Thursday, July 16, 2015

Putting the Comics into Comic-Con


            Unless you’re one of the 130,000 or so people who annually attend it, San Diego’s Comic-Con has probably been packaged to you in the media (assuming that you’re even interested in such things) as a four-day bacchanal of superhero movies, television shows, and cosplayers.
            And to some extent, it is. I’ve been going to Comic-Con for the last eighteen years (a number dwarfed by many Con-goers, I assure you), and in that time I’ve seen the attendance triple and the convention center undergo a major expansion—none of which was due to a growing interest in comics, per se. It’s been due to the increasing number of movie and television stars, studios, and fans in attendance. Two of the biggest draws this year were for movies that won’t open until 2016 (and if you’re waiting for a plug for them, then this probably isn’t the blog post for you).
            While outsiders get a pretty one-dimensional view of Comic-Con, the truth is that the convention is many things to many people (if you’re interested in the range of the “Comic-Con experience”—and the Con’s shift in focus over the years—then you should check out Morgan Spurlock’s 2011 documentary, Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope). To me, Comic-Con is about the comics, though I'll admit that I appreciate a good star-sighting and take copious pictures of the cosplayers. Many people—including insiders—have been sounding the death knell for comics at the Con, but I still saw plenty to command interest. So here’s a rundown of some titles that more people should be reading—titles that scored either awards or panels (or both) at this year’s Comic-Con:

Let’s get the biggies—DC and Marvel—out of the way. First up is Green Arrow. Or, more accurately, Green Arrow #41, which starts a (hopefully long) run by one of my favorite writers, Benjamin Percy.  Known primarily as a novelist (Red Moon, The Deadlands), Percy is bringing his unique sensibility (read: sophisticated horror) to one of DC’s canonical titles. Only two issues into his run, Percy and artist Patrick Zircher have already established a dark, chilling tone to the world of Oliver Queen.

On the Marvel side, I recommend one of the most exciting books out right now, Ms. Marvel. In this iteration, the titular hero’s secret identity is Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American teenager living in New Jersey (and who happens to be the first Muslim character to command her own title). Writer G. Willow Wilson and (usual) artist Adrian Alphona have created a smart and engaging character here, and they’re using the title to explore not only the complexities of being a teenager, but also the complexities of identity in all its forms, including religious. Two quick asides. First, images of Ms. Marvel were used to protestanti-Muslim ads on San Francisco buses. Second, this cutie:
She was the darling of a couple of panels I attended at Comic-Con, including the packed house at “The Women of Marvel.”

While we’re on the subject of women in comics, there’s Image Comics’ Bitch Planet. Written by Kelly SueDeConnick and drawn by Valentine DeLandro, this comic is an in-your-face feminist reclamation of the “women in prison” genre, and it gets better with each issue. As an added bonus, DeConnick and DeLandro have a lot of fun with the ads and columns at the end of each book. Definitely a title to watch.

Also from Image—which has firmly established itself as the most interesting of the mainstream publishers—is Saga, from writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples. I’m not a huge sci-fi/fantasy guy, but this story of on-the-run star-crossed lovers from warring planets (as narrated by their baby) succeeds at hooking both the gut and the brain. I’m sure that somewhere there are adaptation talks going on, and I’m sure that the result will be yet another example of awful CGI bombast. Saga has also won the Eisner for “Best Ongoing Series” three years running.

From Fantagraphics this year is the two-volume edition of Dan Clowes’s Eightball. While the book carries a hefty price tag, it’s worth every penny (if you can afford it). These hardbacks come packaged in a slipcase, and they reprint issues one through eighteen of the legendary comic—which, not incidentally, was one of the titles I discovered in graduate school that hooked me on the amazing possibilities of the medium. Clowes is a true master of comics, and this collection of his early work is not to be missed. Also check out David Boring, Ice Haven, and The Death-Ray, which appeared in the pages of Eightball but are not (as Clowes points out in his introductory notes) included in this set.

These last two (okay, three) graphic novels are ones that I haven’t yet read but plan to shortly. The first is Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer, a coming-of-age storythat has received both critical acclaim and some undeserved notoriety. I had heard about its excellence before Comic-Con, but it wasn’t until I attended a panel on banned comics put on by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBDLF) did I find out that This One Summer has been the target of censorship.


