CQ…Clark Here

Thoughts and opinions. LOTS of opinions.

Archive for the tag “surgery”

Caught in the corner.

Hang on, dig in, strap down, get set.  I am going to state a truism that may just rock your world.  Ready?  Here it is:  Life is hard.  Yep, I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you, but there it is.  Life is hard and there is nothing to be done about it.  “Life is pain Highness.  Anyone that tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.”

When I was young (Wait.  I meant younger) I thought I was ready for anything that life had to throw at me.  I thought I would chew it up and spit it out.  Little did I know just how painful life can be.  Let me describe what I mean.

I met Beth at Behrend College of Penn State in 1975.  Through her feminine wiles, we soon fell in love and planned our life together.  Long walks, long talks, gazing into each others’ eyes, we did all those dewy, romantic and saccharine things that young couples often do when they fall in love.  Objectively speaking, our romance was (and remains) the best and finest romance in the history of the world.  And I wouldn’t trade one single minute for anything.

We married in 1978 (see, Beth?  I do too remember) and started with nothing more than an old Chevy Impala given to us by my folks, a cat, and love.  What a grand start to a marriage!  We moved to northwestern Pennsylvania and I found a job in, of all places, a donut factory on my way to my life-long dream job of being a policeman.  I got into police work over thirty years ago, and the trials and travails Beth and I experienced could have wrecked us multiple times.  But from the beginning, we both loved God more than anything, and have worked to make Him, and Him alone, the focus and center of our marriage.

Children came along, planned and anticipated.  Loved, adored, and our pride and joy.  We raised them “purposely and intentionally,” a catch phrase with a set of our closest friends; a catch phrase, but describes our parenting very nicely.  Everything we did with them was intended to be a life’s lesson, to instruct them and to train and prepare them for everything that life was going to throw at them.  Clearly we were not perfect, and there are innumerable moments I wish I could take back, change, re-do.  But we’re not given that option, are we?  Even so, no one has ever loved their children more, or worked harder to raise their children to be the best they could be.  I went back to school part-time, and worked toward my Master’s Degree from Mercyhurst College in Erie, PA.  I found that I enjoyed my class work (as opposed to my undergrad experience) and excelled.  Of course, I devoted a ton of time to my school work to do so, but enjoyed it none the less.

In the mid-1980’s, I joined the Erie Police Department in Erie, PA.  Having come from a small police department where every sneeze and belch was noted and scrutinized, when I moved to a larger department I was like a kid in a candy store.  I had more fun than anyone had a right to.  But all things change, and even good things have a habit of diminishing.  I finished my Master’s degree program and eventually left the street to become a detective, then a Detective Sergeant working Homicides, bank robberies with FBI agents, Presidential protection details with the Secret Service, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT),  just about any cool thing that one could desire.  I had a “patron” that was guiding me in the ways of politics within the city, and I was moving toward higher ranks; meeting people, shaking hands, joining clubs and organizations.

During this time I also worked in our church.  I found myself elected to the Deacon board, which at the time was kind of a combined Elder/Deacon position.  We made policy for the church, as well as watching for the immediate spiritual needs of our brothers and sisters in the congregation.  As was typical, I threw myself into it, and spent a lot of time working for the church.

As are many men, I am driven to excel at whatever task I take on.  And for most of the things I try, I push myself until I’m pretty good at whatever it is I am doing.  However, as I pushed and struggled to advance, I noticed something.  My daughters were in High School, perhaps only a few years from graduating and moving on.  And I hardly knew them.

I remembered some of the ideals that Beth and I had as young marrieds and as young parents, and I did not want to look back and regret the time that I devoted to my job; I did not want to regret the time that I should have given to my children.  So I did something that was very difficult for me.  I took myself off the fast track at work.  Man was I disappointed.  But, I thought, at least I had my church and my family.  Family, church, and work.  I measured myself as a successful man by these three things.

