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It's Just a Matter of BALANCEYou Can't Put a Straight Leg on a Crooked Man
By Kevin S. Garrison
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Kevin S. Garrison
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIn the Beginning
I just wanted to leave that tiny claustrophobic exam room. Surely if I just left, everything would go back to normal. Those horrible words with their gruesome image would go away.
"We feel you have a ninety-five percent chance of having your right foot amputated due to the reoccurrence of the tumor."
I tipped my head back and looked at the bright lights above, shocked into silence in a way that I had never experienced before. Tears quickly began to well in the corners of my eyes. The pit of my stomach tightened, and I almost shook with emotion.
I thought, I am not dealing with this. I am not going to come back to this hospital. At that, I started feeling a tiny bit more in control. How can this be happening to me? I wished so much that my mother was with me. I felt so alone.
I was a teenager in the summer of 1969, and the summer heat baked the streets of El Paso, Texas, cooking the tar in the road until it began to bubble. The brown grass yearned for the cooling rains. When the rains finally came, the grass grew lush and green, creating summer fun for my friends and me. We treasured the rain and the simple pleasures it brought.
When the rains came, we would run to the park and watch as the water came slithering down from the top of the majestic, light brown, rain-soaked mountain, forming a pool on the playing fields. My friends and I would take our shoes off and run as fast as we possibly could, jumping and sliding, hydroplaning over the thick, dark green grass, falling, rolling, and getting soaking wet.
I will never forget the sweet smell of the wet grass in the park, inhaling it with my nose close to the ground, the air heavy with the scent of the wet desert sand surrounding us, saturated like musk. It was wonderful. One day I ran and jumped and slid, but my life began to change and spin way out of my control.
I was exhausted that day, stopping only after smacking my right foot into a small flat rock just under the water's surface. I sat down and saw that the toe next to my big toe was swollen. I'll tell you it hurt like hell, but of course I had to hide that from my friends. After all, we were only sixteen years old and very tough. When the initial pain subsided, I pretended that I had to get home. I walked the one block home, looking forward to resting in my bedroom.
I studied my toe for the next few days and learned to walk in such a way that it didn't hurt too much. However, whenever I forgot, my toe eagerly reminded me with a shooting pain. I came to the conclusion over time that I had broken the bone that attaches the toe to the foot, because it stayed swollen. The swelling remained even after it finally stopped hurting.
However, being sixteen, I ignored my swollen toe. There were so many things that were more interesting. The desert, for one. It was so intriguing, containing so much nature just down at the end of our street. My friends and I often went on all-day hiking trips. We would look for fossils of ancient ocean animals that had died millions of years ago. Most often we only stumbled upon faded, colored pieces of broken Indian pottery hundreds of years old. Holding those bits of history in my hand was a wild experience for me. I felt a physical connection to life in the near and far past. Exploring the desert was something I enjoyed very much and arranged to do often.
The desert sounds of grasshoppers as they flew off when we startled them and the constant buzz of the cicadas created our rhythm as we investigated our surroundings.
All around us were wild animals: lizards with ringed tails in all different sizes and colors, lonely coyotes that trotted along way off in the distant horizon. Doves, quail, jackrabbits, and roadrunners were as common as the cool breezes. Scorpions, rattlesnakes, and other strange, poisonous creatures crept along the brown desert ground. Although contact with those poisonous organisms was always a possibility, we tried to avoid them.
We navigated through the millions of mesquite bushes in bunches everywhere. The bushes with their dark gray branches and deep, greenish-yellow tiny leaves clustered in small bunches added a beautiful contrast of color in our desert.
We loved to go out deep into the ever-expanding desert wilderness and forget all our problems, especially during the winter months. When the winter days grew short and the weather was cold, we would cook out in the desert. Yes, we would bring water, a cooking pot, salt, pepper, matches, and enough eggs so we could each have two. Boiling up those eggs over a mesquite wood fire, arguing over who was going to get the cracked ones, and feeling hungry and anticipating our exceptional meal was wonderful. Eventually, we actually ate the eggs while we sat in the brown desert sand. We enjoyed them so, as they were always excellent. There is nothing like eating desert-cooked boiled eggs in the winter desert of El Paso.
Winter turned to spring, and months later, I was watching TV one morning with no shoes on when my mom saw that there was a bump at the base of my toe that extended to my foot. Mom said, "Look at that toe on your foot, your right foot!"
"What are you talking about?"
Mom's brows knit together as she bent forward for a closer look. "What happened to your foot, Kevin?"
"Mom, it's nothing!" I roared. I think she was upset that she hadn't noticed it earlier. I pointed to the toe. "The bump here must have been caused at the same time as the toe break, back when I kicked a rock playing in the flooded field. This is some type of a delayed reaction. It's nothing, Mom. It doesn't even hurt."
