Tuesday, November 9, 2010 arrived with a clear early morning that promised to become a chilly, sunny, and typically autumn day. I zipped my coat, buckled my helmet strap, unlocked my bike, and headed off to work. A few minutes later, a garbage truck crossed a bike lane to make a right turn. I was in that bike lane. The tires of the truck crushed my left leg and caused other internal injuries. An amazing team of trauma surgeons saved my life, but they had to amputate my leg to do so.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Confucius.

In July 2011, I set off to walk a thousand miles as an above-knee amputee in my new prosthesis. The journey has held more twists, turns, and detours than I ever imagined.

I reached Mile 1000 on March 30, 2013.

But of course, that wasn't the end.

I'll keep walking!

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Tooth About Trauma

(or How A Windy Night Landed Me In The Dentist's Office)

Mile Marker 1620:

The wind howls like a thousand ambulance sirens.  I lie in bed, shoulders tense, jaw tightened.  I toss and turn until the sheets are tangled.  At some point, I fall back to sleep.  That's when the sirens become ghosts.

In March 2011, the night after my 13th surgery, I had a terrible dream.  In it, I stood in the middle of a blizzard on a huge snowy hill.  Hundreds of sledding ghosts whipped by me from every direction.  The wind gusted as they whizzed down the hill.  Their screams screeched in my ears.  I knew I’d be hit, but I was immobile.  With my single leg trapped deep in the snow, there was nothing I could do to get out of their way.

I woke up in the ICU drenched with sweat.  Just 4 months earlier, I'd had my leg amputated, and now I'd just undergone major abdominal surgery.   My little leg quivered in the sheets.  My stomach rippled with metal sutures and adhesive tape.   My head ached with morphine.  And the suction sound of the NG tube -- that incessant high-pitched whistle -- followed me like a constant screaming ghost.  The dream made perfect sense.  I was utterly powerless.  There was no escaping the chaos.

At Mile Marker 1620, the cause is different, but the effect is the same.

A few weeks ago when I spoke to the staff at Hershey Medical Center, I told them that over time it’s possible to organize traumatic memories.   To tuck them neatly away.  To take them out when I want them, not when they want me.

Of course, that's not entirely true.  Sometimes the ghosts sneak out.

After 3 years, I've still got memories of the toughest days.  The theme music from Glee takes me back to sleepless nights in my hospital room.  The smell of Purpose soap reminds me of when my mom would help me get washed up each morning.  Even some physical sensations -- Ankle Blades and the Stone Sandal -- work like instant time travel.  They make me remember.

But they aren't threatening.  They don't recreate the FEAR.

This night does.  The wind shrieks.  I toss and turn, and clench my jaw some more.  At 3 a.m. I get out of bed.  Grab an empty bag.  Stuff my pillow, fleece blanket, iPad, phone, and water bottle into it.  I do these things in pajamas, barefoot, balancing on my right leg.  Then I shove the bag onto my shoulder and crutch into the spare bedroom.  It's smaller and quieter in there, somehow safer because it has no windows.

Exhausted and stressed, I scrunch my body onto the unopened futon.  One foot hangs off the end.  

I listen to Radiolab.  Grit my teeth.  Eventually, I sleep.

In the morning, a few things are obvious:
(1)  The ghosts have gone back where they came from.
(2)  I should have called my 4th floor friends and bunked in with them.
(3)  I probably broke a tooth.

By Mile 1622, I'm in the dentist’s chair.  Luckily the dentist happens to be my good friend Jeff.  He looks in my mouth, wiggles my teeth, and takes an x-ray.  Although my jaw still aches, he declares no major damage.  He tells me I’ve got a minor case of TOOTH TRAUMA.

“Trauma?" I say.  "I’m familiar with that!”   The diagnosis is oddly comforting.


When I tell him the story of the windy night, we end up laughing about the tiny futon.  I tell him I never could have fit on it with 2 legs!

I've built a safe home for my traumatic memories.  It's taken time and practice (and help from a skillful therapist).  But the truth about trauma is this:  when the lights go down, it sometimes leaks out.

More than three years later, there are still a few ghosts.

When they visit, I have to hunker down and bite the bullet -- although it might land me at the dentist.

When I leave Jeff's office, I'm smiling again.  The sun is high.  My mind is clear.  And, best yet, there's no wind at all.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this.....your strength through all of this continues to inspire me. I can relate to some of this, though certainly not on the level of what you've been through.....but to this day any time I see Scooby Doo I am transported back to 1973 and my week at Children's Hospital (probably my earliest memory, at age 3), but I can still feel myself and my confusion being in the hospital, and for me Scooby Doo brings up those feelings of raw vulnerability.....So glad this "tooth trauma" ended much quicker for you......
    (And I love the bicycle planter at your dentist's office, by the way!)
    Big hugs to you....

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  2. You are welcome any time with us on the 4th floor. BTW, that spare room should really be the master. It is quiet and cozy. We used the spare room while waiting for blinds. Also, Glee was a terrible show I watched one episode.

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