Thursday, January 8, 2009

Home at Last

On the afternoon of Friday, 11/28 (the day after Thanksgiving), we pulled up to our driveway, clicked the garage door opener, drove in, and shut off the engine. Stacey and I had been through quite a week, and could not wait to see our kids.

No sooner had we stepped out of the car than my son Colin (6) and daughter Ellie (3) ran out grinning, excited to see mom and dad. After a short greeting, Colin asked if he could see the scar on the back of my head. He took a quick look and, apparently satisfied, ran back into the house. I'm not sure what I was being judged on, but it seems I passed.

We exhaustedly walked into the house and plonked down on the couch. My sister-in-law Jill, who had been watching the kids, looked worn out but was smiling. My mom, who had arrived the day before from Oregon to help us out for the week, also looked worn out but was smiling. Our kids, who had likely been running around non-stop for going on 190 hours (minus sleep), were running around non-stop, smiling. Aaaah, home at last.

Now I've been taking many opportunities to thank people, and there's no need to stop now. I'll take this one to thank Jill. For eight long, hard, challenging days she held down the fort, the better part of which was spent nursing a head cold intent on taking over her entire body.

Holding down the fort included taking our two kids and Jill's own daughter Grace (6) on multiple errands outside the house. Staying home would have been completely acceptable, as anyone with children can attest to the fact that the levels of human sanity decrease exponentially as one increases the number of children being watched. Yet she did it, and ne'er was there a complaint.

Let me mention my brother-in-law (and conveniently, Jill's husband) Richard, who drove back and forth from Sonora to Davis multiple times to help out and to take care of errands around the house that he knew we wouldn't be able to get to for weeks. Unfortunately the last item on my list -- repainting the exterior -- wasn't done. It's okay Richard, I've moved on.

And of course, my mom, who in addition to being responsible for half of my genetic code, had taken off almost the entire month of December to help us out as much as we needed. She moved in with us for the entire first week, which allowed Stacey to ease back into "normal life" sans help from me and put up with my admittedly grouchy moments, which were probably plentiful the first week back.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: The following paragraph contains graphic emotion, and may not be suitable for all audiences.)

Really, so many people pulled together in so many different ways to help. I realize (often with reminders from those closest to me) that at times I'm not the easiest person in the world to do favors for. So to everyone who helped me get through this challenging time -- in both big ways and small -- please know that I'm very, very appreciative. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

Coming up Next: Onward and Upward

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Airport

(Editor's Note: Sorry for the long delay in blog updates! Although entirely unrelated to my recovery, it's been a hectic and at times difficult end-of-month.)

Okay... now where were we? Ah yes, our trip home.

We were scheduled to fly home on Friday, November 28th, the day after Thanksgiving. After some breakfast, we spent the morning packing up eight days worth of luggage and memories. Luggage is heavier and bulkier, however, and takes longer to pack.

I had arrived in Denver with one large suitcase, a backpack, and a laptop. I had also arrived with the ability to lift things. As we were packing, however, it became clear that we had added to that list Stacey's suitcase, backpack, various odds-and-ends, and a brand new, fresh incision on the back of my neck that came with the warning that I was not to lift anything heavier than a gallon of milk. As we hadn't planned on flying home with a gallon of milk, this severely limited my contribution, and correspondingly resulted in the first of Stacey's many valiant efforts on my behalf (which have already won her the '2009 Wife of the Year Award').

After the luggage was packed, I shuffled along with my wife as every piece of luggage was lugged (hence the name) from the hotel room down to the car. I helplessly watched her partake in this activity as I'm sure onlookers pondered why she was with this skullcap-wearing deadbeat (that's me).

When we were finally loaded up and checked out of the hotel, we drove to the car rental return, and once again I swallowed my pride from the sidelines as Stacey pulled everything out of the rental and then onto the shuttle. I ignored any (real or imagined) furtive glances from other passengers.

When the shuttle dropped us off at the airport, my wife once again hauled our entire week's supply of belongings through the airport into the near mile-long line at the ticket counter. As she meandered through the maze-like line that would give any Disneyland ride a run for its money, I sat despondently on a bench, away from the action, waiting for my cue to skulk up to the ticket counter and check-in. At this point I thought, and I'm sure you're thinking too, that my self-respect had been entirely depleted. Oh no. No, not quite.

We had previously arranged for a wheelchair to cart me around, which sounded like a great idea at the time, but by now I was feeling so emasculated that I wasn't so sure I wanted it. Stacey insisted, and I was in no position to argue. After checking in the two largest bags, we received our tickets and were directed around the corner to a small room, where I was given both a wheelchair and a designated wheelchair pusher, both courtesy of the airport. Stacey was given approximately two miles of Denver airport to traverse with our remaining luggage in tow.

