Wonder Woman, Part 1

     As Shirley and I have entered into our Golden Years, we have discovered that our bodies have startling similarities to automobiles with high mileage…things that worked for years without a thought or consideration have suddenly begun to fail at the most unexpected and inopportune times. For years we considered our bodies to be as dependable as a Maytag washer or a Honda Accord, only to discover that we may be running around now in the physical equivalent of a ’54 Buick. Of course, we have long since passed the Age of Indestructibility, that period of time in one’s life when one feel impervious to disease and hardship, but it is a sobering adventure to realize just how delicate the mechanisms of the human body are and how the wish that one had “taken better care of him/herself” can become a nagging condemnation.
     A few years ago, humans were cursed to live with nagging physical afflictions sort of in the same way that a person in a tight financial squeeze handles an old car that needs a tune-up…you just lived with it and drove it anyway. People with bad teeth, bad hearing, bad eyesight, bad hair, bad backs, bad knees, or bad shoulders carried their afflictions with a certain dignity and pride, and sometimes turned their problems to advantage by claiming all sorts of derived talents, such as predicting weather changes based on how much their hip hurt. However, we have now entered the Body Repair Era. This has no relationship to Gonzales’s Body Shop that you may see on a local street. We have been doing repairs to automobiles since the first fender bender took place in Chicago in 1896. We have also been doing repairs to human bodies for many years, but usually because some damage had taken place and a life was at stake. Broken bones, injuries, and severe sicknesses required medical repairs to be done, and we were fortunate that skilled medical practitioners were available to save life and limb. But now we have taken the next logical step which is to attempt repairs to a relatively healthy body simply because we just don’t like it the way it is. “Cosmetic” surgery is all the rage today as we attempt to keep a death grip on that youthful physique we all possessed when we were in our twenties. The results of our Quest for Eternal Youth are marginal at best. For every sixty year old who looks forty thanks to cosmetic surgery there are nineteen others who look like they got great deals at the local mortuary and were pre-embalmed.
     This brings us (albeit in a somewhat circuitous route and only indirectly related) to the subject of this essay. For the last few years Shirley has been nagged with an increasingly irritating right knee problem. A touch of arthritis and vanishing cartilage in a knee joint is a recipe for pain and suffering, and Shirley finally reached the point that about a year ago she visited an orthopedic doctor and asked for his analysis. After some examination, he performed a “cleanup” surgery where he went in and looked at the joint and removed some bone chips, but his prognosis after surgery was that in the not too distant future a knee replacement would be in order. In the next few months we made our move to our new home area, but her knee continued to irritate, and finally about a month ago she visited another orthopedic surgeon, and knee replacement surgery was scheduled for January 20. On January 19, she visited a cardiologist for a stress test and was pronounced good to go for the knee surgery the next day.
     Wednesday morning, January 20, she checked in to Willowbrook Methodist Hospital, and by 9:00 she was on her way to surgery. We were told that the surgery would last around three hours with an hour in recovery, and then she would be wheeled to a private room. Surgery was on the second floor, but we were told to go wait on the third floor because that was where she would be brought. About noon we were told she was out of surgery and would be up on the third floor shortly. We waited…and waited…and waited. 1:00 pm…2:00 pm…3:00 pm. One of us went back to the second floor and the nurse said she was still in recovery. 4:00 pm…Finally we saw her being wheeled into her room and her first words were, “Where were you? I’ve been awake since 1:00 pm” She had been told that we apparently had left the building because we were not outside in the second floor waiting area, even though we had been told to wait on the third floor. Though we were a little irritated at the miscommunication, we were glad enough to see her that it was soon forgotten. She was in no pain because they had placed an epidural into her back for a quick and regular injection of pain killers, so she was feeling pretty well. I knew, however, that epidurals are wonderful…until they pull the needle out and your body tries to handle the pain on its own. I was given an epidural when I had my heart surgery in 2008, and three days after the surgery I was ready to come home because I had no pain and felt really great. But then on the fourth day the epidural came out and my days five and six were awful. I hurt so that I could barely breathe. So I knew that Shirley was going to have a rough day in 48 hours or so.
     On Thursday morning she had her first physical therapy and was able to get out of bed and shuffle around the room a bit. Having some experiences with Methodist hospitals (San Jacinto, Baytown, and Downtown,) we noticed a couple of quirks about Willowbrook. The nurses would bring Shirley her medications in a cup and just leave them on the tray while they went about their business. At the other hospitals, they watched you like a hawk to make sure you swallowed what was given you. If Shirley rang the bell for a request, the response time was a little…um…relaxed. Eventually, someone would show up. The nurses were all very nice and professional, but the management seemed a little less efficient than what is expected in a Methodist hospital.
