from the Korean Army to being published

the blog of an "ex-patriot" writer in Korea

Random #66: Third Surgery

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This past week has been the worst by far, a distended blur of delirium and anger and frustration. It began last Wednesday. My third surgery was last Wednesday.

“Will this one be my last?” I asked the only doctor who’ll talk to me. I refer to him as the nice doctor because he’s the only one who will. He assured me it would be and I went to bed on Tuesday night, thinking that from this time tomorrow, there will be no more steps backward, no more surgeries to recover from, the days I’ll have left will be it.

I went into surgery at 7 in the morning, first in line. They wheeled me into the OR and the anesthesiologist started with the oxygen. She clarified that I’d be getting general anesthesia—due to the scheduled bone graft from my hip—and since we’d already been through the process together before, she put the mask over my mouth and said, “You know what to do. Breathe deeply.”

I again come to in the post-op recovery room and this time the pain is bearable to an extent that I don’t need to moan or groan or make any audible sign other than breathing deeply. My whole left side hurts—it must be from the bone graft, I think to myself—and I breathe deeply while they give me more painkillers.

When I’m wheeled out for a brief x-ray before returning to my room, my mother approaches the gurney. “There was a problem.” Not the words I want to hear after a surgery. “Your bone was infected so they scraped the infected parts clean and washed it with disinfectant, but they didn’t put your leg back together.”

What? Six weeks and they still haven’t managed to put bone piece A into bone piece B? It took three hours to realize that they couldn’t do shit? But looking at my leg, there was no splint, nothing holding the two broken halves of my leg together. The wrapping was thicker than usual but it was wrapped only to the knee, something I had unsuccessfully been trying to get the doctors to do with my splint pre-surgery.

I lied there in bed, borderline depressed for the first time throughout this ordeal. It wasn’t until later that the doctors stopped by to explain.

The head surgeon only bothered to tell my mother part of what happened because, as a Korean professor, he can’t be bothered to talk to patients and when he does, he only shares the least reassuring part possible. Yes, they would have to operate again in two weeks. Yes, one more surgery. That’s four major surgeries plus the two trips to the OR for opening up and cleaning out the coagulated blood in my leg wound. But for some reason, they decided to stabilize the tibia with a plate like the one in my ankle.

So why was my groin in pain after the surgery? I’ll never know.

“In the next surgery, we’ll probably put in an intermedullary nail,” the nice doctor explained as he re-wrapped my leg. His being nice also means that he’s very low in the hierarchy, and I don’t know how much of what he says will actually come true.

I didn’t ask any more questions because I didn’t want to hear anymore. I didn’t want to know why they even bothered stabilizing my infected tibia with a plate that runs almost the length of my leg (on the inside, right on the bone) when they could have done it with another external rod that would have been less invasive. I didn’t want to know if they were planning on taking out the plate once the intermedullary nail went in, and if so, I didn’t want to think about all these holes I’ll have in my tibia—four from the external rod and it looked like at least seven but possibly many more screws for the plate. I didn’t want to know what they would do if my leg was still infected and how many more surgeries I could expect to have.

So it looks like another wait, perhaps the second week of February for my fourth—I won’t jinx it by saying last—surgery. Of course, that’s if my leg heals well (which, all of a sudden, it isn’t) and the head surgeon doesn’t change his very fickle mind.

For some reason, this wait is determined to also be the worst. First of all, the general anesthesia really fucked up all the signals from my brain to my various body parts this time. Last time, all it took was a video of a waterfall and a little disinfectant unintentionally making its way into my pee-hole for me to feel the urge to piss. This time, the videos did nothing. I tried “relaxing waterfall” and “relaxing running water” and “sound of peeing” among other things and none of them convinced my pee-pee to sing, and I tried the disinfectant several times with no result other than considerable, burning pain at the tip of my member. I started to get creative with my positions and use of muscles, but nothing worked. I also noticed that all of this excessive handling did not cause the normal blood flow to the area, which scared me greatly because it has never been a problem since my first in the sixth grade (although finishing can sometimes be a problem, especially if I’ve been hitting the bottle). After four hours, I was desperate and decided to middle school prank myself. I poured a cup of water and stuck my hand in it and was finally able to pee.

Last time, after the breaking of the seal, I had no problems recreating the event. This time, I could only go with my hand in the cup of water, something I had to do three or four times the next day. I managed to end the day with a last go without having to put my hand in water and I figured I had finally made it. I was wrong. The next day, I couldn’t go unless I was trying to take a shit, my next concern. I was taking three or four trips to the handicapped bathroom a day, and sometimes it was only to take a piss sitting down. Between my blood flow problems and need to sit to pee, all I needed was a tampon machine. This continued for a while and now I just don’t know what the current status is but I think subconsciously I’ve started to cut down on my water intake.

The other reason this wait is going to be excruciating is that I haven’t really slept since the surgery. Prior to the surgery, the only disruption in the room was Du-hwan, a really old and feeble guy suffering from dementia. During the day, he wasn’t so bad. He’d exclaim, “Aiaiaiaiaiaiaigo!” every time he got a needle stuck in him and he couldn’t get that the channels on the television here aren’t the same as the channels on the television at his home (when he had the remote, we’d be watching static half the time and a Russian news channel the other half), but he otherwise kept quiet. But when it neared 10, he’d start shouting and threatening like only old, drunk Korean men can. They had to wheel him out every night but you could still hear him down the hall in the nurses’ station, screaming his threats to call the police and to walk right out the door.