My mother was not accepting any of my explanations. "We're going to the doctor, and that foot is getting checked," she decided, and to the doctor we did go.
After the exam, Dr. Goldner, whom I had known since I was ten, agreed with Mom. In his unusually soft voice, he said, "Kevin's toe looks like something could be going on in there. The X-ray revealed a cavity or hole in the bone. I want Kevin to see a specialist, an orthopedic doctor, to find out what happened to the toe." As he spoke, he looked at Mom.
We then immediately saw Dr. Bassett, whose office was in the same building. After one look at the toe and the X-rays, Dr. Bassett, who was a big, heavyset guy, directed his attention to my mother. "We need to perform surgery in order to go into the toe bone and scrape off samples of the bone tissue to test."
That will definitely hurt, I thought. A wave of anxiety started developing, a rush of heat enveloped me, and I started to sweat. What the hell is this doctor talking about? How do I prepare for this bone scraping? Why is it so necessary? What is going on?
Surgery was set up immediately. I remember getting wheeled into the operating room area while lying on my back. I saw my name on a board up high on the wall with an L with a circle around it next to my name.
I called a nurse over and asked her if that L meant my left foot and proceeded to explain that the problem was in my right foot. She seemed to ignore me, as they had already given me a shot of something to relax me and I probably didn't know what I was talking about. I apparently kept going on about it, because Dr. Bassett came into the room all dressed in green and looked at both my feet under the bright white sheet. He then ordered that the notation above be corrected. I think someone must have gotten in trouble for that little oversight.
After surgery, the doctor told my parents that he didn't like the look of what they found, although there was no cancer present in what they tested. He wanted us to go see some experts on this type of phenomenon to make sure that everything was okay and my strange-looking toe wasn't hiding anything sinister.
We were sent to Houston to see the specialists at the M. D. Anderson Tumor and Research Center. I was sure that these experts would figure it all out and tell my parents that what had happened to my foot was really nothing serious, as I had known all along.
Chapter TwoHouston: My First Medical Visit
Mom and I wound our way through an absolutely enormous hospital with a labyrinth of hallways to a waiting room. We were sitting in chairs so green they were almost black. The smooth, pale walls had no interesting pictures hanging on them, and they seemed to go on forever in all directions. The chairs were positioned perfectly in row after row after row, with people stuck in them. I think these overused chairs could hold hundreds of people each day. The sight of so many people waiting was very unsettling. We were just like fish in a giant sea, waiting to witness what would happen next.
After waiting for what seemed like days, we were finally called to go into a waiting room just for us, a tiny room that had a pungent alcohol-type antiseptic smell. I could not sit still. I was rocking back and forth and tapping on the cylindrical metal container on the countertop. I was feeling a bit tormented. All this waiting was inhumane.
"Kevin, would you just be patient?" my mom almost whispered. "The doctor will be seeing us very soon now." What struck me was that Mom had just reprimanded me in a very calm voice. Her speech did not exhibit a level of anger appropriate to my level of inappropriate behavior. Mom was freaked out too.
Our waiting ended when several doctors bustled into the room and, after a brief exam, told us they immediately wanted to test the tissue on top of the bone where the bump was so they could determine what exactly it was.
One doctor even asked permission to take pictures of my foot, as this was something they had never seen before. I thought this was cool; I was going to be in a medical book. Well, my foot was, anyway!
The shutter of the camera clicked away. The sound of that camera doing its job was suddenly interrupted by Dr. Bengerman. He held my gaze as he assured me, "The biopsy won't hurt, Kevin, because I will inject some Novocain in the skin before I begin to cut through it."
The coolness of my photography session ended. I could not believe that a simple injection of Novocain would prevent the pain that a sharp knife cutting through my skin to the bone was bound to inflict, and I became very tense.
After the photography session, I bravely went into a room that looked like an operating room and lay on my back as directed on a flat table in the room's center. I remember thinking they should call the room the Antarctica chrome room, because everything except the ceiling and floor was coated with chrome. Just entering the room gave me a cold feeling.
Lying on my back with my right leg all exposed, I felt as if I were in a refrigerator. I actually started to shiver slightly, and my teeth began to chatter uncontrollably.
Dr. Bengerman came into the room. From my perspective on the table he seemed very tall and a little scary, masked and garbed for the procedure. He reassured me again, saying quietly, "This won't hurt, Kevin."
I still didn't believe him. He was an intern or student doctor who was instructed by the main surgeon assigned to me, Dr. Green, to perform this procedure. I focused on the chrome light fixture attached to the ceiling directly in my view, trying to blot out what was happening to me.
