Nothing is ever for certain in the world of medicine. I’ve learned this truth in the way doctors shy away from definitive answers and conclusions. I’ve learned it after countless letdowns. Weeks worth of hopeful wishing and planning out the window, now leaving me with Plan B, C and other letters I haven’t accounted for. I’ve learned all of this to then forget it and be disappointed when things don’t work out as hoped.
This last surgery was supposed to be straightforward. A single cut, a small skin graft. I wear a cast for a week, then graduate to light dressings for the next month and a half. An “easy” procedure with a big payoff—the ability to grasp and hold objects with my left hand. A simple action I never thought twice about before my accident, but has since become a dream in both memory and desire. With all of this in mind, I went under, feeling more eager than nervous. I’d wake up one step closer in leaving this whole wreck of wrecks behind.
Anesthesia’s cold blanket began to wear off, and in it’s place a sharp, disorienting jerk back to reality. I began to piece together the unfamiliarity of the situation and watch my team of nurses settle me back into consciousness. Not the first time, an overwhelming sense of gratitude for them washed over and through tears I began to profusely thank them “for all that they do.” Why this reaction after each surgery, I do not know. Next, waves of exhaustion, sadness and helplessness batter my clouded mind and before I knew it, I caved in. The weight of the past eight months more than I could bear.
I calm down in time for my surgeon’s arrival. Your hand is fine. Ok. But it was a bit more complicated than expected. Of course. Too much scar tissue, hand not ready, for now a patch of integra, a pin in your thumb. Two weeks, another surgery. More skin needed though, both sides of the hips this time. Ok, alright. That’s fine, I understand. Thank you. Nothing I haven’t been through before, ha ha. The gears of my mind were still turning slowly and it’s a while before I fully processed the information. Nothing I haven’t been through before.
Integra is shark cartilage and bovine collage that stimulates your body into creating a dermis skin layer. It was integra and metal pins that kept my hand from falling apart for the two months following the accident. Come on, hand! It’s been 8 months. I thought we were passed shark skin, pins and needles—we were getting somewhere! We are and we have. As with any marathon however, at some point it becomes as much about the mental and emotional endurance, as it does the physical. I can weather pain. Pain is so constant, I don’t notice it anymore. The biggest struggle is the ebb and flow of normalcy.
The accident violently crushed and maimed my hand. Surgery does the same, but with intention and precision. I see my hand work so hard to heal itself, only to be cut open, bruised and bleeding once again. The week following surgeries is filled with mind-clouding drugs, restless nights, and days that blur together. My arm is a bulky cotton-swab that doesn’t fit into anything save for one or two shirts and sweaters. The cast is eventually removed, but either way my left hand function is at an all-time low. I can’t cook for myself, I shower with a trash bag taped around my arm, and schedule my life around countless rehab and doctor appointments. My body begins to turn soft from lack of movement and my mood further darkens. Slowly though, as the dressings become lighter and wounds smaller, I begin to use my hand again and feel less limited. My mood lifts. I can drive myself around now, go on runs, and feel the refreshing drops of water against my bruised, withered skin. I am making pies and cakes at home and travel across the country to hike, swim and even bake a cobbler for my boyfriend and our friends. I achieve a sense of normalcy. Good job, says the doctor, the hand has improved. Whew. Now you’re ready for the next surgery.
In the first few months following my accident, during my first stint at home, a friend of mine in Charlottesville sent me the book Stir by Jessica Fechtor. In her memoir, Jessica recounts her own story of recovery after a near-fatal brain aneurysm. Her journey, not unlike mine, starts in the kitchen and a lot of what she wrote resonated with me. Here’s one of those parts:
“…Bravery doesn’t not mean living through something hard.”
I rolled over onto my stomach and pushed myself up on my elbows. “Say more, say better.”
Eli sat up and folded himself into a cross-legged position, pulling his left heel against his body at the top of his thigh. “Bravery is when you go against the momentum of your life to do the scary thing,: he began. He plucked a piece of grass and rolled it between his finger and thumb. “So…okay: If a lion comes after you and backs you against a wall, and you face him, that’s not brave. It’s when you go after the lion yourself and stick your head into his mouth. That’s brave.
