Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Latest Struggle…

Until this summer, I thought my struggles as a man, deacon, husband, father, grandfather, software product manager, and geophysicist were all well-defined: juggle family, job, and ministry responsibilities while getting out of debt. It had been twelve years since my last surgery. And, yes, there was a troublesome fibrillation, but it was under control, after all – heartbeat and blood thinners, with frequent monitoring. Oh, and yes, the weight was a bit troublesome, but I lost ten pounds since February by cutting down on wine and fat and was on the cholesterol meds, too. (Oh, if the heart starts fibrillating, the nurses in ER get testy like librarians asking for your missing library card, if you admit to driving yourself to the hospital, even if you said you stayed in the right lane, just in case.)

But, the pain in the chest in late July was undeniable. This time my wife was home and drove me in. That almost forgotten surgery (two episodes) had come undone. The optimistic young surgeon scheduled the laparoscopic procedure that would fix it for early September. A success, he felt. One and a half weeks later, feeling better, I returned home.

Alas, within hours I was retching and heaving. Returning to the ER, to X-rays and cat scans and fluoroscopes the news was like that with my second surgery (which repaired the first failed lap procedure thirteen years ago), only worse. No, the third surgery hadn’t failed, but rather, much of the stomach had penetrated the diaphragm.Three weeks later I awoke in an ambulance transporting me from the critical care hospital to a rehabilitation facility where I spent the next five weeks. I thought the ambulance was taking me to a South Louisiana facility (I had been ordained in Baton Rouge twenty-one years earlier); I thought to myself, well the archbishop must know what he is doing by sending me here.

The intervening time was to me a time of crazy hallucinations – I was on a late night call-in show hosted by Pat Sajak and the audience thought I was pretty funny; another time I was watching Bret Favre (still dressed in green and yellow) in a reality competition to find the next tailback to play with him; then my wife and I were adopting a child from New Zealand (with five grown children and four grandkids I’m sure she would have been delighted).

My wife gradually filled in the reality of those lost weeks. Three weeks unconscious in the ICU. Prayers of family, friends, fellow deacon and KC families, parishioners and even strangers flooded the heavens. Even my mother-in-law in Florida reported hearing from a friend to be sure and pray for a seriously ill deacon in Colorado. A deacon-doctor whom I had taught in diaconate formation provided valuable advice to her as she made the hard decisions and warned her of the tracheotomy that was likely to be required (it was).

Hallucinations continued for the first week or so – somehow the insurance had provided for our garage to be converted into a simultaneous recovery room at the hospital and twenty miles away at home – it was better than the Star Trek Holodeck room: “reality” in two places. And my bed was recovered from a German auto accident. I later explained to my wife the dual spaces were why I kept asking where we were. Another time I thought I was helping rebel New Mexicans against their rich oppressors and managed to remove my IV’s in the struggle.

Recovery was too, too slow. Retching continued along with the pain. My chest looked like the GPS map on my wife’s Tom-Tom, or like a railroad map, with most routes headed east.

Finally… home. And forty pounds lighter. I hadn’t weighed this little since I was what, 25? I wrote my boss that I was now a skinny old man. As I lay in bed, I discovered how difficult it was to lay on my side – bony leg on bony leg.

Two weekends in a row and I’m able to go to Sunday Mass – not to serve, that’s not in the plan yet, but just to worship with my caring parishioners is enough. Both times our Pastor announces my presence to joyful applause. And, I'm able to go to my company's annual pre-Thanksgiving celebration; unfortunately most of co-workers must have headed to the mountains.

Even at home, the retching continued, if under some control. A month later, a visit to the surgeon convinced him to re-hospitalize me – over Thanksgiving. Biggest hurdle: pain. I agreed to stop the oxycodone. And then accept alternative nausea med – reglan. I had forgotten that it had been tried at the rehab place, where I had hated the hyperactive side effects. Well, I got to feel the effects again. But, happily the gastroenterologist said – let’s lower the dosage. It worked. Hooray! And, he has a plan for transitioning to a comparable medicine down the road. A little residual pain without retching is definitely worth it.

For the two days I’m confined local Extraordinary Ministers bring Holy Communion. One tells me it’s only her third time. I tell her I’m a deacon and how much I appreciate her new ministry. I give her a mini-homily about how we Catholics have the extraordinary blessing of Eucharist and the responsibility of living our lives not only for ourselves but for all but doing penance for all, and she responded, yes, including our children and politicians in our country and especially state, with which I strongly agreed. (I hope my sufferings more than compensate for not only my own sinfulness, but for my family, my friends, and strangers – even politicians). I mentioned that I know most of the deacons in Denver and she expressed her joy in a newly ordained deacon’s recent homily, for which I promptly took some credit – he was another I had taught. Before leaving she asks for my deacon blessing – so I'm still ministering from my hospital bed.

I now am home with my long-suffering wife. She’s delighted and I’m content for now. It’s been about twenty-eight hours. We spent the morning with me as navigator of my wheelchair while she propelled us around Super Target, Christmas shopping for the grandkids (we saved $10.69 on this “Black Saturday”). I’m still skinny, weak, and feeling old (my goatee is only a memory – too much gray), but, praise God! I’m still here. No retching so she can join me in sharing our bed for the first time in months.

And my wife continues to tell me stories of what happened “while I was sleeping”: Of her tears and the comfort she received from our sons, of the care of all our children for Dad, of her anxieties, her conversations with the physicians, and the decisions she made… of the care of deacons, especially John and Joe, my two supervisors, and my (non-Catholic) boss. She said that what I said during my hallucinations was indeed very funny; she me she wished she could have written them down, but she was too busy holding me down.

Come Monday physical therapy starts. And I have to remind myself to eat. I will see my primary physician – constantly surprised by my latest adventures (his name is Tom and “My Lord and My God” is posted on the wall of one of his examination rooms – appropriate for a Thomas, don’t you think?)

My wife helps me with the timing of the meds and reality checks, but soon, I hope, I’ll get back to work and active ministry. I hope they’ll recognize me.