On Saturday morning I attended one of the most stirring panels I’ve ever seen at Comic-Con. The focus was TopShelf’s March trilogy, written by Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell. The books (volumes one and two are currently available; book three comes out next year) cover the life of Lewis and his struggles for civil and human rights. At the panel, Lewis spoke passionately about the importance of nonviolent revolution as a way to combat our society’s inequalities and injustices—a lesson he learned directly from Martin Luther King, Jr. As he spoke of his hope for the younger generation to carry this message forward, I couldn’t help but think of my two sons, both of whom are much more engaged in the issues of the day than I was at their age. At the conclusion of the panel (which was packed), Congressman Lewis asked everyone to walk with him down to the exhibition hall floor, where he and Aydin and Powell signed copies of their book. Here are a few shots:


 

            The last thing I want to mention is that many see Comic-Con as a haven for fanboys and fangirls, but there’s actually a thriving academic presence there as well. Aside from the many sessions aimed at (and created by) teachers and librarians, the Comic Arts Conference has been integrated with the programming at Comic-Con for over twenty years and is a place where comics scholars share their work 
with other academics and fans alike. One frequent presenter at the Comic Arts Conference (and friend of mine) is Dr. Charles Hatfield, author of Hand of Fire and professor at California State University, Northridge (CSUN). At Sunday morning’s annual “Tribute to Jack Kirby” panel, Charles announced that he’ll be curating “Comic Book Apocalypse: The Graphic World of Jack Kirby,” anexhibit of 100 original pieces by Jack Kirby that will appear at the CSUN artgallery from August 24th to October 10th. If you’re anywhere in the Los Angeles area, you should check it out.

            So that’s it from this year’s Comic-Con. The city of San Diego recently completed a deal to keep the convention at least through 2018 (at the likely expense of the Chargers, no less). I don’t know what the future holds, but if the comics rewards are as rich as they were this year, I’ll continue to set aside whatever five summer days this particular circus comes to town.



Friday, July 3, 2015

Do You Have the Time?

            “Jesus Christ, why are we so early?!!”
            I can’t remember where Shannon and I were going during this particular outburst, but it hardly matters. What I am sure of is that we were in my car, because at some point in all of the trips we take in my car, I hear some version of the above.
            “It’s my clock,” I say. “Remember?”
            “Oh yeah. Why haven’t you fixed that yet?”
            What I haven’t fixed yet is the time. For the uninitiated who don’t have a personal time-telling device, traveling in my car can be disorienting. A little work is required.
But it’s really pretty simple. Currently, if you want to know what time it is in my car, you just add one hour and then subtract four to seven minutes. In the fall, when Daylight Savings Time begins (or is it when Daylight Savings Time ends? I can never keep that straight), you just subtract four to seven minutes. Actually, by then, it might be more like five to eight minutes. Or six to nine.
            Part of the problem is that my clock is on my car stereo, and there is nothing intuitive about changing the settings. So why not check the manual? you might reasonably ask. Well, I bought the car used, and the stereo was an after-market addition by the previous owner, so there’s nothing in the manual about it. I figured this out the first time Daylight Savings Time began (or ended).
But I’m nothing if not resourceful. I found my car stereo’s manual online and printed the “Setting the Clock” pages, which are now nestled securely in my glove compartment. And, for a while, I would dutifully haul them out whenever Daylight Savings Time began (or ended) or when the clock’s naturally hurried pace reached the five or six minutes-ahead-of-the-generally-accepted-time.
But then I stopped.
            My kids were the first to notice. As befitting their respective personalities, my younger son, Tony, was okay with it. For my older son, Nick, it’s been another story.
            Here’s a quick and relevant story about Nick: one morning I watched him eat breakfast. It was pretty basic—a bowl of Oat Squares in milk. Before he dug in, he went through a whole little process where he tamped down the cereal with his spoon so that everything was as level as possible and the milk-to-cereal surface tension was uniform across the bowl. He started at the edges of the bowl, worked his way to the center, and then gave an adjustment tap or two in a few stubborn spots. It took nearly a full minute.
            “What. Are. You. Doing?”
            He looked up as if I’d caught him with unmatched socks.
            “Nothing,” he said. Tap tap tap. “Prepping my cereal.”
            Needless to say, my imprecise clock is particularly vexing to him (I should also mention here, as long as I’m in full “parental embarrassment” mode, that he sleeps with his watch on). He’s offered to fix it, to bring my clock into tight and proper alignment with the scientific community’s best calculations of the earth’s rotation, but I won’t let him. It’s important to me that clock stays a little out of alignment. It’s a reminder.
My clock reminds me that I’m not in control. I can plan and organize and work to figure every angle—all skills I have in abundance—but in the end, things can still go sideways. I’m not in control, and I don’t ever want to live in the illusion that I am. There are many examples of this, but I keep coming back to the obvious: ever since the early 1990s, I have been exercising regularly and eating relatively well, and guess what? I still got cancer.
            Twice.
            That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped exercising or watching what I eat. Both things make me feel good, and I like feeling good. But I don’t fool myself into believing that they’re guarantees of anything. The truth is, we may know what time it is, but all of us run on a secret clock whose time is hidden, even from us.
            “But Rocco,” you might say, “isn’t your little metaphor flawed? After all, you’re the one keeping the car clock the way it is. You really are in control, but you’re choosing not to exercise your power.”

