How do you take a slow, prolonged, emotional journey and craft it into a series of phrases that accurately describe your experience? How do you will yourself to relive the physical trauma and emotional turmoil long enough to get it documented? How do you bare your soul without being unfair to those who have tried to step up beside you and unkind to those who never cared to begin with?
I love to write. The craft is beautiful. intricate. enlivening.
But it’’s emotional. And I’m a perfectionist which makes it all the more difficult—though be it self-imposed.
But it deserves a place. So here’s my try.
All in one moment everything changes.
For our first night in the hospital and the first surgery, see parts one and two. Here’s where our medical journey has taken us since that day.
There is a metal pole on the outside of Caleb’s body. It is screwed into his bones.
My head swirls with fatigue, nausea, and grief for the hundredth time. He will need someone to replace his bandages at some point. I know that as much as I love him, I simply cannot do it. Thankfully, a friend has offered.
Caleb lays on the couch or in bed, unable to do anything for himself. Such a strong, independent, adventurous man confined to stationary dependency in a matter of seconds. My heart rips again as I sense his frustration.
If only there was something I could do.
“Hey Caleb! Oh, you’re back on crutches? What’s going on?”
“Caleb, nice haircut! It looks great.”
“Is today the last surgery? Fingers crossed!”
Listen. If the administrator at the orthopedic office knows the ins and outs of your mobility journey, you’re there too often.
When the nurses comment on your haircut, you might as well start paying rent because you’re at the doctor too often.
And when your post-op nurse at the hospital is rooting for you to never come back, you’ve had too many surgeries.
I hope you’re laughing with me.
It’s true; for the last four months, we’ve spent more time at the doctor together than we have at church. Our Wednesday morning ritual used to be sleeping in a little, going to the gym, having brunch, and then preparing for work at 1pm and youth group at 7pm.
Now our Wednesday morning routine is loading up in the car and going to the doctor.
Every Wednesday since June 28th.
When we walked in that first day, I remember the feeling of gratefulness washing over me. I had been at home with Caleb since the accident holding my breath, unsure what kinds of complications could come or what exactly I needed to be doing for him. I just wanted someone who knew what they were doing to lay eyes on him and give us a better sense of what we were in for.
Little did any of us know how many hiccups there would be along the way.
Monday, June 26th
After four nearly-sleepless nights at home in continuing agony, Caleb finally meets with his new doctor. Dr. Cota is a highly skilled, highly recommended orthopedic surgeon in Grand Junction. For the first time of what will be many, I pull up to the patient drop-off. Placing the car in park, I pop out and run inside to grab a wheelchair.
I roll Caleb into the check-in line, run back out to move and park my car, then join him back in line. I’m fidgeting. This first appointment will be telling, and I am anxious.
Little did we know we’d become both family and a spectacle.
During this first appointment, they review Caleb’s CT scan and x-rays from the day of the accident. We hear comments like,
“We see a lot in this office, but this might be the worst I’ve ever seen.”
Somehow, that isn’t comforting.
Dr. Cota tells us that premature surgery could cause further damage because of how swollen Caleb’s lower leg is. He warns us of tissue damage and nerve damage and destroyed cartilage.
This sounds promising…
He then pulls up Caleb’s CT scan and x-rays for us to review together. I’m not sure what an ankle should look like on an x-ray, but I’m pretty sure this is not it.
The leg bone breaks and fractures are the most obvious. They should be straight rods and, well, they aren’t.
He pulls up the CT scan. It starts at Caleb’s knee and works its way down the leg bones. All is well until… it isn’t. It essentially looks like the rest of his lower leg experienced an internal explosion.
“This is a mess,” Dr. Cota says. “Essentially what we’re seeing is that when you landed, your ankle shoved its way up through your tibia and fibula and then shattered.”
The room swirls. I feel incredibly nauseous. I feel hot and short of breath.
No, no, no, I will not pass out in this room. I’m not even the broken one. That would be so embarrassing.
I step away from the computer and take a seat, listening to the description without looking any longer at what should be an ankle.
“This sucks for you,” Dr. Cota says. “You’re so young and you’re just never going to be the same again. I think we’re looking at two years recovery time to heal and rebuild strength before you’re back to what your new normal will be.”
I realize I’m holding my breath. Two years? That’s twice as long as the first surgeon estimated, and he thought saying one year might’ve been over-doing it.
The grief washes over us all at once.
Caleb is broken… in more ways than one.
Thursday, July 6th
“I have you on the schedule for four and a half hours,” Dr. Cota says. He’s dressed in his light blue scrubs and surgical cap. He just finished a brief surgery, so he’s warmed up and ready to tackle Caleb’s reconstruction.