The good news is that with a wheelchair, you're given special (read: quick) access through the security terminal. No need to wait in long lines, which was a boon. (I need to briefly thank Jenn for giving me this advice. In hindsight it was a real timesaver!) The bad news is that the Denver airport is large, and my wife -- who was probably very tired of carrying things by now -- still needed to walk much of it, although she refused to complain.

After what seemed like a fairly long time, we made it to the terminal, and after boarding the plane, we had a pleasant flight (worth the $39 Economy Plus upgrade) home.

I'll spare you the details, but suffice it to say that getting off the plane in Sacramento and to our car was virtually the same experience as what happened in Denver, wheelchair included. Thankfully Sacramento International is roughly 1/10th the size of the Denver Airport (which could probably incorporate as its own city if it wanted to). Once we were in our car, we could finally breathe easy... we'd be home in less than thirty minutes.

I'll repeat in case I haven't said it enough -- Stacey was absolutely amazing on this trip. In addition to everything else, she managed to drag five bags (2 large suitcases, a backpack, and two carry-ons) onto two car rental shuttles, through two airports, and in and out of two cars while I glided along on four wheels with ne'er a care in the world. She did everything to ensure that nothing would jeopardize my condition, and I simply could not have done this without her.

Coming up Next: Home at Last

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Recovery Ward, Part Deux

Tue early morning - Wed 5:30p

When I was re-admitted, I was given a new room. This one was set up differently from the others; the two beds faced each other (each with curtains), and my previous concern about having a roommate assigned was ratcheted up a notch or two. Once again, I bucked the odds and entire room remained roommate free. Well, sort of.

We arrived pretty early in the morning, and had been through a rough patch down in the emergency room. Stacey was with me, and the nurses went out of their way to wheel in a reclining chair for her to sleep in. They didn't have to do this, especially given that visiting hours were technically over (or hadn't yet begun), and it was greatly appreciated. One more reason why the staff's performance far exceeded my expectations.

Based on my symptoms and some early lab results, it looked like I might have an infection, so I was hooked to another IV for a few rounds of antibiotics.

Let me briefly say something about IVs. How quickly one forgets the sheer enjoyment of having an IV placed in one's arm. I was reminded of that sheer enjoyment multiple times, as over the course of my second stay my IVs kept failing. I ultimately went through four more IVs before being discharged, with both arms having the privilege of partaking in this event.

The problem with IVs is that when they're hooked up to something, that something is typically some sort of fluid dripping into your body at a slow, steady rate. That fluid, once inside, combined with other fluid, eventually needs to find its way back out. Getting that fluid back out, when hooked up to an IV, requires the assistance of a nurse. I felt like I was clicking the "nurse buzzer" every two hours to get up and use the bathroom. I'm sure it's common, but I couldn't help feeling like a major pain in the rear.

So back to the problem at hand. They were doing a blood culture to confirm that my body was fighting an infection, or to determine whether I had an infection in the first place (I'm still lost on this part). Either way, what we wanted to hear was that the results were negative. The problem was that we wouldn't get the results until Wednesday evening, and our flight was Thursday morning.

By Wednesday midday, we had to decide whether to hope for good news and squeeze out a rush trip to the airport, or just reschedule our flight, our hotel, and our car. We chose the latter, and spent 30 minutes getting everything arranged. Within the next 60 minutes, the PA who had been checking in on me informed us that everything looked good and we'd probably be discharged in the next few hours. Of all the times NOT to procrastinate!

The good news was that we'd get a quiet relaxing day at the hotel and plenty of time to get organized. The bad news was that it came with sticker shock.

Over the next couple hours, we were visited by several others, including Dr. Oro's nurse practitioner Kimberly -- who was consistently wonderful and offered encouragement at every step -- and Dr. Oro, who was also fantastic, and concluded that things had gone well, I was in good working order, and we were okay to leave.

We stuck around long enough to get one more free meal which Stacey ordered for me (meatloaf, not pancakes), and we were discharged for the second time. I promised I would not be back again, Stacey again pulled the Jeep up to the exit, and I again took the wheelchair trip through the corridors and down the elevator to my ride waiting outside.

We arrived back to the hotel, and from what I recall, I more or less crashed. The next day was Thanksgiving, and Stacey made a delicious dinner for us. Unfortunately I wasn't feeling 100% and turned in early, but the next morning (Friday) I was back to normal (or as normal as you would feel with 20+ staples and Percocet flowing through you), and we were ready to get home.