            Um, hey, here’s an idea—shut up.



Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Some Good News

I’ve been on a brief hiatus. Last fall I took over as department chair, and I’ve been busy figuring out my new duties, at least one of which is to figure out how to sleep during meetings without calling attention to myself (hint—it’s easy; that’s what everyone is doing).

Anyway, I’ll be back with more posts soon, but I wanted to get something quick out to share the good news—my book, That Hidden Road, just won the San Diego Book Award in the “Unpublished Memoir” category. I was selected as a finalist earlier in the spring, but I didn’t want to say anything until they selected the winners (a complete list of which can be found here).

Parts of That Hidden Road have appeared on this blog, and I’ve been fortunate to publish a couple of stand-alone chapters (in slightly different form) in the journals Midwestern Gothic and the Georgetown Review. My job now is to get the whole thing published. There have been some close calls (stories in themselves), but no go. Maybe now luck is on my side…




Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Year in the Life

I just wrapped up the fall semester, and it occurred to me that it was very different from my previous two semesters of teaching.

Mainly because I felt like me.

One year and two months ago, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. I had surgery in October of 2013 and then began twelve weeks of chemotherapy that stretched from November, 2013, through January, 2014. In March of 2014 I had another surgery--this one pretty major--and a complication developed that didn't resolve itself until late May.

The chemo and that second surgery really kicked my ass. I lost my hair and bloated up through chemo, and then I started to waste away gradually and then rapidly after my surgery and as I dealt with my compromised lymph system. At one point, I weighed a little over 150 pounds, which I haven't weighed since I was about fifteen. I told my classes last fall and last spring that they only had about 80% of me on those days that I was able to make it in. Eighty percent at best, which wasn't very often.

The worst part of those eight months was not feeling like myself. My body--and mind, at times--had been hijacked and replaced with a lesser, confused, infirm version. Rocco negative 2.0.

During that whole time, I took a selfie a day. Sometimes more than one (like when I shaved my rapidly balding head). When I was nauseated and tired, it was hard to do; I didn't really want to look at myself any more than I had to.

I stopped taking the pictures a while ago, roughly around the time that I started to feel as close to normal as I'm going to get. So now I finally got around to putting all of those pictures together into a short video chronicle of a very tough year.


video



Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Judging Books by Their Covers

So it’s been a rough two-and-a-half months (that's about the time since my last post). The post-surgery complication I’d been dealing with—chylous ascites, or fluid collection in the abdomen—didn’t resolve as quickly as either my doctors or I had hoped. During this time, I’ve been on a strict no-fat diet and been pretty uncomfortable (massive fluid collection will do that). To be honest, right now I don’t feel like reliving this time, except to say these few things:

I’ll never again take for granted putting on my own shoes and socks, going to the bathroom (normally), and taking a nice deep breath.

A no-fat diet is brutal.

A no-fat diet for two and a half months is very brutal.

A no-fat diet for two and a half months when you’re having bi-weekly drainings (“paracentesis,” for all you medical procedure junkies) to the tune of six and seven and even nine liters of liquid is very, very brutal.

For most of the past several weeks, I’ve felt like this (minus the purple):



Incidentally, a recurring scene for me since last October has been a doctor outlining some new thing to be done to my body and then finishing with the sentence, “It’s a fairly simple procedure” (the one exception to this was my RPLND surgery, which my surgeon told me was “high risk”). Anyway, my response to “It’s a fairly simple procedure” is “Every procedure is simple when it’s not happening to you.”