Oops, one down.  I intentionally gave work away, but that’s ok.  I still had the other two.  I convinced myself that as long as I “succeeded” at church and family, I was ok.  Work was actually the third on the list anyway, so I could be less than at the pinnacle there and still be a success at the other two.  However, church is a funny thing; it’s filled with people.  And people are the same no matter where they happen to be located.  I dealt with good folks and mean folks all across the spectrum.  I dealt with issues that I wish I had never known about.  Ultimately I kind of flamed out with leadership in church, too.  When my term as Deacon expired, I did not seek re-election, and I am not sure how eager I am even now, twenty-something years later, to repeat that experience.

Two down.  But I still have my family.  And this is the most important of the three.  As long as I “succeed” at family, I still have worth in my eyes.  I am still a “successful” man.

You kind of see what’s coming, right?

I had read a book once that described a father’s raising his family, and essentially his thoughts were that no matter what success he had elsewhere, if he didn’t raise his children well, what good is he?  I agreed with that, and worked accordingly.

Now before I continue, I want to make clear that I love my children.  With my whole heart, mind, soul, and strength.  Nothing has ever changed that, and nothing ever will.  Further, I need not detail more than this.  They are good people, working to be the best that they can envision themselves to be.  I am proud of them and their accomplishments.  Suffice it to say here that they have chosen to walk a couple of paths that I would not have chosen for them.  Their lives, their decisions.  I respect that and will support them, love them, help them to the best that I am able.

I think that at least in part, I took their “contrary” decisions personally, that it was my responsibility for where they have chosen to be.  Of course, each of us will ultimately take ownership of our choices and decisions, but at the time, I keenly felt that I was an abject failure as a father.  And for me that was strike three.  I was a failure as a man.

Some people turn to drink, some people may become even more spiritual, some turn to other outlets to ease the pain.  I have had several.

For years I have struggled with, shall we say, less wholesome outlets.  I honestly don’t know how teens can cope with the internet.  One can instantly find just about anything one would care to find.  With all that one can access today via the internet, I wouldn’t have survived as a teen.  Anyhow, through a lot of prayer, working with several dedicated and spiritual men, this particular area is much less difficult for me than it once was.

But there were other ways that one can feel momentarily better.  Food is one of my biggest struggles.  I love food.  I love the smell of good food, I love the taste of food and its texture as I roll it through my mouth, I love the satisfying feel of a full stomach.  And Beth is honestly the best cook I have ever known.

For a while this wasn’t as big a problem as it could be.  Although my metabolism had been slowing down, I was pretty active.  Being on the SWAT team was pretty demanding, and I had to stay in some semblance of shape, so even though I ate big, I burned a lot of it at the same time.  Also, at 6’3″, I can hide it pretty well.  This changed a bit when I retired from the team.  I ballooned to an all-time high of 260 pounds of unadulterated cellulose, and looked every bit like the chubby hubby that I was.

I had other outlets as well.  I am a very sensual guy.  I love taste, texture, beauty, scents.  I love trying new things.  I love learning.  So when I find something new that tastes great, smells great, and has nuance, I dive in.  Especially if it’s not something that a ton of people do.  I discovered craft beer and I discovered cigars.  Both are topics of endless discussion for me, I can talk for hours about either.  For the record, my buddy Matt makes the best beer I have tried; second is Founder’s Breakfast Stout or perhaps Great Divide’s Yeti Imperial Stouts.  Oh, man!  For cigars, my go to is always an Ashton, and specifically an Ashton Double Magnum, although I love all kinds of cigars at different times.  If you’re interested, go see Chris at Leaf Lover’s Tobbaconist in North East, PA for a great cigar.  And remember my advice.  If you can buy cigars and gasoline at the same location, don’t buy the cigars!!

Anyhow, along with Scuba diving, these were the outlets I used to “cope” with life’s little surprises.  I was a far cry from that twenty-one year old that thought he could handle everything.  Essentially, it looks like I can’t handle much of anything.  Or maybe life just kept throwing its little surprises until I was broken down.  Whatever, I was at a point that I needed help with coping.  But I didn’t like where I was.  That having been said, I think I need to clarify here.  As long as this post turns out to be, it is still a very abbreviated version of all this.  This entire process kind of evolved over the past twenty years or so, and I am condensing it here to a couple of thousand-ish words.  Also, it may look like I was just a total wreck.  Not so, but I had come to lean on tangibles, not on inner strength and God’s power.

