Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Four Weeks Ago Tonight

Four weeks ago tonight Atticus and I were given a ride to Memorial Hospital in an ambulance. Although I didn’t know it at the time things weren’t looking all that good for me. Oh, I knew I was sick and couldn’t make the trip myself – that’s why I called 911. I just didn’t have any idea how much danger I was in.

When the EMTs took my temperature I was 104.9. My blood pressure was extremely low. And I was in something called septic shock. I didn’t know much about it at the time but I’ve learned a great deal since then. This was all because of a gangrenous gallbladder that I weathered thinking it was a stomach virus. I was sick for more than a week, then hiked four out of six days, then was sick again for five days. On that fifth night I knew I couldn’t take any more.

As doctors have noted, it’s a good thing I called then. Had I not, I might not have been able to call and my corpse would have eventually been discovered.

And things were so bad within me, the poison of the sepsis was already in my blood when they cut me open the following day and I wouldn’t know it until after I was out of the hospital that my doctors were very concerned about me even after the surgery for six or so more days.

My doctors, Stuart Battle and Bob Tilney, have told me more than once how tough I am, how others might not have survived. They talk about my pain threshold and my fortitude.

I know differently. The day Bob signed me out of the hospital I had him show me how to change my own dressing so I could save money by not paying a visiting nurse. Well, that first night I stood in front of the mirror in the bathroom, Atticus looking up at me with more than a little concern on his face. Slowly I peeled back the large dressing that covered most of the scar, some wicking material sticking out of a hole, and a drainage tube coming out of another hole. The tube was long and ran down to a large bag and I was supposed to drain the bile from it each day.

I did okay at first and it took me ever to unwrap the bandages since I was being extremely cautious. When I first came eye to eye with the scar, the holes and the drainage tube I was okay. I didn’t feel nauseous in the least bit. But after about five minutes of standing in front of the mirror I started to feel faint and I had to go lie down.

I change my dressing every day and each day and while the wicking material is gone a small hole remains, I still see the long scar and the tube, while no longer emptying into a bag, remains. It’s always strange sight to see it there, sticking out of me like a tail. And every day when I look at it I get weak in my knees.

See what I mean? Not so tough after all.

To further prove my point: When Bob Tilney took the wicking material out and told me I could take a shower for the first time in two weeks I didn’t run right home and shower like you might think I would. I was afraid to. It took two more days before I could build up the courage to stand in the shower.

I’ll never get used to the tube and it hurts as much now as it did in the beginning. I suppose some of the pain also comes from the deep tissue that was cut open in the neighboring area. It takes a while to heal. But I associate the pain with the tube.

I’ve come a long way since my first day back in the house. I looked around the house and wasn’t sure how I was going to get around. And yet life is so different than it used to be. I think about every move I make now and calculate how much it will hurt.

Do I really want to get up for that drink of water? Am I really hungry? Can I put off going to the bathroom? How far can I roll over in bed before the pain kicks in?

The good news is that I’ve become pretty self-sufficient and Atticus and I get out for three walks a day: two of 1.6 miles each and a shorter one. This took some time to build up to and I can feel myself getting stronger. It takes a while to loosen up and my right hip is kind of sore because I favor that side without even knowing it.

Whenever I go to the hospital for a checkup (about once a week) either Bob or Stuart remark how strong I look and how it doesn’t look as if I’d had surgery. But I know better. I never feel as strong as they tell me I am but they make a point out of how far I’ve come, how I’m still alive, and how I’m progressing rapidly.

Last Friday Atticus and I were back at the hospital. He’s become a favorite there. Some have heard about the book and some just know about Atticus himself. While we were waiting for my appointment in radiology we sat in the lobby and seven or eight staff members came by and took his photo with their cell phones. He sits and looks at them as he’s always sat and looked at people who remark how different or cute or smart he is – like it’s no big deal. And they take his photo and go on their way.

Of course the nurses up in ICU and in the regular section fell in love with him. He was my constant companion when I was in there. My friends retrieved him every night, much to his chagrin, but he spent each day with me. We spent a lot of time walking laps together. These were our first steps towards taking a hike. They were, of course, baby steps. And unlike a hike, where he always leads me, in the hospital, while I struggled along slowly while trying to catch my breath, he walked right by my side as if he was going to catch me if I fell. He really is something else.

When we were in radiology a doctor shot dye in my drainage tube and it ran right up to the area where the gallbladder used to reside (they took out two thirds, leaving the remaining third because they didn’t want to endanger me – that’s how messy it was when they were in there) and the common bile duct. This was done so they can decide if I’ll need another surgery. I’ll meet with my doctors this coming Thursday and they’ll tell me how they think we should proceed.

There will be a drum roll in my head when they enter the room and tell me the verdict. Of course I’m hoping the surgery is all done and I can get back to living a somewhat normal life.

That’s what I was thinking about tonight as Atticus and I walked the 1.6 mile loop a lot slower than we used to. I thought about how nice it will be to let these holes in my body heal up and to eventually get rid of this hideous tube. I was thinking that as my right hip limped along a bit and I tried to move slowly enough so that the surgical site didn’t hurt. But more than anything, as I took category of all that took place and how close I came to losing my life I thought about what a gift such a night as this one is. Sure the walk went slower and I moved along with some pain but I’m alive – alive and able to enjoy a walk with Atticus.

Looking at him sleeping on the couch now as if he didn’t have a care in the world I'm reminded that it's the simplest things that matter most - no matter the cost of admission. Life is good.

The way I see things these days is not unlike how Robert Frost saw things in his four line poem "A Question":

"A voice said, Look me in the stars
And tell me truly, men of earth,
If all the soul-and-body scars
Were not too much to pay for birth."


Jemk said...

I'm so glad you are feeling better every day! After you get the tube out you will feel much better. It sounds like Atticus has been patient, & a good buddy during your recovery.

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Your right, he has been patient. I'm lucky to have him!