I’m over all of this now—I’m no longer eating egg whites and beans as my main source of protein, I’m no longer leaking like the Cubs infield, and I’m no longer waddling around like the Penguin. Instead, I’m focused on trying to gain back the thirty or so pounds that I’ve lost, so there may be a fetishistically-rendered food post in the near future.

I’ll write about these post-surgery weeks at some point, but right now I’d rather start a new story.

Which brings me to books. Or rather, to book covers.

The other day I was in Target when I wandered by a book rack and saw that Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl—a novel I’d been eager to read—had finally come out in paperback. What’s more, the cover was a reproduction of the original hardcover’s—stark, black with red lettering, with a few stray wisps of hair invading the image from the left. Overall, a sleek and intriguing cover.



I bought it immediately, but not just because I’d been waiting for the paperback. The bigger reason was that I didn’t want to get stuck later with a “movie” cover that will no doubt feature Ben Affleck’s impossibly square jaw.

Which brings us to what is perhaps my top pet peeve.

There are many bad people in the world, and for the most part, we have punishments in place to deal with their bad deeds. But there is one group of evildoers that have for far too long gone unpunished.

The people responsible for movie tie-in covers.

I find few things more depressing than seeing some movie star’s picture plastered on the front of a book cover. This one here, for instance, makes me throw up a little bit in my mouth every time I see it:




Despite what Ruth Graham wrote earlier this week aboutadults reading young adult novels, I really want to read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. But I will say this: if the only copy I can get my hands on has Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort looking at each other all googly-eyed on the front cover, then I think I’ll pass.
NO

YES 

                                       
Does this sound unreasonable? I don’t care.

“But how,” one might ask, “can the cover possibly change the words inside? Isn’t it the same book?”

No, it’s not. Books with movie covers are different because those covers change our experience of reading them. First, those covers remind us that the story inside is a commodity, and once you finish it, you’re ready to consume it in yet another venue—your local movie theater. And second, those covers affect how we envision the actors. Instead of creating their own images of Jay Gatsby, new readers of Fitzgerald’s classic will picture Leonardo DiCaprio.

Now don’t get me wrong; I don’t have anything against film adaptations. I disagree with the oft-voiced maxim, “The book is always better.” It isn’t. The Godfather, Jaws, Goodfellas. All better. I don’t even subscribe to the belief that good books make lousy movies; The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Sweet Hereafter, To Kill a Mockingbird are all excellent movies adapted from excellent books. But I don’t want to be reminded, when I’m reading, that there’s another version out there waiting for me and my money. And I don’t want to be told whom to picture as the characters.

Books deserve care, especially with their covers. That’s our first engagement with the author’s story. Consider this one, for Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River (the book I’m currently reading):




The novel is a coming-of-age story of Margo Crane, a poor teenage girl who embarks on a journey up and down Michigan rivers after her mother abandons her and her father is killed. The prose is gorgeous and the perspective is third person, but the brilliance of the cover is how it subtly positions the reader in Margo’s boat. We see the river and horizon over the prow of her boat, through her eyes. If they ever make a movie out of this book, you can bet that the cover will let the reader do no more than stare into the face of some young actress.

Good covers don’t need to be elaborate, just evocative of what’s inside. Even the cover for Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is deeply connected to writer’s words. What better way to communicate the bleakness of what’s waiting for the reader than this:




Which is infinitely better than this:




I mean, I like Viggo Mortensen just fine, but come on.

Oh sure, some wiseass might remark. So I suppose that if you sold your bike book and they made a movie out of it and wanted to print up ten thousand copies with a picture of whatever actor they trick into playing you, you’d shout “No way!” Is that right?

Well, I’ll tell you, Some Wiseass. I’m a man of principle. I’m not someone who simply folds on his beliefs when a little cash is waved in his f—wait, did you say ten thousand copies?







Thursday, April 3, 2014

My Hospital Adventures, Part 2

If you haven’t read Part 1, you’ll want to begin HERE.


I came home from the hospital on the afternoon of Friday the 21st, feeling mighty proud of myself to be up and about only four days removed from major surgery. Of course it was difficult to move around easily—I wasn’t yet able to put on my socks and shoes—but my surgeon, Dr. K, and his team of residents warned me that it would take some time.

Meanwhile, I was still waiting for my plumbing to get fully functional. Part of the problem was the pain I felt whenever I tried to go; even deadened somewhat by the Percoset they gave me, it still hurt. The other part of the problem was that everything felt really, really tight. My stomach was swollen, but I’d been told it was due to the surgery. A lot of skin and muscle had been cut and retracted, and it would take time for the swelling to go down.

