blood clot prevention in the future.
A huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders and the good news is communicated throughout our networks. Now, my top priority turned to what to pack for this vacation – more specifically, which shoes to pack for these feet.
Gratitude for my blessings
I often read articles about the power of gratitude and I think, yes, I am grateful.
But this week, I am feeling gratitude in a way I have never felt before.
I am grateful for falling and breaking my ankle on the ice. Really, I am. If that accident hadn’t happened, I would never have discovered and addressed my high blood pressure. I would not have had the X-ray that detected the infarction in my lung.
But there is so much more I am grateful for. I would not have gotten to know my neighbour so much better because of all the appointments he drove me to. Or my hair stylist who empowered me to prioritize what I needed.
I would not have reconnected with many friends and family and made sure I told them I loved them and felt how much they cared.
I would not have realized just how much my mother-in-law cared for me, after she dropped everything to come and take care of us – to take care of me.
And I would not have realized just how much I need my wife as a friend and, in times of trouble, as a caregiver. This whole incident both challenged and strengthened our connection and for that I am so grateful.
I may not have had my health for the last couple of months, but far from having nothing I had the support and love of many people around me, without which I truly would have had nothing.