Too Close for Comfort

Today marks exactly five months since I faced emergency surgery to address a case of sepsis. Eight days earlier, I had undergone a routine procedure to remove a stage 1 cancerous tumor from my lower GI tract. The excision was successful, and all traces of cancer are gone. But the sutures in my colon failed for reasons not entirely clear, allowing bowel contents to spill into the abdominal cavity. This is a Very Bad Thing, and not all that long ago pretty much everyone who experienced it died.

I almost waited too long; by the time we got to the ER my white count was waaaayyy into the red at 30,000, and my kidneys were starting to fail. General organ failure was not far behind. To quantify its severity, my case was judged a 4.5 on a 5 point scale, or nearly as bad as it gets.

But timing is everything. Thanks to extraordinary advances in surgical techniques and in the science of infection control, sepsis is no longer a death sentence. Only forty percent of those who experience it die.

Not that it’s a picnic, either. The surgery is brutal. First they make about a ten-inch inch incision in your abdomen, from just below your sternum down to the groin area. Your innards are splayed out on the table for inspection and washing. The wall of your abdominal cavity is scrubbed and sterilized. In my case they also had to perform an emergency colostomy, as the GI tract was badly damaged by infection.

The patient is usually in a weakened state, and therefore much less able to tolerate prolonged anesthesia, so the clock is ticking, loudly, adding extra pressure for the surgical crew. It’s a dicey business with an uncomfortably high rate of failure.

If you survive surgery, recovery is lengthy and arduous. Dr. April Fox, my surgeon, told me to expect some “bumps in the road” on the way to recovery. She wasn’t kidding. For the first month or so, every little motion generates breathtaking jolts of pain. You must plan every movement in detail. That chair on the other side of the room, where you would like to sit and read, might as well be on the other side of town.

The first two months were a blur. Every movement hurt. All I wanted to do was lay in my easy chair and sleep. A stubborn infection caused a fist-sized, potentially deadly abscess on my abdominal wall, sending me back to the hospital for yet another procedure and a week-long stay.

But around the ninety-day mark, something happened. One day I noticed all of a sudden that it didn’t hurt, just for a moment. A moment became a minute became a half-hour became half a day. My energy began to return. Normality began to reassert itself. With the right blend of antibiotics, the stubbornly persistent infections were finally vanquished.

I was ridiculously lucky. Thanks to good genes and excellent care, I have had pretty much a best-case recovery. Dr. Fox, who described my rebound as “spectacular,” said that most people who go through what I did and survive are in hospital for months, but I was out in just thirteen days. Whatever gods are responsible for this good fortune, I thank you.

But it’s an ongoing process. Complete recovery is probably a year away. And I can’t even think about the reconnection surgery for another 6 months.

But it certainly beats the alternative.

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