Monday, September 14, 2009

STORY - Phantom Pain

The accident shouldn't have been that bad. I mean, it was bad - industrial accidents tend to be bad in general - but it wasn't THAT bad. An industrial laundry cart had broken free of the chain that was pulling it and it slid out of control, right into me. I saw it coming and dove out of the way, just not quite far enough.

I never blacked out. I saw the half-ton cart slam into my lower legs and feet, shattering every bone from my ankles down in spite of my required steel toes work boots. I was in shock initially, of course - seeing your feet crushed in front of you can do that to a girl - but after a couple minutes the pain started to bleed in. I had stopped looking at my feet - or what was left of them - at that point. I didn't need to see them to know they were destroyed. Words like 'amputation' hovered at the periphery of my thoughts, but I wouldn't let them in.

By the time the paramedics were there, starting to cut my boots off, the pain was beyond bearable, and they knocked me out. I fell into immediate and blissful unconsciousness, but my last conscious thoughts were a silent 'good bye' to my feet. I just knew... but I didn't really know. Not just yet.

I woke up four days later, an oxygen feed in my nose and my legs elevated and bandaged - I could see immediately there were no feet there. It was hard to tell the specifics with the heavy bandages on, but it looked like my legs ended two or three inches above my former ankles. The first thing that hit me was the harsh slap of reality, that I was now an amputee, that I had no feet any more. the next thing that hit me, in rapid succession, was the itch. I had an itch between my first and second toe on my left foot. But I had no left foot. I looked, I stared, seeing if there was something I was missing, but my legs definitely ended in round, heavily bandaged stumps. The itch I felt was impossible, but very real and very persistent. I decided to go with it and tried to 'wiggle my toes' to try and get it to stop.

My scream pulled in three nurses, the floor doctor, and another doctor who heard me from the elevator. The pain was intense, sharp, like my foot was being broken and crushed all over again, in slow motion. I cried and tried to claw at my bandages to relieve the pain, to the point where I had to be physically restrained. the gave me a shot of something, but it didn't help, the pain was too intense. They gave me another shot, directly into my stump, saying it was just 'phantom pain' and that it wasn't really there, but still I screamed and cried. Finally, someone gave me something that knocked me out, and again I was blissfully unconscious.

It was severe, chronic phantom pain, that how it was explained to me, and it should 'get better with time' and with therapy. Until then, they had me on a cocktail of painkillers and muscle relaxers that made me loopy and sick to my stomach and had the lovely side effect of making me piss myself once in a while. I was barely coherent when they took my bandages off and I saw my stumps for the first time. I thought they looked pretty - but then again, I was pretty stoned. Even through my haze of painkillers, though, as they touched and cleaned and measured my stumps the white hot pain started bubbling up to the surface of my consciousness. By the time they got the new, thinner bandages onto my rounded stumps I was hyperventilating, feeling my phantom feet twist and fold and snap and burn. I was crying and begging them to knock me out as I felt the pain building to it's crescendo, and once they got an OK from my doctor, they blessedly obliged.

They fitted me for my prostheses, and again even though I was heavily drugged I barely made it through the process. I didn't know how I was going to walk or wear prostheses if every time anything more than a linen sheet touched my stumps they began to hurt at unbearable levels. I was poked and prodded so much, by every specialist in the hospital and beyond, and the general consensus was still just the generic 'phantom limb pain' or my favorite - 'extreme phantom discomfort'. I had a 'discomfort' in mind for them that involved an aluminum softball bat and a rectal exam...

Weeks went by. Then a month. Rehab started. Still, I was drugged to near unconsciousness and still I was dealing with bouts of pain that literally crippled me. Then I met Cathy. My roommate in rehab, she was a quadriplegic from a cycling accident. She had no sensation from her nipples down. In my painkiller-induced haze, I got the beginnings of an idea - just deaden all those nerves that were misfiring, causing all my phantom pain.

I talked to nurses, doctors, but they all said no, it wasn't possible to just deaden those nerves causing my pain. The technology wasn't advanced enough, it was too dangerous they said. Meanwhile I was becoming a junkie and even the huge doses of painkillers I was already taking weren't really cutting it any more. So what else could I do?

I couldn't find anyone to help me willingly, but as I was about to give up I got a lucky break. Without going into details, I took advantage of a desperately overworked medical intern and a mixup in injectible medications. It hurt like hell, even through the painkillers, but after five minutes I knew it had worked. After the terrified intern helped me off the exam table and back into the heavy hospital wheelchair, I told him I had never seen him, had no idea what had happened, and the next morning would suddenly wake up like this... that was my plan anyway...

Things never go quite as planned, of course. Trying to get back into my bed, I was way off balance, my floppy lifeless stumps just a weird dead weight that made it very difficult for me to maneuver myself. I almost made it into bed when I slipped, hitting the floor with a thud, and one of the nurses came running. It was obvious that I was paralyzed, and as soon as the doctors examined me it was obvious why. There's still an ongoing investigation on how I could have gotten that injection, though I keep telling them I did it myself. The important thing is that I am now pain free and medication free. I can't feel or move a thing from my belly down, of course. I'm incontinent, I have no sexual feeling, and I'll be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of my life. But, I'm not in pain - none at all. And personally, I think that's an OK compromise.

1 comment:

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