Sunday, December 9, 2012
You know how the Inuit people have many different words for snow? There are very specific terms for icy snow, pellet snow, wet snow, fluffy snow, etc. Because it is so very important for their lives and very survival, the vocabulary is precise. Hunting, travel, recreation - anything outdoors, depends on the type of snow.
In medicine pain seems to have the same nuance. It is evidenced by the types and number of questions Heidi was asked by the nurses and doctors who took care of her. "On a scale of 1-10, what is your pain level?" I have always found that tricky to answer. What is a 1? How much pain equals 10? "Is it a throbbing pain or a sharp pain?"
Deep pain, surface pain? Constant, intermittent? Dull? Sharp? Mild - intense - excrutiating? Is it numb? Does it tingle? Does it feel the same on both sides? Is it pounding? Is there tenderness? Burning, crawling, crushing, shooting?
The same is true for dizziness. When Heidi told the nurse the other day (it feels like ages ago) that she was feeling dizzy, she was asked, "Are you spinning, or is the room spinning?"
If healing is your trade, then you need precise words to describe these things. I get that. But one man's 4 might be another man's 8. It seems so relative.
I am happy to report that Heidi's pain, the last time I checked, was a 2-3. Heck I get out of bed a lot of mornings with a 2 or 3. She was saying as we took our first walk around the hotel this morning that she is blessed with a low pain threshold. She is only taking 1/2 the pain meds she is allowed to take. I've been setting the alarm on my phone to make sure we don't miss any medications. She takes steroids, something to protect her stomach from the steroids and pain medication. When the xylophone sounds the alarm for the pain stuff, she says, "I'll go a little longer." Then, "a little longer."
On a related note, she keeps saying how blessed she is about this whole thing. How blessed we found the doctor we did, that we had nurses that genuinely cared, that we ended up in this awesome place to recuperate before heading to the doctor on Thursday. Having that kind of outlook is so cool. Instead of being wretched that she had to go through all of this in the first place, she considers herself blessed. What a great teacher.
Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore is a strange entity. It is a small model of America, perhaps exaggerated in its extremes. It is a microcosm of communities. There are the richest and smartest (my apologies to Peter Johnston), the working class and the working poor. You have surgeons who can navigate the brain and pluck out impurities and put things back in order. There are MRI technicians and nurses and orderlies. There are cooks, restaurant workers, laundry workers and trash collectors. There are people who love their jobs and people who hate what they do for a living.
"How are you doing today?" Heidi asked one woman who was taking out the room trash and relining the can with a fresh plastic bag.
"Better when I get out of here!" she responded sharply.
"Are you tired? When do you get off?" People work all different shifts
"Oh, I just got here."
And there are the nurses who are so invested in your welfare, it's like they become best friends for a single shift. And then you never see them again. Or maybe that is just the splash of hanging out with Heidi Mills. Because she has never met a stranger and everyone becomes a good friend very quickly. I could learn some lessons there.
Emotions are creased here as well, exaggerated. Everything is just more intense. Very little among the visitors and patients is average or normal. There is joy beyond imagining when loved ones get good news from doctors. I know that joy personally. And there is sadness beyond compare as well.
Yesterday, last day at Johns Hopkins, I was up and down the elevator all day. Getting tea for Heidi, coming and going to and from the van, packing and schlepping our bags out, etc. On one of my last trips up and down the elevator, I experienced the full range. We stayed on the 12th floor for our final 30 hours. When I got on the elevator a man climbed aboard with about half a dozen big get-well-soon balloons with colorful little weights tethered to the ribbon-strings. He had a basket of little kid toys and other goodies. He had a big old grin on his ruddy face. He had been crying.
"How is your patient doing?" he asked brightly
"Great. Surgery was fantastic. Bit of a hard recovery road, but it's going really well. We're checking out in a few minutes. The wheelchair guy is on his way up."
"That's great," he said. "I'm just getting the car myself."
"How is your kiddo doing?" It was clear that his patient was a girl-child by his baggage.
"She's doing fantastic. The doctors here are amazing, aren't they? They say she'll be dancing again. And soon." He was so happy he was vibrating with excitement.
He actually said that his kid was going to be dancing. It sounded like somthing out of an old Christmas movie. "I feel the exact same way. Well, good luck to you." We had reached the bottom floor.
"You too, my friend." We stepped out of the elevator and the went our separate ways. In that little space of time we made a cool connection. Sort of celebrating the lives of our loved ones.
I deposited the little black suitcase in the van and headed back upstairs to get Heidi and to leave Johns Hopkins for (hopefully) the last time. This time a woman of about my age got on with me. I pressed the 12 button and asked her which floor. "12, the same as you. We have something in common." She was carrying soup from the little coffee/cafe and a spoon and a napkin. Her soup had spilled onto the napkin.
"How's your patient doing?" I tried the greeting of my last new friend. Almost instantly her eyes filled with tears.
"Not well. Prostate cancer. Not a great prognosis." Tears spilled over behind her wire rims. She looked down.
I didn't know what to say. "My step dad had prostate cancer. He lived a really long time after."
"No, it already metasticized." Another tear.
"I'm sorry," I said. It was weak. But there was nothing else. When we got off at the 12th, she went east and I went west. In the space of those few minutes I experienced the whole range of emotions. And when I got back to "our" room, it was all I could do not to cry. And life is like that, don't you think? But in the space of John's Hopkins, it happened in rapid fire. From one room to the next, one floor to the next, one elevator to the next - this had been a journey of such emotional extremes. We are just blessed that our emotions have been so positive and our news so promising.
Heidi wanted me to include that she is feeling so much better and that she feels all of your positive thoughts and prayers. She has been showered and shampooed. She is talking briefly on the phone but can't really respond to texts or facebook (other than press "LIKE" - whatever that means). But know that she appreciates all of your correspondance.
I'm having trouble posting with the iPad. I'll try to get out more updates but we shall see.