Three years ago when I was in the mist of my third year of medical school. I went through a 2 month period where I rarely slept more than a few hours at a time. It wasn’t the call schedule, it wasn’t the stress of residency applications or Step 2, it wasnt even entirely the pain that gnawed my left side at times to the point of tears. It was the creeping waves of anxiety of a young doctor to be who knew exactly what was happening to her in exquisite detail. In my minds eye I could see the holes in the cartilage, in which glistening white bone lay naked and scraped. The dying cartilage and wounded bone making something akin to broken glass in a small tight dark space lacking adequate blood supply for even the chance of healing despite my immune system attempts, in the end the immune responders led to an army of inflammation and pain. I dreamed about this. Then I would dream of the OR a place that as a med student I always felt like an escaped patient masquerading as a young student doctor to be. I had a recurrent dream that I was found out, carried down the hall, stripped of my scrubs and then rolled back to the OR screaming that I was just not ready but no one heard me.
Here I was excelling in medical school, living my dream, planning my first trip to Africa and having no idea if I would be physically able to continue in a few months, years. I finally found the courage to get x-rays, a kind rheumatology fellow who I frankly owe my sanity to paged me and went over the films with me gently. He talked me into a steroid shot in which a the radiologist furthered my anxiety with talk of strange anatomy and bone density. I made an appointment with the hip surgeon who I had met several years earlier and wrung my hands as I studied for Step 2, started my residency essays. The visit upset me even though I knew what was coming and gave me the strange transition of me explaining to my anxious mother what the doctors were saying. He gave me another steroid shot that was amazingly effective and I lived with denial for a summer, went to Romania and pretended that everything was ok. Perfected my residency essay, then my peds AI hit me like a freight train and my denial started to crumble. My first patient died of pneumonia related to muscular dystrophy in an all night vigil of wailing parents and I was reminded of my sweet Romanian friend whose similar death had rocked my world in college. Our parallel diseases differed in two major ways, there was a palliative yet potentially close to curative treatment for the symptoms of mine and even when I had no cartilage left…I wouldn’t die. Visions of a beloved elderly patient with RA who had no movement in her hands, was going blind and couldn’t get out of bed flashed through my brain…could I live with that reality? Visions of the synthetic hip failing because of my bone density and knowing that once we took my femoral head they was no going back, if the prosthesis failed, I wouldn’t walk again. After the on call vigil, I drove home to the mountains then onward to get a steroid shot.
Within in weeks, I could no longer deny it, the shot failed. I wasn’t sleeping now because of the pain. It was everything I could do to keep the facade that I was just another medical student. I called my surgeon’s PA and cried in the child psych copy room and told her I wanted to do the surgery now. (yes I had a nervous break down on the pysch floor…fun yes). Things fell into place, the surgeon fit me in (I am sure he was shaking his head thinking finally I was ready a year ago, this girl is nuts). I passed Step 2, got my first residency interview and with tachycardia to the 120s, lectured my anesthesiologist on the decreased number of DVTs with spinals opposed to general as they rolled me into the OR.
I was a neurotic post-operative patient but I went back to medical school three weeks later, line danced at 5 weeks, interviewed for residency at 6 weeks, Kenya at 16 weeks and by the time match day came I was taking the steps two at a time for the first time in my life.
I went through a similar period of denial and anxiety although much milder, fought to get steroid shots in Cincy( Part II, Part III). The shot was an Epic fail, telling my chief resident was near to the copy room incident. This time the PA tried to comfort me that even though there was a boat load of hardware in the hip, they would figure it out and I would be ok. I nearly lost my insurance coverage, took the Step 3 and then spoke in DC the week before. By the time I got to the OR I found myself in a much better place than the previous time, believing that somehow the hip would work despite the hardware weakened bone and that I would walk out of this better than ever. I found myself telling everyone (yay versed) my bucket list of things I wanted to do with two shiny hips (I remember this prior to heavier sedation but apparently I kept right on going although I don’t remember it). I woke up to the news that miracles of miracles the hardware had not prevented them from using the best kind of hip as expected and I had a 30 year lease at minimal. I was texting everyone I knew in the PACU and thanking everyone from the janitor to God for my incredible good fortune. My family and I survived me with five weeks of unplanned toe touch weight bearing while the hardware holes healed despite a funeral, a mild incision infection and general angst on the part of a sibling.
And I find myself at 5 weeks post op sitting in an exam room across the hall from where this all began three years ago with the visit (see above). The PA comes in and asks me when I am going back to Africa? She hands me the films with a grin. There they are, healing perfectly. Her optimism is infectious and suddenly as I remember how fragile it all seemed three years ago.I think back though to my first pediatric death and of my sweet friend Laura who died of a similar diseases (dying muscles and connective tissue…I have dying cartilage and connective tissue) and how in some strange way of the disability tribe I feel I owe them, they expect me not to waste this, to live with reckless abandon.
I am overcome by gratitude this time sans versed. Nearly in tears. The attending comes in says my name, kisses my cheek and says “You’re Done!” He grabs his cell and proceeds to call my pediatric ortho to tell him the good news. (yay for transition..) He draws me my “life plan” which includes one more visit at 6 months, then no more visits for 2 years. It doesn’t seem real. No more hip pain, no more hip precautions, an inch taller (much to my sister’s dismay) I can throw away my crutches, 6 weeks of PT and then welcome to the rest of my life.
Mom and I drive back down the familiar spine of our beloved mountains, a little giddy despite the recent family sorrow, amazed at marvels of modern medicine, of grace and of the incredible joy of sweet relief and the sweet ability to dream.