So, here I was.  A failure at work, a failure at church, a failure with my family.  “Needing” food, scuba, beer, and cigars.  So what happened next?  Earlier this year I looked at a couple of photos taken of me, and man, I did not like what I saw.  This guy’s a fatty!  Beth and I both decided it was time, so we embarked on a weight loss and life style change.  Although I started at a lower weight than my all time high, since May, I have lost about thirty pounds with ten to go to my goal.  Beth has done even better.  I think we both look great, and the next step is to get back to the gym and get in shape.

Food’s gone as a crutch.

Beer has been assuming an increasingly anticipated portion of my life.  And I don’t mean nasty or cheap beer.  You folks that drink Bud lite or Coors, well, you have my pity.  Micros are the bomb!  So many different breweries, so many different styles, combinations of hops and malts, I could easily live in a Brewpub.  Wait.  Clark, what did you just say?  Did you hear yourself?

Beth pointed out to me a bit ago that I was consuming more beer than I had before.  She wasn’t yet alarmed exactly, but she was kind of concerned.  Her concern was justified.  Although in comparison to many I didn’t drink much at all, and although in comparison to Europeans I hardly drink anything, I was still using the beer as a crutch.  Clark, what are you doing?  Yep, I need to cut back.  And although I have no intention to cease, my beer consumption has hugely diminished.

Beer’s gone.  But I still have my last stronghold, I still have my cigars.

You can see what’s coming, right?  Hey, didn’t I already say that?

Many people would say this explains a great deal, but as a teen, I fell on my head a couple of times.  Looking back, I probably fractured my spine, but as I could get up and move, I never went to the hospital or even saw a doctor.  Fast forward four decades or so, and I now have two degenerative discs.  After several years of chiropractic therapy and numerous pain shots, I had my neck fused four months ago on two levels; C-5 to C-6, and C-6 to C-7.  The surgery went great, the chronic pain is gone, and the healing has been fine.  But.  My scuba season ended on the date of my surgery, and I probably won’t get back under water (except for assisting classes of new divers in the pool) until spring.

We went back to my surgeon last Monday.  After x-rays, he showed me that the higher level is about 99% healed; essentially completely healed.  The lower level, not as much.  He gave me a few restrictions, and said that he wasn’t concerned at all, and that the only way he would be concerned at all is if I was a smoker, which I am not.  I told him that I haven’t touched a cigarette in my life, but that I do have an occasional cigar.  At that point he kind of stared at me, hesitated a second, and said, “You need to stay away from those.”

Ok, I get it.  Nicotine restricts blood vessels and inhibits the uptake of oxygen, both needed for healing.  I won’t smoke a cigar for months.  But that was my last tangible support.  I am now officially left with nothing to fall back on, nothing to look forward to (And let’s be totally clear.  When I say that, I mean outside my marriage.  Our marriage is still great, and getting better every day!).  When he said that, I felt like my last pillar was knocked down, my bridge was collapsing.  I was bereft.  Even Beth felt bad for me, and she is not, shall we say, the biggest fan of my cigars.

So what do I do?  As I see it, I don’t have a lot of choices here.  My only choice is the one I should have made long ago.  My only choice is to depend on God’s grace; first, last, everywhere.  A few years ago I coined a phrase that I have tried to utilize.  I kind of forgot it, but I’m gonna pick it back up.  That phrase is this.  Let it go, it doesn’t belong to you.  So this is what I am left with, this is what I want to do, what I want to continually tell myself.  Let it go, it doesn’t belong to you.  I need to give it to God, let it go, live in Him.  Fill me Father.  Fill me with You.  You God.  All You.  Nothing but You.