It has been 16 days since the accident. Caleb’s been sitting with his leg above his heart this whole time, trying to get into surgery as quickly as possible.
Dr. Cota looks at me. “Families tend to freak out when surgery goes long. I get why, but don’t. If it takes me longer than four hours, that’s how long it takes. I will take as long as I need to put him back together. And when I’m done, I will call you.”
I nod as he leaves, and the anesthesiologist comes in. “Okay Rylee, it’s time for me to put the nerve block in, so we need you to say goodbye.”
Goodbye. I hate that word.
I pray with Caleb, pack up my bag, and walk my tear-streaked face back to the car. It’s crazy how frequently I would come to cry in public in the coming months.
I spend a few hours with a dear friend who sits with me, cleans my house with me, and prays for Caleb. Every time I remember he is undergoing surgery, it feels like someone physically squeezes my heart. Anguish they call it. For Caleb it is physical, but for me, it is emotional.
I sit in the waiting room across from the surgical reception desk staring at the clock. Four and a half hours has long since passed. Is Caleb okay?
Don’t freak out. Dr. Cota said don’t freak out.
I take deep breaths and try to distract myself. Surely any minute…
The pager in my hand finally buzzes. YES!
They take me to a consult room where I wait for Dr. Cota. I have to remind myself to keep breathing. Why is it what we hold our breath when we are anxious?
He opens the door and hands me a new x-ray.
My jaw hits the floor. I don’t know how long I stare at it before looking up at Dr. Cota.
“Yeah,” he says.
“How many screws is that?” I ask.
He laughs. Laughs. I have no idea how to take that.
“I don’t know,” he says. “At least 25.”
It’s okay, I decide, and I laugh with him.
“So now what?”
“He did great,” Cota says. “His ankle was in five pieces.”
My jaw hits the floor—part two.
He goes on to explain the reconstruction process, where there is metal and why the metal is there. “I’m leaving town tomorrow. You’ll follow-up with my nurse practitioner.”
Of all the times for a doctor to go on vacation. *sigh*
I walk back out to the waiting room. They are finalizing some things with Caleb’s nerve block, but they’ll let me know when he’s awake and what room they send him to.
I immediately send the x-ray to everyone I can think of. It’s WILD. Honestly, it’s a moment of brevity in an otherwise overwhelming and emotionally taxing day. Everyone freaks out over the picture. By the time they call me up to Caleb’s room, I’m actually smiling.
Caleb spent seven hours in the OR that day. When he woke up, his body hurt. He longed to go without the strong medication so he could go home the next day, but the night was excruciating. His nurse let me stay in his room, and I couldn’t be more grateful. The thought of leaving him there alone burdened my heart. I could not take his pain away, but I could at least walk through it with him.
Long story short, the pain was so unbearable and the medication so frequent that he ended up staying two nights following surgery. I was scared to take him home. There’s nothing I could do for him to make the injury heal faster or the pain go away. It’s a helpless feeling.
We continue our weekly trot to the doctor’s office. He seems to be healing pretty well, though be it slow. He has more stitches than I can count. They cut out half and tell us to come back the next week.
They cut out more and tell us to come back the next week.
They cut out the rest and tell us there’s a spot we need to watch out for.
This particular spot was a circular wound from one of the pin sites from his external fixator. It’s unnatural for skin to grow back together in that shape, and now there’s a metal plate underneath it which hinders the process.
They give us lots of wound care supplies and instructions on what to do if it gets infected. We didn’t know then how troublesome one small wound could be.
Wednesday, August 2nd
“I think I need to go to the ER.”
I don’t even try to hold it together. I’m exhausted physically, mentally, emotionally. I’m frustrated. It’s 10pm. We have company arriving in ten minutes.
The pin site is infected. It’s bright red all around. It’s oozing (I’ll leave the graphic details at that for my fellow weak stomach friends). It’s disgusting.
I have just arrived home from youth, so I go to change into comfier ER clothes (I’ve learned a few things about hospital visits now). When I re-emerge, Caleb prompts me to sit next to him for a moment.
“I called Jon,” he says. “He’s gonna take me to the hospital so you can stay here with your sister when she arrives. I’m going to be okay. I don’t want you to worry about me.”
He has finally been off of narcotics long enough to put a coherent thought together again. He’s more aware. He’s more kind. He’s more loving.
I sit and sob until Jon arrives and drives him away. This is what it feels like to have your heart in two places.
Wednesday, September 6th
Tomorrow will be nine weeks since the reconstructive surgery. Caleb has been out of work this entire time recovering. I am ready to have him back. He is ready to no longer be stuck at home.
