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Friday, 24 October 2014

Not Waving, But Frowning: Cast On, Cast Off: Recovery Part 1

It's hard to believe that it's only three weeks to the day since I had my final operation to repair my olecranon fracture (elbow tip). I had to lose the oromorph to get out of hospital, I knew, and deal with just the four different types of pain killers instead to get me to the drizzly world outside and into the car. The temperature plummeted from its hospital high and the hand rails were gone. Relying on the fact that Herman the anaesthetist had put my arm totally to sleep and that my fingers still felt completely alien, like warmed up dried chipolatas.

I shuffled to the car and grimaced and eased my way as best I could into the seat. The hardest part of the journey home was that to complete it I had to climb the very flight of stairs thanks to which I owe all of my present physical injuries. With apprehension I climbed each step, planting my working right arm firmly on the wall where no banister exists in the hope that I would get up those steep stairs, though every step was a mountain, and finally reach the top and rest.

First few hours at home, getting used to sub-hospital temperatures

It's difficult to write about the first few days. I was trying to get through them, and that was about it. I've never been particularly fond of hospital beds, but suddenly missed the remote control function to let me raise the head of the bed to try and find some position, somehow, that was a bit less uncomfortable - and the most I could hope for.

Beautiful flowers, lifting my spirits every day

The weekend was lovely because both Mat and my mum were with me, helping me get through the many difficulties: sitting on chairs which weren't the same height as the one in hospital, using the techniques taught by the physiotherapists (both sitting down and getting up were challenging); Washing myself was a lengthy task, requiring a chair, two towels, flannels, antiseptic wash and patience - the latter always a personal challenge, all to keep my cast dry. And my hair - I couldn't wash this at all because I had to keep my cast dry, so Mat became my personal coiffeur (or, to be more specific, laveur). He learned how to help wet my hair, gently massage it with shampoo and rinse the suds off. (In fact he was so scared of hurting me that it was almost too gentle - I ended up learning to use my good arm and hand to help lather my locks.)

Bath 'Chair' - Prepped for washing

The constant dressing and undressing of layers to warm my pneumonia-chilled / sweaty body was tiresome in the extreme, and I felt weaker still for the necessity of constant adjustments to my clothing to accommodate my body's particular need for heat / cold at any given moment. All in all, I was exhausted by each of these activities. My arm's feeling returned with a painful gusto only partially numbed by the copious pain killers with which I'd been discharged. And the only position I could lie in with the thing was on the elbow I had damaged itself, supported by pillows, and forcing me to look constantly as if waving at something from my bed.

Not waving!

After the weekend my mum had to head back home and Mat to work. I sat up in a chair in the living room, supported by cushions and pillows and looked around the room. There were get well cards and beautiful bouquets of flowers, all for me. I felt the pains all over my body as I regarded these gestures of love and good wishes, and all of a sudden I realised the truth behind all the pain and these beautiful ornaments in my living room.

You almost died, I thought.
You almost died, and you were almost paralysed forever. But you are alive.

And with this realisation in the silent room, my eyes began to haemorrhage tears. Streams of tears of fear, loss, acceptance and fear again, flowed out as I sat in that room. I must have been holding them back through every procedure, every irritating encounter with a snotty nurse or orderly, or with a kind one, with the anaesthetists I joked with as I waited to be ushered in for my anaesthetic before my spinal fusion operation, or the one with whom I watched the massive needle be inserted into my arm to numb it completely as the first step towards the operation to fix it. Finally, through that first weekend at home, where there was company and I wanted to be up and about for it. I was exhausted and - I think deliberately - had made no time to dwell on such an insignificant detail as proximity to my own death.

The tears came and went that Monday, but finally they dried and another day came, and rehabilitation really began.

I was nervous about moving for the first few days, and sleepless nights didn't help. The pneumonia made me sweat in the night and I was disgusted to awaken in damp sheets and sweaty t-shirts. Grimacing with the pain of log rolling out of bed solo, with only one working arm, I put a towel down over the damp sheet and tried to find sleep again, possible only if the pain medication had been taken late enough the previous evening and was still numbing my arm and back. I was tired walking a short number of paces, where in hospital I had confidently (nearly) marched down the corridors to prove my mobility. No seat was comfortable, but the pain of lying increased over time also, so I had to keep moving, if only to change one type of discomfort for another.

The outside world. A step and a marathon away.

Finally I made my first journey outside, It was a trip born out of necessity I felt: since arriving home I had discovered that apart from a couple of sleeveless vests the only items of clothing that would fit over the cast on my arm were Mat's t-shirts and an old, extra large jumper he never wore. Now then, perhaps you will ask, what's wrong with that? My answer is I am Jessica Carmody, and I don't do  scruffy and unkempt (with the possible exception of during DIY activities) even if Anna Wintour's edit says so (and, note, she never does it. QED.). So I had to go out to look for clothes that would work - the activity a positive for strengthening my back through exercise, and for maintaining by a thread my sanity through the search for sartorial nirvana (or just plain acceptable).

Unfortunately fur gillets (fake/otherwise) don't suit me. Believe me, beneath this photo I look like a goat with a boob job.