     Toward noon, I began to notice that Shirley was beginning to slur her words a little. An hour later she began falling asleep in mid-sentence. About 3:00 pm her therapist came in to do his activities, and she was practically comatose. He gave up and reported it to the desk (we had already done so) and a nurse and her anesthesiologist came in the room. He looked at the metering device on her epidural and asked the nurse, “Has it been this high all day?” He turned Shirley over and removed the epidural immediately. Nothing else was said, but I think she was given too much painkiller and was nearly unconscious because of it. She slept for the next four hours and barely moved. She awoke about 7:00 pm and was finally conscious of her surroundings again. Amazingly, however, Shirley made it through the night quite well without the epidural. She had some pain, but she was given sedatives in capsule form and the pain never became severe. The next day (Friday) she had only moderate pain and survived her physical therapy sessions with hardly a strain. I was very thankful she did not have to endure a great deal of discomfort. Friday night was a quiet night for her.
     Saturday morning, however, she began to complain of chest pains. She had been laying on her back for three days and eaten very little, so she attributed it to that, but the pains became more pronounced. When the nurse came in about noon and asked how she was, she said he knee hurt a little but her chest hurt a lot. Needless to say, that raised a red flag to the nurse. They checked her vital signs and her pulse rate was 140 and she had a fever. Within a matter of minutes, an EKG was done, and suddenly the room was a beehive of activity with nurses and doctors flitting around. Shirley was whisked to the Intensive Care Unit (a precaution, they said.) A heart echo was done (like sonar) and then a CATscan. There was a flurry of professional opinions of what could have caused the heart pains, but even as the doctors conferred, the pains had already begun to diminish. By Saturday evening late, the pains were only occasional and fleeting. For the first time since Wednesday, I went home and Kimberly stayed with Shirley for the night.
     On Sunday, Shirley had only a couple of twinges in her chest during the day, but she was kept in ICU to be closely monitored. She had a restful day and seemed to relax. The knee was practically a none-issue. She had only very moderate pain and it was doing very well. On Monday, as a precaution (you hear that word very often in a hospital) she had an angiogram (heart catharization) and the cardiologist came to us afterward smiling broadly and announced that Shirley’s heart was “beautiful.” So whatever the source of the chest pains was, it remained a mystery, but at least we knew it was not heart related. That in itself was a certain amount of relief. Additional tests were done to identify any potential blood clots, but they were all negative. Monday evening she was transferred back to a regular room and the focus of activity went back to the knee and therapy. Tuesday was another quiet, non-eventful day.
     On Wednesday, January 27, a week after she entered Willowbrook, Shirley was transferred to Tomball Rehab Center for a few days of physical and occupational therapy. For those who do not know (and I didn’t, either) physical therapy involves various exercises to strengthen the knee and leg muscles, whereas occupational therapy involves practice in doing the everyday activities that everyone does, but now has to be done with a handicapped knee or whatever. It was very interesting to observe. There was a kitchen with various kitchen arrangements that the patient had to prepare a meal, use appliances, etc. There was a bath with various styles of showers and baths for a person to practice entering and exiting. In one room was a part of a car with the passenger compartment complete with a door, passenger seat, and dashboard so that a patient could practice getting in and out of a car. There were several kinds of steps and ramps for patients to practice walking. It was all very useful to someone who had to adjust to a different way of living.
     Tomball Rehab reminded us a little of Willowbrook. The medications were distributed without much monitoring, and a ring for assistance brought an eventual response. Supposedly, there was a schedule for daily therapy, but we never knew what it was, and Shirley would be wheeled away to O.T. or P.T. (Occupational Therapy or Physical Therapy) sometime between 8:30 and 10:30 a.m. The staff was friendly but pretty laid back, if that’s the term to use. Each day that Shirley was in rehab, however, she improved, and on Thursday, February 4, fifteen days after leaving home, she came home with a new right knee. She still has about four weeks of in-home therapy, but…at least she’s home. There’s something therapeutic about being home. Thursday night we both slept like logs. Why nurses in hospitals feel obligated to wake patients up every morning at 4:00 a.m. to take their blood pressures is beyond me.
     I had mentioned on my Facebook page that the plan was that Shirley would get a new body part every six months for about ten years, and then I would be married to WonderWoman! Having gone through getting this first new part, I’ve decided I’m going to be happy with just the way she is. After all, as someone reminded me a few days ago, I’m ALREADY married to WonderWoman!