I don’t know why it is necessary to be painted into a corner to see that one cannot “do this” on one’s own, but I would not be surprised to find that this is rather common.  Even if not, I often find that it is the case for me.  I’ve been cornered, and I have nothing that I can use to defend myself.  I figure I can go in one of three directions.  I can collapse into a puddle of emotional plasma, I can fall back on one of the less healthy things that I used to fall back on, or I can let go and look to the Author and Protector.  I think I’ll look to Jesus.

But boy do I want a cigar.  Let it go, Clark.  It doesn’t belong to you.  Yeah, I know…

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Fusion. NOT the nuclear kind.

Ok, now this has been an experience.

My neck has been a sore spot with me for years.  Literally.  It got to the point that maybe twelve years or so ago, I decided to go to a Chiropractor for a consultation and adjustment.  For me that was a big step.  I always was a bit snotty about Chiropractic, but boy was I wrong!  One of the guys I worked with really talked up Dr. John Cassara (Erie, PA), so I made an appointment, and went to see him.  He first took a motion x-ray of my neck, and showed me exactly where the problem was.  He then described what he could do for me, and I decided to go for it.  My first adjustment was about as scary as anything I have ever done.  Here’s this huge guy (John is a body builder and formerly excelled at the  shot put in college) bending over me and messing with my neck.  He got me loosened up, and let me know he was about to do the adjustment, and CRACK!  My neck sounded like a stick breaking.  I remember a minor explosion of air shooting out of my mouth, and as unobtrusively as I could, I wiggled my toes and moved my hands around a little.  Ok, I guess all is well.  Whew!  But as I drove back down Peach Street, I realized that the lateral range of motion in my neck had just increased about thirty percent.  I drove down Peach Street just moving my head side to side saying, “Look at that!  Hey, look at that!”  I hadn’t been able to move my neck that well in a long time.  Well done, John.  My Chiropractor has become my friend as well, and our mutually beneficial sessions were regularly scheduled.  I have no idea how the past decade or so would have been bearable if I hadn’t had my neck adjusted as much as I have.

Further, when Chiropractic couldn’t do it on its own, I went to see Dr. Joseph Thomas, also in Erie.  Doc Thomas specializes in pain management, and I received steroid shots for the past several years.  They also have been helping control the pain.  However, a couple of years ago, Doc Thomas advised me that my neck was getting to the point that I would need more.  “Need more” is code for surgery, and he referred me to Dr. James Kang in Pittsburgh.

Beth and I travelled down to Pittsburgh a couple of years ago, and met with Dr. Kang.  He went over my x-rays, and explained what the root problem was.  I had two discs, C-4 and C-6 that were degenerative.  Basically, they were slowly melting.  This is what he does for a living, and he was pretty matter of fact about the whole thing, which I found reassuring.  What he explained was that at the time, I was in a gray area.  At some point, surgery was going to become mandatory.  I wasn’t at that point yet, but I was well within the range of “it could be done, no question.”  I opted to wait, which he supported.

This changed late last year, when I went to get a shot from Dr. Thomas again.  He realized I had not had a series of x-rays in some time, and so we x-rayed my neck.  I’ll not soon forget the appointment when he looked at the x-rays with me.

Thomas is an interesting guy, profane and funny.  But this day, he was all serious.  He looked at the x-rays, looked at me like I had just sprouted a second head, looked back at the x-rays, and then back to me.  In a totally serious voice, he said, “Do you want something for the pain?”  I answered that no, I was ok.  He said, “Are you sure?”  When I again answered in the negative, he just looked at me like I had suddenly changed form into a mutant.  Apparently, my neck had degenerated to the point that he believed I should be in major pain, or perhaps not even mobile.  I told him that no, I was in pain, pretty much always, but nothing I couldn’t handle.  Doc Thomas immediately set up a new appointment with Dr. Kang, and Beth and I went down again to Pittsburgh.  We looked over the x-rays, and although Dr. Kang felt it was no emergency, we agreed that the surgery could take place now.  Beth and I returned home, having set up a tentative date for surgery for the end of summer 2012.