Coming up Next: The Airport

You Have GOT to be Kidding Me

I'll start out by saying that upon our return to the hotel, Stacey became super-wife. Not that she wasn't already, but she took care of EVERYTHING. We pulled into the hotel parking lot and parked the Jeep. Stacey helped me into the hotel and up to our room. We turned on the Niners game (what timing!), and while I sat on the couch and watched my favorite team being dismantled for the fifth time in as many weeks, Stacey transferred our belongings from the car to our new temporary home.

It felt good to be back at the hotel. No more pancakes, no more IVs, no more wondering if the person being wheeled down the hall complaining about the pain in his shoulder was going to be my roommate for the next 48 hours... what more could a person wish for?

My wound seemed to be healing nicely. So nicely, that we opted to take a snapshot of it to share with the world:

A stitch in time saves nine...

I was on a regular cycle of meds, and there was no pain to speak of. After a light lunch/dinner made by my wonderful wife, I opted to turn in early and get some rest. I wasn't sleeping well, and eventually woke up in a cold sweat and had the chills.

Stacey took my temperature, several times, and the range was 102 to 103.5. Panic mode was setting in, and Stacey called the doctor's office immediately. I didn't want to go back to the hospital, but I wasn't really in any mood to argue. The doctor instructed me to take some Tylenol to reduce the fever; if that didn't work in the next 60 minutes, I needed to get to the emergency room.

Three cheers for Tylenol! The fever broke in the next 45 minutes, and with that, so did any desire to stay awake. I went back to bed and snoozed through the night.

I woke the next day (Monday) feeling fine. Stacey kept me on a regular routine for medicine, meals, exercise, and naps, and I was looking forward to several days of quiet to aid my recovery. In between the moments of quiet, one can't underestimate the healing effects of surfing the internet. Those healing effects were limited to 15 ergonomic minutes every six hours:

Who needs expensive laptop lifters?

Later that evening, Stacey thought I might want to get out of the room, so we decided to treat ourselves to a light dinner at the always-empty grill downstairs. In hindsight, I should have had what Stacey had. Or more to the point, I shouldn't have had the Turkey Club. Of course, I didn't know that until later.

Later was now here, and I was not feeling as comfortable as I would have liked in the abdominal region. I chalked the pain up to constipation (I know, too much information, but it's relevant), and requested some pharmacy product to alleviate said symptoms.

My wonderful wife, yet again, went on a late run to the store to pick up something to hopefully reduce the bloatedness. By the time she returned, the pain was becoming unbearable, and I perhaps went overboard in trying to remedy this.

I'll keep the graphic detail to a minimum, but lets just say the contents of my stomach decided they weren't altogether pleased with being in me, and having two paths of exit, decided to partake in not one or the other, but both.

After 20 minutes of this, combined with the fever event from the previous night, Stacey decided I needed to go to the emergency room. Once again, I did not want to return to the hospital, but I lost that battle and by 11pm we were pulling into the emergency parking lot.

My emergency room experience started off, and ended, 180 degrees from my experience on the ICU and recovery wards. To begin with, they had apparently little concern for the guy who had just shuffled in, pale, weak, and with a complete lack of focus and energy (if you guessed 'Eric', you win!).

After my urgent request for and speedwalk to the nearest bathroom, they showed that same lack of concern for me, as I sat down and heaved uncontrollably into the nearest garbage can.

When I was finally checked-in, the nurse started me off on an IV. Now there are many places you can put an IV, but the one place not generally recommended is that bendy part between your forearm and bicep. Why? Because if you move your arm from any position past "straight", the needle digs in, and it HURTS. It should come as no surprise then, that the emergency nurse chose precisely that place to put the IV.

While I was being fed IV juice, the nurse told Stacey that my symptoms presented the same as someone who was having withdrawals from pain killers. Yes... I'm also presenting as someone who JUST HAD BRAIN SURGERY and you may shockingly not have noticed, but look at the giant zipper in the back of my head. That's Clue Number One.

Eventually the emergency doctor came in (who was nice), and when she found out I was a patient of Dr. Oro's, things changed dramatically. I was wheeled to the radiology room and given a CT-scan to make sure everything was still in working order (it was), and they went right to work getting me a room on the recovery ward.

We had to wait an hour or two before a room was ready, but by early morning Tuesday, I was back on the recovery ward, re-introducing myself to the staff that had been so relieved to be rid of me. My advice to anyone else getting a posterior fossa decompression: stay away from the Turkey Club.