We got our second dementia patient, Il-sun, the night after my surgery. He’s a 79 year old with the body of an 89 year old, with the spindly, bony legs with exaggerated joints like a third-world child or a desiccated corpse. He doesn’t have Du-hwan’s personality changes, but he does have an annoying family. I was kept up the next night because his wife insisted on yelling back every time Il-sun woke up and didn’t know where he was. When the room cleared out on Friday, his children convinced him to take the window spot across from me even though he didn’t want to move. Now, every time he wakes at night, the light goes on directly in my line of sight, a sign to wake up and listen to an old man peeing or crying in pain or arguing with his wife.

The next night, my newest pest was of a different ilk. It was a five year old, Hyeong-seok, who broke his leg falling off a slide while visiting his grandparents’ place for Lunar New Year. The damn kid didn’t sleep the entire night. I wanted to see if I could slap him hard enough that his mother could feel it because I was angry at her for not controlling her kid, too. She also somehow managed to give him the noisiest playthings, like that mini-megaphone he was always singing into, and talking on speakerphone to the boy’s father, which was a waste because the stupid kid couldn’t communicate over speakerphone beyond shrieking and giggling.

I ended up getting very sick on Sunday, very bad chills and back pain all day, and when the doctor came around to change my wrappings at night, there were green blotches on the gauze from my wounds. “It’s a sign of infection,” my Mom mentioned. I thought that’s all they did this past surgery was work on my infected leg. I guess it’s a work in progress.

Du-hwan is gone. He was moved to a single room for a night before the family realized they couldn’t afford it and he wanted to return to this room but the nurse thankfully lied for me and told him my room was full. His room is now next door. I can still hear him screaming in the middle of the night but at least it’s much fainter.

Hyeong-seok is also gone. Kids’ bones heal better and so he didn’t need surgery after all, which was the entire reason he was turfed here rather than pediatrics. He left on Monday after seeing the doctor and getting a cast put on his leg. Good riddance.

Il-sun is still right across from me. I still often wish that his family would consider euthanasia (and that euthanasia was legal, if it isn’t already). If I were old and useless like him, I’d want to be put out of my misery. But they’ve become a little more quiet and respectful of the fact that there are other people in this room, so it’s bearable.

The problem is, even with most of the problems gone, I still can’t sleep.As a result, I’ve been worthless for the past week and am only posting this now because I know that I won’t get around to doing it if not right now in this brief period of lucidity. Two of the three might be gone, but they’re like general anesthesia, the negative side-effects just keep going on and on.

* Pictures to be posted if I can get a hold of an x-ray. You do not want to see my leg.


2 Responses

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  1. One of the biggest dangers for hospital patients is nosocomial infection. Hopefully, whatever you’ve got is the low-grade stuff and not an ass-kicker like MRSA (no idea how to say that in Korean, but it’s methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus—a bit like a superbug). If you get any huge fever spikes and/or severe inflammation, DEMAND antibiotics pronto. Meantime, do what you can to minimize infection risk: wash hands frequently (keep a supply of antibacterial tissues handy); wipe down frequently touched surfaces like the railings of your gurney; encourage your visitors to wear masks and gloves. Become a paranoid germophobe.

    In the US, if someone is infected with in-hospital MRSA, they’re subjected to an entire MRSA protocol, which includes labeling the patient as MRSA-positive so that all the hospital staff will know. Visitors have to wear disposable gowns, gloves, and masks. So do docs and nurses. The dirty secret of most hospitals, of course, is that the health-care professionals are already MRSA-positive (i.e., colonized, but not necessarily infected); it’s just an occupational hazard that comes with working around so many infected people. And that’s one of the ironies of the health-care profession: the professionals themselves are often vectors for disease. Cell phones and other hand-held electronics are rife with bacteria.

    My mother got big-time MRSA during her hospitalization for brain cancer, so we all had to gown and glove up. She was put on an aggressive daptomycin (antibiotic) regimen when she got back home. It took several weeks, plus more brain surgery (her brain had been seriously infected), but the MRSA was eventually beaten back. Mom’s skull—the part of it that had to be removed for brain surgery to occur—had also been infected, so it was impossible to replace the old bone because sterilization would have killed the bone tissue. Doctors told us they would craft a poly-something-or-other replacement, but Mom’s bone flap never got replaced. In the end, she died missing a piece of her skull. In the interim, she was given a helmet to wear, to protect her in case of falls. She hated the helmet.

    Sorry to be so morbid, man, but make sure you ask your relatives and friends to insist to the medical professionals that they be on the alert for (more) infection, and that they take every possible precaution given how vulnerable you are. It’d be nice for you to get through this with as few unnecessary complications as possible. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed.

    Kevin Kim

    February 4, 2014 at 11:37 pm

    • The flu symptoms didn’t last very long, only the second half of the night and the first half of the day. I don’t know what the cause was–I’m guessing the infected bone was the culprit–but it came and went without explanation. It was a Sunday and so most of the doctors were at home. There was reportedly one doctor in the hospital but I waited all morning and afternoon and he/she never came.

      I’m sorry to hear that a nosocomial infection was part of the ordeal your mother had to go through. It’s true that all this time in the hospital (now almost seven weeks) has taken its toll on my body. I’ve lost weight, a good deal of which was muscle, and now even antibiotics are starting to hurt, but I’m also not drinking or smoking and I’m eating meals regularly so I guess you could say that I’m also the healthiest I’ve been for a while. I also still believe that I have particularly well-developed healing abilities so I don’t think I have reason to be worried yet.


      February 5, 2014 at 9:56 pm

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