We head to the doctor, anticipating one more week until he is cleared to walk; after all, they said ten weeks of non-weight bearing would be all it took.
We also anticipate a need to get one of his pin sites closed—the same one that got infected and sent him to the ER. The same one that has refused to grow back together for the last nine weeks.
We are disheartened to feel set back once again.
Dr. Cota uses the back end of a cotton swab to investigate Caleb’s tissue around the pin site. He is silent. He is focused.
This cannot be good, I think. When your surgeon looks stumped, you feel little hope for a positive projection.
“I’m getting really concerned that this has been open for so long. I’m looking at the plate on his shin, and I took extra measures during the last surgery to get this spot closed because the plate inside cannot be exposed like that. At this point we are opening ourselves up to deep tissue infection. I think we need to get aggressive with it.”
He explains that he’ll need to do another procedure. More cuts. More stitches. More healing. And he's doing it tomorrow.
“Oh, and your x-rays look good, but it’s not ready for weight yet. Let’s give it three more weeks.”
I’m going to keep this simple: I had a meltdown.
Why won’t God just heal him? Why is this being so prolonged?
I am so tired. Not sleepy, but weary. Every ounce of energy I can muster throughout the day is used for other people, other problems. I’m wearing more hats than I bargained for, and while I’ve had bright spots and rapid growth, I feel myself wearing thin.
Yet the next day at the hospital, I have a moment so polar from my first round waiting for Caleb the day after the accident. I find myself sitting in the hospital cafeteria, eating a parfait just like during the first one. Instead of choking it down and choking back sobs, I’m eating well, drinking coffee, reading a book, and feeling more at ease than I have this whole time.
This should be it. We will now experience healing.
How I longed for it.
How far away was it?
Wednesday, October 4th
Four weeks after surgery three, it is deemed unsuccessful. In fact, the hole in Caleb’s leg is now twice as big as it once was. He’s experiencing increased pain and redness—both signs of potential infection.
“My fear is that we’ll have to remove the hardware already,” Dr. Cota explains. “It needs to stay for a year, but if it’s infected, that’ll force my hand.”
He sits and contemplates, stumped once again.
“I’m going to reach out to a plastic surgeon to see what our options are here. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
Plastic surgery? Seriously?
Will this nightmare never end?
Tuesday, October 10th
On Monday we get good news! There’s one more option before plastic surgery or hardware removal. It’s a major skin flap procedure that will result in more cuts and a longer healing period.
We schedule the operation for Tuesday.
A friend meets me in the hospital cafeteria for a late breakfast and prays with me while I wait.
It goes well. I take him home. Now we play the waiting game.
Wednesday, October 18th
It’s healing well! Praise the Lord.
And not only that, but Caleb is cleared to weigh bear as tolerated.
We may as well have floated out of the doctor that day. Things are finally moving forward.
But then things get freaky.
On Wednesday, October 18th, I came home from youth around 9:30pm and began getting ready for bed. Caleb, practicing putting some weight on his newly cleared foot, hobbles around the house doing a few small things for himself.
He wraps up and makes his way into our room. As he closes the door and turns to face me, he looks sick.
“I’m not feeling very well,” he says. “I’m pretty dizzy.”
“Come lay down and close your eyes.”
The moment he’s under the covers, his entire body begins to shake uncontrollably. I knew my human-space heater husband could never be that cold in our house, and my concern skyrocketed.
“What’s happening?” He asks to no one. “I can’t control it.”
I squeeze his hand and tell him to keep breathing and not to panic. He appears to be having a seizure, but he’s coherent, so that can’t be right.
I lay down next to his trembling body and whip out my phone to Google-diagnose his condition. I’m reading about seizures, blood clots, kidney failure, liver failure, and more.
I’m begging God to make it stop.
We travel for a wedding the next day and end up back in the ER while we’re gone. Another “episode” happened in our hotel room. He had a fever. His leg was uncontrollably swollen and refusing to go down. The lymph nodes in his right leg were swollen. The vein up his right leg was exceptionally hot to the touch.
Something was wrong.
After nine completely unhelpful hours in the ER, we head out, assured nothing life-threatening is going on.
Rather than the vacation we had planned, we return home so Caleb’s doctor can see him. His leg is swollen and red. He’s still having fevers. Turns out there is not only an infection, but one of the screws in his leg is backing itself out. It’s causing intense pain and irritation.
Dr. Cota prescribed an antibiotic and ordered more labs and a CT scan.
We get a call the next day that there’s a tissue infection. On Tuesday, October 31, Caleb will have his fifth surgery. At a minimum, the loose screw will be removed. At a maximum, all the hardware will come out.
Turns out this journey is still far from over.