It seems the timing was very good on the surgery.  I have written about my new V-Star, and how much fun it has been to ride.  But about a month and a half ago I could feel that my left hand was not gripping as well as I thought it should.  Further, when I qualified two weeks ago, we had to set up the range.  I grabbed two 4×8 sheets of fiberboard to take down range (we use these to tack the targets on).  I easily picked up one using my right hand alone,  but not so my left. I couldn’t pick it up at all.  Further, I have noticed a bit of tingling in my left arm, and my left hand has had a minor case of “the shakes” starting up as well.

My degenerative vertebrae have their genesis back to when I was a teenager, maybe 16 or 17.  My family went to Kinzua Bridge with another family, just to look around and have a nice time.  The other family had a son, Dale Shatto, that I had become good friends with; his family and mine camped in the same location for several summers.  We had gotten close, Dale called my folks “Mom and Dad,” and I did the same with his.

Well, on this day, Dale and I were ahead of the old people, and went out on the observation rock to look at the bridge.

Kinzua Bridge, near Kinzua Dam in PA,  is an old railroad bridge spanning (you guessed it) the Kinzua River.  At one time it was the world’s highest, longest wooden railroad bridge, and the view is amazing.  The railroad had largely abandoned it, and it had been renovated into a tourist attraction.  One could walk across it, and look up and down the valley.  Especially in fall when the leaves turn color, the view is stunning.  Unfortunately, a tornado has claimed half the bridge, and I have no idea what its condition is at this time.

In any event, there was a large rock that kind of hung over the valley.  The Park Service had cleared brush from in front of it, and it offered a great view of the bridge.  Along the trail, and on the top of the rock was a fence, designed to keep people from falling over the edge.  Being teenagers, we were clearly smarter than the Park Service, so Dale and I jumped the fence and stood on the edge, looking out, looking down.  We couldn’t actually see the bottom, so I have no idea how high we were.  Dale had the genius idea to stand on the edge with our hands on the top, and wait for the parents to come down the trail.  He told me later he meant to go to the top beside the rock and walk down to the point where we could reach up and put our hands on top, but he didn’t say that at the time.  Thanks, Dale.  Your great idea led to my stupid decision, so naturally I’m blaming you. 🙂  Down about six feet, I saw a little ledge, probably three or four inches deep and a foot wide.  I figured I could easily get down on it, so with Dale’s suggestion still clearly ringing in my head (Thanks, Dale), I sat down, aimed for the ledge, and launched.  Well, I hit the ledge alright.  With my heels.  And I slowly, slowly toppled forward and fell off the rock.  Now a lot of people would say this explains a great deal, but I remember doing a pile driver, and landing squarely on my head, as straight as if I had planned it.  I think I blacked out for a minute, but I remember Dale screaming for the parents, that I had fallen off the rock.  I yelled up that I was ok, and climbed up beside the rock (where Dale had actually meant for us to stand), and back onto the trail.  In those days, people didn’t just dart to the Doctor, and this was no exception.  My Dad basically just called me a Dumb Ass, and told me to get in the car.  Well, I was, and I did.  In retrospect, I’m fairly certain I cracked a couple of vertebrae, as I couldn’t rotate my neck for about a year.  It finally loosened up, and all was well (not).  And then I fell on my head a second time, but we don’t need to go into that.

So here I am, fifty-five years old, needing surgery, and scheduled for it.  I got all the advance preparations done, and once again, down to Pittsburgh we went on August 6, with the surgery scheduled for August 7.  I wasn’t really worried, I knew the surgery needed done, and the pain and necessity came from the sins of my youth, so what can I say?  I was concerned, as there is always a chance of “something bad happening,”  but I trusted my surgeon, and knew I needed the procedure, so let’s get ‘er done.