“Right,” I agreed. “Like, not just living the terror, but hunting it down. It’s only called bravery when you’ve made a choice. And that’s just it. I didn’t choose anything.” The way I saw it, I’d just lived alongside something really bad for a while. I’d recognized that the only way out was through and then I had waited, the way you do when you’re caught in a downpour and have no choice but to get soaked until the storms cloud pass. Cowards and heroes and everyone in between would have done the same, I figured, because really, what was the alternative? I realized that I didn’t know very many brave people at all, and that I wasn’t nearly as brave as I wanted to be.
People tell me I'm strong and brave—I’m not strong and brave, I didn’t choose any of this to happen. I claw my way back up the surface, only to be knocked back down again, and again, and again. Each time I wonder where and how will I find the strength to keep enduring this vicious cycle? And for what? With no end in sight of when and to what extent I’ll regain function, it’s so easy to slip into feeling overwhelmed and lost. Then, after all is said and done, why? Why of all things my hand? The one part of me that allows me to carry out what I love most. I’d recognized that the only way out was through. It’s true. At some point, I learned to stop asking questions and wait it out. What other choice do I have?
I write this with my left hand pinned and cut open from last week’s surgery. I have another lined up later this week. I’ve come a long way since December, but I’m no where near done yet. I’m still struggling to keep fighting, to reach the finish line, to figure out, “What comes next?”. While I wait for this phase of my life to be over, I try my best to be positive and proactive. Often these efforts leave me feeling great. Other times, it’s all too daunting and I break. The best approach, one I constantly remind myself of, is to take it one step at a time, even if it feels like I’m going backwards. Today, none of this makes sense, but hopefully what comes after, what I make of the situation, will bring purpose to it all.
I leave you with this miso-ginger soup, my new go-to comfort food. It’s all I craved after this last surgery, and what I know I’ll be eating after the second one later this week.
P.S. Yes this is a “rant,” but by no means do I want anyone to think I’m not grateful. I am fortunate, so unbelievably fortunate, to have amazing friends, friends of friends, family, and whole communities, near and far, who have supported and believed in me through all this. I am often left at a loss of words for how loved and special you all make me feel. I’m especially grateful to the super talented and stellar team of physicians and therapists, both in VA and RI, who have taken care of and guided me through this whole process from day one. Thank you!
Miso Ginger Soup
I stayed with my friend Jacqueline in NYC a few months ago and she cooked me dinner the first night I arrived. She kept apologizing that it wasn’t anything fancy, probably not up to my “standards.” I assured her I didn’t need anything fancy and I would happily eat anything she prepared for me. That day was one of the hottest and humid on record for the summer, yet when she done, I found myself sitting down to a big, steamy bowl of this miso ginger soup. I was sweating just looking at it. One bite though, and I had no trouble finishing it. The soup is fragrant, full of flavor, nourishing, and comforting from the inside out. It’s the kind of soup you eat while wearing a big chunky sweater and listening to the wind whistle outside. This recipe is flexible and lends itself to however many servings you want to make and whatever you have or don’t have in the fridge. However, don’t skimp out on the kimchi—its what makes this soup really sing.
a box of Trader Joe’s miso ginger broth, or 32 oz. of your favorite broth*
4 fresh eggs
1 large onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper pepper, chopped
2-3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 ½ cups sugar snap peas, cut crosswise into ½-inch pieces
a few big handfuls of baby spinach
1 package of firm tofu, ½-inch cubed
kimchi, for garnish
sriracha sauce, for garnish (optional)
- Place the eggs in a small pot and fill it with cold water. Bring it to a boil, lower heat, and simmer for 7 minutes. Remove from heat and place eggs in an ice bath.
- Meanwhile, in a large pot, bring broth to a simmer.
- In a large pan, heat oil on medium heat. Add onion and peppers and saute for about 10 minutes. Add peas and garlic. Cook for another 3-4 minutes, or until all vegetables are softened. Season to taste.
- Add sautéed vegetables to the pot of simmering broth. Stir in cubed tofu and spinach. After a minute, remove from heat. Season to taste.
- Ladle soup in bowls, and garnish each with one egg (peeled and cut in half) and a few tablespoons kimchi. Add sriracha if using and more freshly ground pepper to taste.
*If you don’t have miso ginger broth, add a few tablespoons minced fresh ginger along with garlic to the rest of the vegetables. Stir in a few tablespoons of miso to your broth if you have it on hand, but make sure to season the rest of your vegetables accordingly—you don’t want your soup to be too salty.