The pinch of the Novocain-filled needle hurt as it penetrated the skin. It hurt a lot. It hurt every time he pulled it out and pushed it back in, again and again.
However, Dr. Bengerman was right; I didn't feel much of the actual cutting. In fact, everything was fine until he started pressing down firmly with some type of scissors, snipping at an uplifted edge of the bump in an effort to remove a piece for testing. I cringed when I heard a piece of the hard material ting against the metal light fixture that hung directly over the work area.
That clink made everything too real. My foot was being cut into little pieces, and little pieces were being removed!
I could not wait for the procedure to end. I began fidgeting as electrical shock waves shot up my leg every time he firmly pressed down. After what seemed to be an eternity, he finally sensed that what he was doing was killing me and abruptly stopped. I was so thankful that he stopped.
He finished by putting in seven stitches, pulling the cut skin together in a crescent-moon-shaped line. Dr. Bengerman said, "Kevin, you did a great job. Thank you!" He then left the refrigerated room. It was over. I was exhausted. The nurse brought me back to my mom.
Mom took one look at my face and knew I had just gone through hell. She looked sad and very concerned about me as she spoke to the doctor for a few minutes.
We left the hospital and went to my cousins' house where we were staying while we were in Houston. Mom told me we would be coming back the next day to discuss the test results and the plans that would follow.
My foot began to hurt during the night and most of the next day, much to my naïve surprise. However, I didn't want my mother to worry too much, so I acted as if the foot didn't hurt as much as it did. You see, my mother is a professional worrier, and I have always felt uncomfortable seeing her distressed, angry, or sad.
The next day Dr. Bengerman told Mom and me that he believed that the bump was a small growth. He went on to say that it should be removed along with the toe and the connecting bone it surrounded in my foot. He told us that even though the growth was not cancerous, it should still be removed. Arrangements for surgery were quickly made. I slowly began to realize that I was to lose a toe.
Once more I was being wheeled to surgery, only this time I was going down a long narrow hallway. One rectangular light was on the right and one on the left, catty-corner to each other. This was mesmerizing as I sped along. I watched one light fixture after the other after the other all the way to the stopping point at the end of this never-ending hallway. As I took that surrealistic ride to the place where toes were removed (the "surgical suite"), I was beginning to feel the weird sensation caused by the injection they had just given me. The last thing I remember are the doors slamming behind me as I slowly drifted into unconsciousness.
When I awoke, I saw my mom at my side. I began to smile, but pain exploded in my foot and the smile turned to a grimace. I felt as if I was being chased and the pain was catching up with me with a final boom.
I knew then that Dr. Green must have definitely done what Dr. Bengerman said should be done. My foot was buried under inches of gauze wrappings, so I wasn't able to see exactly what he had done to me at this time. But I could feel it. It was a rough couple of days.
My hospital room could accommodate four patients, although there were only two guys already in there. The cramped room was done all in tan: tan metal bed frames and headboards, tan walls, chairs, and cabinets. A thin, dark tan curtain was draped halfway around my space, giving a slight sense of privacy.
I was happy to be next to the window even though I couldn't see anything out there from my point of view. I could see only the natural beauty of the outside light filtering through the powder-blue sky showering over me as I lay helplessly in my bed. This made me feel a little better. The natural light gave me a warm feeling of health and well-being—or maybe it was just the pain medication.
I think my roommates were worse to deal with than the actual pain of the surgery. One late night this old guy in the bed next to me who was always unconscious must have been given the wrong brownish milk-shake-type stuff in his feeding tube.
He started passing gas late that night. The noise and stench from the tremendous gas attack he was having was so disgusting that it jarred me awake, despite all the medication I had received. The room smelled so bad that I could not breathe.
I did not care how sick he was. I just wanted him to stop emitting that suffocating odor. I was desperate to make him stop and began thinking menacing thoughts, like moving his bed out in the hallway or out of the hospital altogether. Well, since I couldn't physically do that, I wondered, what could I do?
Finally I buzzed the nurse. The intercom clicked and a somewhat gruff voice inquired, "Can I help you with something?"
Choking, I tried to explain that I was suffocating. I said, "Please rescue me from the exhaust fumes produced by my roommate, who was given some type of spoiled liquid nourishment for his last meal."
"Excuse me?" the inquiring voice said. I was too nice of a kid or maybe just too shy to try to explain in more appropriate detail, so I let go of the intercom button and just breathed shallow breaths through my pillow for a while. After all, I figured, he had to stop sometime—you know, eventually run out of gas.
Excerpted from It's Just a Matter of BALANCE by Kevin S. Garrison Copyright © 2011 by Kevin S. Garrison. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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