Coming up Next: The Recovery Ward, Part Deux

Friday, December 5, 2008

Days on the Recovery Ward

The recovery ward finally had room, and my ICU nurse asked whether I wanted to walk the 40-50 yards by myself or take a wheelchair. I was feeling well enough at that point, and opted for the walk (with assistance). I'm happy to report that the walk was uneventful.

The room had two beds, but I was fortunate enough to not have a roommate. The staff couldn't guarantee it would stay that way, but I remained optimistic. Cautiously optimistic, anyway. Throughout my stay, every noise in the hall outside the room would grab my attention, and I'd strain to hear whether I was going to have a new visitor.

Anyway, once we were settled in, someone on the staff (don't recall if it was Dr. Oro, Kimberly, or one of the recovery nurses) took the dressing off of my wound, and the Frankensteinian horror was laid bare for all to see:

Just add bolts...

Although it isn't obvious from the picture, the back of my head felt very "puffy". When I pressed down on the skin around the suture, I would hear a squishy sound. For this reason, I didn't partake in this activity frequently.

I was on the recovery ward for the next two days, and the schedule was very routine. I would receive a call in the morning to order breakfast, a call in the afternoon for lunch, a call in the evening for dinner. The food was surprisingly decent, although you can only eat so many pancakes before you're ready for something else.

The nurses would change shifts between 7am - 8am and 7pm - 8pm. The shift change meant a new nurse and nurse's assistant would come in the room to introduce themselves, and the new team would familiarize themselves with my dosage schedule (and I'm sure any particular idiosyncrasies). The staff was very nice and accommodating, and even though each nurse had a 5:1 nurse-to-patient ratio, I was never made to feel like a burden.

Being able to rest in the bed for hours was great, and Stacey would stay in the room during visiting hours (8am - 7pm) -- probably bored beyond belief, but she never said anything. She would keep herself busy reading, watching tv, and ordering my meals for me.

My only complaints I had while on the recovery ward -- and yes, I do understand I wasn't on a retreat -- were the early, early wake-up calls to take my medicine, and the IVs. The 1am, 3am, 5am, etc. wake-up calls really weren't all that bad, because the stuff was strong enough to knock me right back out inside of 20 minutes.

The IVs, on the other hand, I was not a big fan of. I hate needles to begin with, and I had more IVs stuck in me during my entire hospital stay than I've had in my entire lifetime. More on that later, but lets just say if I never have another IV put in one of my arms, I'm still ahead of 90% of this country on IV points.

During these two days, I'd get up every few of my waking hours and take a lap or two around the square-shaped ward to keep the blood flow moving and stretch out the neck muscles. I was shuffling at first, but by the second day was moving around at a pretty good pace, and with the help and suggestion by one of the physical therapists on staff, even went up and down a couple flights of stairs.

I also had the privilege of taking my first shower-with-wound. I tried to put it off as long as I could, but eventually had to go through with it. You get the water running at a comfortable temperature, and very cautiously sit yourself down on the stool already present in the shower stall. They give you baby shampoo for your entire head, but I wouldn't go near the wound, so the back of my head -- what little hair there was anyway -- was probably pretty greasy by the time I left.

Before I could be discharged, the nurses needed to confirm that my... "intestinal plumbing was in order". I'll spare you the details, but they collect everything -- and I mean everything -- to confirm you've done your part. I was having no problem on the front end of things; in fact, I was probably driving the nurses crazy, because whenever I was hooked up to the IV, I'd need to buzz them to unhook me before I could use the bathroom. I'm sure by the time I left, they were happy to be rid of "the guy in Room 305".

As for the business end, not so much luck there. By the end of the second day, with a large degree of effort on my part (and a clearly poor effort on the part of my large intestine), I managed to produce enough to qualify me as "dischargeable". After a final check-up from my doctor and his team, I was given the okay to go home.

Fortunately for me, home was temporarily a hotel only a few miles away, and although the hospital stay wasn't bad by any stretch of the imagination, I was looking forward to being free of dangling IVs, some regular food, and my own schedule.

Stacey gathered up all of my things in the room, and hurried off to bring the rental car (a Jeep Liberty -- a wise choice for Colorado in November) to the pick-up area. I was finally given reprieve from world of IVs, and was wheeled down -- first class -- to the car. They helped me in, and we drove off to the hotel for four days of non-hospital rest and recuperation.

Finally, the hard part was over. Or was it?

Coming up Next: You Have GOT to be Kidding Me

Monday, December 1, 2008

Day 2 - The ICU

After a solid day and night of sleep the mental fog had dissipated. There was just one thing nagging at me. I was certain it was the result of a morphine-induced dream -- it had to be. Nevertheless I needed confirmation, and ever so apprehensively stole a glance at my feet. It wasn't a dream! I was still wearing those YELLOW NON-SLIP BOOTIES!!!