Fortunately in Teddington I am blessed with a nearby dress agency which came to the rescue that first week. I was able to reach it in few paces, and I know the owners Valerie and John, who have previously helped me purchase a number of gorgeous things 'nearly new' and 'naughty' that were just about the right price. Their dress agency, The Clothes Horse, takes in new or barely worn clothes, bags, shoes and accessories from the upper high street to designer brands. I highly recommend them as a treasure trove of fashion delights - just watch that your credit card doesn't take the lead in your relationship - or - if you let it, be prepared for the bill to arrive!

The Clothes Horse, Teddington - a veritable treasure trove of designer, discounted delights

Here I found items I could work with: a comfy short sleeved loose polo neck sweater in my favourite shade of grey; a sparkly woollen tank top in case I had to be sparkly (or just plain felt like it) and more. It was wonderful to feel dressed again in clothes that were my size, instead of apparently nicked at 4am from the bin bags outside Save the Children.

Fat Face short sleeved jumper. Warm, flexible, stylish. Thank you Fat Face!

I kept my walking expeditions very short that first week, so afraid of being knocked over, and knowing that there wasn't an equivalent button to 'Baby on Board' for me: "Just had spinal fusion surgery and elbow op - if you knock me over I might be paralysed so please don't. Cheers." I know, it doesn't quite have the same ring to it, and if paying by the word I might be facing a whopping bill.

Gradually, though, I grew a little stronger. On Saturday 11th October I made it to the end of the High Street; on Sunday to the lock and then back. Small, shaky steps, with much help from Mat, but steps all the same, and at the end of the day an attempt to sit up for dinner and then a slow, engineered manoeuvre into bed.

Autumn leaves shading the pavements

For all the physical knocks, my confidence had taken a severe blow and I knew I had to get back to doing some exercise out and about again, albeit slow. On a further retail therapy mission, I want to praise to the skies the customer service of our best beloved John Lewis.

Jigsaw dress (left) - not quite; North Face gillet (centre) - cosy; Mango Tee (right) - perfect!

Shuffling around the already overheated store in Kingston last week, I asked for a little help putting items into the changing room and was rewarded instead with a personal shopper in the form of Adrianna, who clearly had a good eye for people about to collapse spectacularly because even their own coat is too heavy to hold. She was so superb - friendly, professional, just lovely. Above are some pictures of the purchases that would cooperate with my cast - and some that would not.

Fabulous Adrianna. John Lewis, she deserves a raise!

Inspired by this trip, and emboldened (I was still alive, still walking, this was all progress!) I made it to Richmond the following day on a mission to investigate clothing available to the injured or disabled. I concentrated on clothing my arm, and here are the results:

Stella blanket coat (left), Drome reversible coat (centre), Osman top (right) gorgeous. All - SUPER PRICEY!

However, I do wonder: how easy is it to buy clothing if part of your body is behaving in some way that is out of the ordinary? Fluid swellings, casts, external metal work, wheelchair restrictions etc. don't appear to feature on the cat walks. All right, Heather Mills and others have strutted down the cat walk with prosthetic legs in some outfits, so it's not an impossibility. However, can fashion dare to wipe the sneer of its face and design for real people living with problems more permanent than mine? I don't think they've tired of sneering yet, and I'm tempted to start a sneer campaign back.

Limited disabled fashion coverage - Principles 2012; Carrie Hammer show NY Fashion week 2014

After these trips to investigate and purchase wearable clothes, I also changed my hair to be more manageable, and am the proud owner of a much shorter 'do' which I was able to wash myself, as long as the shower head was left in the bath, by kneeling on a towel and not caring too much about showering most of the bathroom in the process.

Finally, yesterday, I had the cast removed, twenty days after the operation was performed. (Later, I was told, than desired, but the only available date in the fracture clinic.) Again, hospital, and this time able to walk I navigated the various rooms in the process of the appointment: X-ray, then surgical consultation:

"You're doing okay."
"You are at high risk of developing arthritis and you can't do anything to stop it."
No, No. Not good.
"You will need to have another operation in 6-12 months to remove the pins."
Great. At least this time I'll be paid for my sick leave.

From free fracture to fixed fracture

Then a dressing change, a look at my snaky bendy elbow scare, and last but not least physiotherapy.

In the physio appointment I learned a few exercises for the alien object passing as my arm. It won't straighten at all, and the bump at the end looks artificial in my clothes, as if I'm wearing a clown's red nose on my elbow - my bicep muscles in that arm have atrophied from disuse and are painful to use, and hanging my arm down is physio in itself.

Getting better - my snaky scar and wrinkled arm from the cast

My thanks to Claire the physio for her help - but also for being the first to illuminate the extent of my back surgery. Having included a photo in the previous post of a spinal fusion screw, I can now confirm that in fact I had the following:

"Posterior screw and rod fixation across the fractured T12 vertebral body with bilateral transpedicular screws in T10, T11, L1 and L2."

My spinal fracture - just seen on the CT (left) and almost impossible to see on the right (x-ray). But, to summarise, it's a hot mess. Can't wait to see the screws.

So, a body full of metal then. First thought: I wonder if I can enter Robot Wars?

I was just planning my next outfit - cast off and free - when the hospital fire alarm went. Thank goodness all my appointments had been taken care of. Mat and I made a swift (okay, not that swift, for me) exit. And the rehab continues. Watch this space for the next post. And depending on how things pan out, you'll become aware if I decide to capitalise on my status as a bionic woman and am to be seen in a black twisting chair with a fluffy white cat on my lap. Till next time...time for champagne.

Celebrating cast off!

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