Sometimes, what you fear most is what you get.
Mom, now 85, developed an infection in her artificial right knee a couple months ago. Her orthopedist confirmed and scheduled surgery to clean it out, sort of a “flushing” procedure, in a late Tuesday night emergency surgery. Her orthopedist and her infectious disease doctor told us there is a 10-15% chance the infection would return–or never leave. And when that happens, the artificial joint must be removed, and another installed.
She spent almost three weeks in a rehab facility right after the surgery, and came home to me playing infusion therapist and several home care specialists visiting during the week.
The pain never stopped. It got worse. I called the orthopedist’s office and we went in last Monday. Dr. Shell drew enough fluid off the knee to send it to the lab. He called today to say that test results showed an elevated white blood cell count, the indication of an infection. That, coupled with the worsening pain, was enough to make a case for removing the knee, inserting a space for a couple months, and making a replacement in a second surgery. He said he felt we should do the surgery sooner rather than later, like Tuesday.
Some doctors know what a great comfort it is when they speak to patients frankly, with compassion, and with the focus on the fellow human they’re talking to. William Shell is such a doctor, such a man. At the end of our conversation, I told him I hated to ask for more of his time, but would he please call Mom and go through the whole thing with her?
“Of course, I’d love to. I’ll do it right now. I like to talk to Ethel.”
I started to give him her cell phone number. I got as far as 615-330. I added an 8. And then I could NOT remember. I stammered.
“Hey, he asked, is it 8442?” he asked. “I see that’s showing as her cell phone number, and your number is her home number.”
“Yes, yes, that’s it.”
“Well, good. Sometimes computers work to our advantage.”
I didn’t cry. I called my brother in Nevada; actually, I talked to his wife. Sometimes, I’d rather let her relay news, especially when I’m afraid I might cry.
Then I sat at my desk, the best place I know, and tried to come up with what I was feeling. Sad, scared, those were the top two. I answered the phone on the first chime. It was Mom. I could tell she was scared, but she was resolved and she was loving on Dr. Shell. And then she asked me if I would tell Dad.
“Where is he?”
“Downstairs, somewhere. He’s probably outside. No, wait, I hear the lift. He’s coming up.”
“Okay, I’ll go catch him.”
I hurried out the door of The Cellar and caught Dad stopped midway up the lift.
“What are you doing?” I asked. “Is the lift not working right?”
“I’m trying to fix something. There was this big hole between the lift and the floor upstairs and I saw one of the women get her heel caught in it, so I put a big board there and now it’s shifted and it’s blocking the lift from getting all the way up.”
“Can you fix it?”
“Yes, I just have to move the board.”
“Well, come back down here, I have to talk to you.”
“What about? What’s wrong?” He pushed the down button before I had time to answer.
I sat in one of the chairs at his round library table. He sat facing me in a rocker.
“Dad, Mom is going to have to have another surgery. She’s going in the hospital Tuesday.”
“I was afraid of that. I just told her this morning that something is wrong and somebody needs to fix it. How did they find out about the surgery?”
“You mean what made Dr. Shell think she needed another surgery?”
He nodded. He moved his tongue back and forth in his mouth. He always does that before he tears up.
“Remember he drew fluid off her knee Monday? Well, when the lab tested it, it had lots of white blood cells in it and that usually means there’s infection.” I went on. “Here’s what they’ll do. He’ll take her knee out, and then he’ll put what he calls a spacer in there. And while that’s in there, she won’t be able to walk on it, so she’ll be in a wheelchair. And then, when they’re sure the infection is cleared up, he’ll go back in and give her a new knee.”
He wiped his mouth and I hurried on. “Now, listen, you are going to have to behave yourself. You can’t be crying and carrying on around Mom. Every time you get upset and get to crying and get all depressed, it’s not good for her. SHE’s the one having surgery, and she’s the one we have to think about. So you’ve just got to get hold of yourself. You got to buck up and show her encouragement.”
“I will, I will.”
“Now I know you’re upset right now and you probably need to stay down here until you’re sure you can do okay upstairs.” (I did say that very kindly.)
“Yeah. I won’t go up right now. I have to fix this lift.”
“And I have to try to get all this stuff arranged,” I said.
I patted his shoulder before I left his office. I knew if I hugged him, he really WOULD start crying.
By the time I walked across the patio to The Cellar, Mom was calling.
“Yes, I told him,” I said. “He’ll be fine.”
“Well, where is he?” she asked.
“He’s fixing the lift.”
“You know what I keep thinking about? Remember, Faye [her cousin], laid there in that bed at the nursing home with no knees…..”
“Yes, but you’re not Faye. You have a lot going for you. You have the best doctor, the best hospital, the best home environment, and you have us to take care of you.”
“You’re right. I do. All of the above.”