Fortunately the medication was wearing off, and the pain had moved to the forefront enough to distract me from the toe-warming abomination.
Speaking of pain, one nice thing about recovering in the ICU was the pain button. Whenever I would feel pain coming on, I would only need to click the "pain button" to get a quick dose of whatever it is that silences nerve endings. This was only used for the first night of recovery, and it was a welcome friend at that time.

I would never actually plan a vacation to the ICU ward at the Medical Center of Aurora, however in hindsight the ICU was a nice place to be post-surgery. The nurse-to-patient ratio was roughly 2:1, so there was no lack of attention.
The nurse who had apparently drawn the short stick and was assigned to my room was a happy guy named Mike with a solid sense of humor. He was extremely attentive and was on top of everything -- making sure meals were ordered, medication was working, effort was being made to use the bathroom, and walks were being attempted.

Another thing Mike emphasized was the use of the incentive spirometer. The objective of this device is to force patients to inflate their lungs and prevent pneumonia from developing. I referred to this as an aspirator until today, when with the magic of Google I was able to figure out what it's really called.

I felt like I was making great progress in the ICU. I was able to get up to use the bathroom, keep my food down, transition to regular pain meds, and laugh at bad jokes. I was surprised at how well things were going. I had braced myself for multiple days of nausea and relentless pain, and although it wasn't a day at the spa, things could be worse.
Even more surprising -- to me anyway -- was that my mysterious psycho-somatic cough had completely disappeared. That cough that had persisted for weeks and driven my poor wife and friends to the brink had up and gone away. All I needed the whole time was brain surgery! Go figure.
Throughout that first day post-surgery, I was seen by a number of different hospital-specific occupations -- Physician's Assistant, Physical Therapists, ICU Nurse, Student Doctor, Real Doctor, etc., all making sure I had successfully completed their part of the process. Although the visits were frequent, the level of attention was comforting.
By late afternoon the staff was convinced that I was headed in the right direction, and once a bed was ready I was moved to the regular recovery area.

Coming up Next: Days on the Recovery Ward

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Day 1 - Surgery

Surgery was scheduled for 8:30am local time. We woke up at 5am -- those of us who needed to wake up anyway; my strategy was to not bother sleeping in the first place and somehow keep what remained of my jangled nerve intact until we arrived at the hospital.

We pulled into the parking lot at 6:30am and were welcomed by a balmy 30 degrees of freeze. On our short walk to the hospital door, Stacey slipped on a piece of plywood covering a rain gutter, but somehow managed to land in the only position you can land in without causing some sort of injury. We were in the right place, but it would have been the wrong time.

We checked in, and 30 minutes later I was lying on the gurney in the pre-op room with nothing on but a hospital gown, yellow booties, and an IV in my arm that would eventually lead to five bathroom runs inside of two hours.

Once I was prepped, Stacey and Roger were allowed into the room, and by 7:30am we were anxiously talking and mentally preparing for the impending surgery. My very determined psycho-somatic cough was still present.

Around this time, roughly an hour before surgery was to begin, one of the nurses informed us that the surgery was postponed until 10am because Dr. Oro had been in surgery all night. I politely requested that they postpone as long as they needed and let him get as much sleep as possible. The last thing you want to see before being injected with happy juice is your surgeon half-awake with razor cuts from shaving.

We filled the next two hours with chatter, magazine reading, and multiple bathroom breaks. Nerves and a small bladder will do this. Still, the nurses seemed surprised, although Stacey and Roger didn't.

At around 9:30am, the anesthesiologist stopped by and explained his role in the operation. A few minutes later Dr. Oro came by and stepped us through the procedure in detail. I signed the consent form, making it official. Neither of them seemed concerned about the psycho-somatic cough, which seemed obvious to everyone but me. Okay okay, I get it.

It was time to go, and the anesthesiologist started the flow of happy juice. I could tell Stacey was worried (tears are hard to hide) but she put on a brave face for my benefit. I remember thanking Roger for coming out, and telling them to drive safe.

Next thing I knew, I was waking up in a fog and saying "I feel nauseous, I have a pounding headache... I feel nauseous, I have a pounding headache...." Whatever they gave me did the trick because I no longer felt nauseous or had a pounding headache.

The rest of the day is pretty foggy, but at some point I was brought into the ICU room (for all I know I was already there), and I have brief images of different nurses and/or doctors asking me questions and attending to me. The ICU team did an excellent job keeping my nausea and pain under control, and at this point all signs were pointing to a successful operation.

Coming up Next: Day 2 - The ICU