The technical name for my procedure is Anterior Cervical Discectomy and Fusion (ACDF).  I went into the prep room, and when they were ready, I was wheeled into the Operating Room.  I already had an IV in, and some blood drawn, so when we went into the OR, we were pretty much ready to get the show started.  The anesthesiologist gave me a shot, and said that it would take effect soon.  They then put the oxygen mask on, and I remember saying, “Whoh!  There it is,” and that’s it.  Gone.  Lights out.  My next memory is…I don’t remember what my next memory is!  Boy, that stuff did it’s job.  However, while I was unconscious, Dr. Kang opened up my neck from the front, laterally on the left side.  After I was intubated, they then moved my trachea to the side, and exposed my vertebrae.  They then removed the spongy bone in vertebrae C-4 and C-6.  He also removed a couple of bone spurs that had conveniently decided to grow into my spinal column, and were causing pain.  He then fused C-4 to C-5, and C-5 to C-6.  Many surgeons use cadaver bone, or even artificial joints, but Dr. Kang uses bone from the patient’s hip.  It is inserted into the spot where the old spongy bone used to be, and held in place.  I now have a titanium plate in my neck that I had not had before.  Kind of like Wolverine, but without all the cool stuff that goes with it.  And from what I understand, this is what the fuss was about.  Fusing on two levels is geometrically more difficult that fusing one vertebra.  So.

The next day was kind of pain filled.  Hip, neck, upper back, shoulders.  Dr. Kang came in and explained that the discs had degenerated so badly that he had to build them back up to where they should have been.  In order to do this, they (in essence) had to push down on my shoulders and pull on my head.  I am now about a half-inch taller than I was a week ago.  Dr. Kang said this explains the pain in the muscles in the back of my neck.  They are basically confused, and spazzing, trying to get back where they think they should be.  Honestly, that was the worst of the pain.  My hip hurt, my neck hurt, but no big deal.  But the back of my neck!  Wow!!  I was more than happy for the pain meds for my neck.  I had one of those push button happy shot things that I could use to self-medicate.  I used it more for the muscles in the back of my neck than anything.

The surgery was on Tuesday, and I came home Wednesday.  The pain was manageable, and the physical therapist was satisfied that I could navigate walking and stairs as needed.  I think several people were surprised that I got out of there as quickly as I did, but I attribute this to two things.  First, I was on the City of Erie’s SWAT team for a long time, and one of the things I learned was to fight through the pain.  Too many people, I think, get all whiney about pain, but really, it’s no big thing.  The human body is capable of so much more than any single person believes.  Just gotta keep going.  And second (and most importantly), I had so many people praying for me.  Friends and family in church, on Facebook, and over the country have been lifting me up in prayer, and it shows.  My recovery is still slower than I would like, but it has been so much faster than most who have this surgery.  Many people are in the hospital for days.  Many are on huge doses of painkillers for a week or longer.  Me, I got out of the hospital the next day, and my use of painkillers even now is judicious.  I pop ’em when I really need ’em.  And that’s not so much.

Right now, Beth has taken off work to be with me for the week, and her care has been both amazing and appreciated.  I will be off work until the August 28, which is my followup appointment with Dr. Kang.  My hugest worry now is that I do nothing that will hinder the bone grafting to the vertebrae, and fusing as it should.  I do not want them to have to go back in.  I am wearing the collar as they required.  I am walking every day.  I’m taking all prescriptions as directed, and behaving as much as possible.

Already I feel better.  I think the procedure did what it was supposed to, and I am hopeful for a complete recovery.  It’s kind of exciting to think of my neck being pain-free for the first time in (twenty?  thirty?) years.  My range of motion may be somewhat limited nodding up and down, but I couldn’t touch my chest with my chin before the surgery anyhow.  I don’t wanna look at my toes, so what’s the big deal with that?  I know my scuba season is done for the year, as likely is my motorcycling, but I am hopeful that I will be up and ready to go for next season.  I am grateful to all my doctors, and to God for His benevolence.  I am grateful to friends and family, for their thoughts, prayers and support.  And I cannot tell you how grateful I am to Beth for her attention, hovering, and reminders to behave.  She’s the best.  Now I just gotta be patient for the next few weeks.  And that could be a problem…

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