This past week was the celebration of the 17th anniversary of our battle with necrotizing fasciitis, the flesh-eating bacteria. I was moved to remember and reflect on some of the new and different experiences the disease brought with it. Here are just a few highlights:
- I had the blessing of saying my final farewell to three of four family members and survived to remember it, urging them to look to Jesus! I hope to be able to do the same the next time around. Camille was sorta freaked out, because she had finals and wondered if she should go to school or stay with me. I told her that, whether I lived or died, I’d be fine — she needed to take those finals.
- A coma is like a long, dreamy stage play with different cast members appearing and leaving. The conversations I overheard moved the plot along, but the scenes were distorted and the memories surreal.
- For a person who had experienced robust health for a lifetime, the weakness and dependence on others was incredibly humbling and embarrassing. I can recall the day when I realized I’d been entertaining visitors for about a week, almost completely naked. The nurse brought me a sheet.
- I remember telling my daughter, Emma, that I never would have believed it if someone told me I’d be learning how to walk and brush my teeth again at age 43. Atrophy and nerve damage made it necessary to start all over again with the most mundane tasks.
- After learning to transition to a wheelchair and trying to operate it with a useless left leg and right arm, I thought it would be easier to get to a walker than continue to weave along, from left to right. After working extra hard on the parallel bars, I left the wheelchair a day or so before my release.
- I went through withdrawals from morphine and other drugs, during the last three weeks at UCDMC, tapering off to methadone by the time I left. Now I know why so many people choose to stay on drugs.
- The most dramatic effects of getting straight were heightened sensation and the ability to listen in on distant conversations, far beyond the range of normal hearing. When Denise bathed me, I watched the drops of water fall from the sponge to splash like small explosions on my new skin. It was painful, but in a cinematographic way. I remember eating pot roast from the cafeteria and it seemed super-spicy. I was worried I’d never be able to eat Mexican food again. My skin crawled and I had the sweats.
- As the drugs left, my mind was moving from an expansive euphoric state to a box of depression. Each morning confronted me with the hard realities of life, with less and less of my chemical sunshine to help me meet the day.
- I rigged up the hand grips on my walker with bags to hold my gear. Nowadays, fabric bags are standard equipment, but not in 1998. I found forearm or Lofstrand crutches to be the best-next-step toward independence. I could move quickly with those. Finally, I got a cane. I think I was walking unassisted after about 5 months. My eyes are trained to spot cutting edge walker technologies and the future looks bright.
- Constant fatigue gave me a glimpse into the world of a 95 year old man. When we returned home from the hospital, the routine was the same for about a month. Wake up, get up, and eat up. From rising to breakfast took about 2 hours, followed by a nap. The home health nurse arrived and we went into the shower. She removed the bandages from my entire leg, cleaned my wounds, and re-bandaged my leg, while I lay on the bed and fell asleep. Then, I’d wake up again for lunch and come out to the table with my walker. The post-meal, occupational therapy exercise involved a search for pennies, small toys, and paper clips in a bowl of rice with my ruined right hand. The nerve sensation made me want to crawl out of my skin. I would hobble, exhausted, back into bed to nap until supper time. Then, shuffle out in my walker for the evening meal and fall asleep reading or watching a movie. Repeat and rewind: day after day after day.
- I developed insomnia from the nerve pain and narcotics, so I would leave the bedroom to walk in circles with my Lofstrand crutches, around and around the living room, until I was exhausted enough to get back to sleep. Yes, suicide seemed like a valid peace option at times.
- The inability to return to work was depressing.
- I once had beautiful legs, but now they were both ruined. I only remember being embarrassed in public once, when a child looked at my leg with an expression of horror and turned to walk the other direction. I went to a health club, as part of my therapy and one guy literally jumped out of the jacuzzi when I stepped in. He yelled, “you shouldn’t be here!” I remember thinking, “so, this is what it’s like to have AIDS.” Another guy in the locker room loudly exclaimed, “what the hell did you step in?” My physician wrote a letter to the health club and informed them that, if anything, their members were a health hazard to me and not the other way around. I stopped going, because it was obvious I frightened people who were very concerned about their physical appearance – I posed a threat to their fantasies.
Denise and I came to appreciate the daily Gospel more than ever through the ordeal – the Gospel that saves is the Gospel that sanctifies and transforms us daily.
A funny thing happened today: As I was writing this blog post, Denise came in to remind me that it was time for our Bible reading. We read Hebrews 12 and, amazingly, this was Charles Spurgeon’s devotional for May 18th:
How happy are tried Christians, afterwards. No calm more deep than that which succeeds a storm. Who has not rejoiced in clear shinings after rain? Victorious banquets are for well-exercised soldiers. After killing the lion we eat the honey; after climbing the Hill Difficulty, we sit down in the arbour to rest; after traversing the Valley of Humiliation, after fighting with Apollyon, the shining one appears, with the healing branch from the tree of life. Our sorrows, like the passing keels of the vessels upon the sea, leave a silver line of holy light behind them “afterwards.” It is peace, sweet, deep peace, which follows the horrible turmoil which once reigned in our tormented, guilty souls. See, then, the happy estate of a Christian! He has his best things last, and he therefore in this world receives his worst things first. But even his worst things are “afterward” good things, harsh ploughings yielding joyful harvests. Even now he grows rich by his losses, he rises by his falls, he lives by dying, and becomes full by being emptied; if, then, his grievous afflictions yield him so much peaceable fruit in this life, what shall be the full vintage of joy “afterwards” in heaven? If his dark nights are as bright as the world’s days, what shall his days be? If even his starlight is more splendid than the sun, what must his sunlight be? If he can sing in a dungeon, how sweetly will he sing in heaven! If he can praise the Lord in the fires, how will he extol him before the eternal throne! If evil be good to him now, what will the overflowing goodness of God be to him then? Oh, blessed “afterward!” Who would not be a Christian? Who would not bear the present cross for the crown which cometh afterwards? But herein is work for patience, for the rest is not for to-day, nor the triumph for the present, but “afterward.” Wait, O soul, and let patience have her perfect work.