As the weekend progressed, though, I wasn’t so sure. It became harder to move around. Getting up off the couch was a major physical feat, and I would get some sharp pains in my torso. They had told me to keep walking, so I’d pace around but have to pause and concentrate to get a nice full breath. At first I attributed it to some kind of gas buildup, but then, as I lay in bed Friday night, my imagination took over. I envisioned my bladder expanding into my other organs, restricting their functioning; I pictured my bowels knotted up beyond function or repair. I could feel myself break into a cold sweat of panic.

When a small breakfast of tea and grapefruit came back up, I phoned the on-call urologist, and she told me to sip water throughout the day and keep walking.

Later that day, I noticed that my legs were swelling right above my sock line. A quick trip to the internet gave me the word edema, or water retention. It was a common effect of surgery.

It was a relief, but relief was temporary because I was really, really uncomfortable. I started to worry that I was retaining too much water when I saw that I was bloating out in different parts of my body (more on this later) and when I stepped on the scale to see it read 197 pounds—about fifteen above my normal weight.

Sunday was more of the same, so on Monday I spoke with Dr. C, the Chief Urology Resident who was a member of my surgical team and had been seeing me regularly the week before. I described my symptoms to him.

“Well, I don’t hear anything really alarming, but why don’t you come in today and we’ll have a look.”

Later, down at the office, a nurse practitioner named Teresa inspected my belly.

“This looks like edema, but I’ll have the doctor come take a look.”

“There’s something else,” I said and then delivered those four words that every nurse longs to hear: “My penis looks weird.”

She was unflappable and didn’t miss a beat. “What does it look like?”

I showed her, and she assured me that it, too, was just water retention that would eventually go away. She left to go find my doctor.

A few minutes later Dr. K walked in.

“Well first of all, there’s some good news,” he said. “Everything we took out was mature teratoma. Totally benign.”

Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that the pathology had probably been completed, but I had not allowed myself to think about it. Now here it was, and all the dread that had built up in my mind about it evaporated in a flash. It’s tough to capture the joy of that moment. Shannon and I looked at each other, and on cue our eyes welled up. I could feel my throat go tight, and it wasn’t until then that I realized I had fully expected the news to be completely different; I was convinced that they would see something they didn’t like in the biopsy and that somehow—and I wasn’t at all sure how—I would have to make it through three more rounds of chemo.

But no. No more chemo, no more cancer. Everything benign.

And suddenly everything between that very second and that afternoon back in October when my oncologist walked into the exam room and said, “Your numbers are up” just melted away, and I could feel, for the first time in a long time, my life start to come back to me.

Even now, as I write this, the relief of that moment is so powerful, so palpable, that I can feel the tears rising steady as a chant. Cancer free, cancer free, cancer free.

“Now let’s have a look at that belly,” Dr. K said. He poked around a red patch that I hadn’t noticed before.

“There might be a little infection below the skin. I think I’ll pull a couple of the staples so it can drain, and I’ll send you home with wound care instructions.” He looked up at me and smiled. “After the big news, you can handle that, right?”

“Right.”

“Why don’t you hop up on the table.”

I had been dreading the “staple removal” stage. It didn’t look like they were coming out without some kind of fight, and I worried about just how much of a fight they would put up. When I was in the hospital, I asked one of the residents what it was like, and he said, “No big deal, not a problem.” When I then asked him if he’d ever had staples taken out of him, he looked at me sheepishly and said, “Well, no…”

I lay down on the table, and Dr. K stood over me with the removal tool that looked angular and sharp, like an angry metal bird who liked to bite.



Having staples removed is not pleasant. It’s certainly not the worst thing I encountered—not even close—but it’s not “no big deal.” Each tug was accompanied by a sharp little pinch, and for the several staples that got stuck on their way out, there was a little bit more.

After Dr. K removed a few down where the incision swerved around my belly button, he took a cotton-tipped swab to probe the opening a little.

And then suddenly I was gushing fluid. Like cutting a hole in a waterbed gushing.

It burbled up out of the wound and spread down my pelvis and sides. Dr. K and Teresa started ripping open gauze packages to staunch the flow. At first he thought it was a pocket of infection draining, but it kept coming. I made the mistake of looking down, and I could see that the bottom part of my incision was gaping wide.

“This is a big wound,” Dr. K said evenly. “I’m going to want to readmit you.”

“Readmit me to the hospital?”

“Yes.”

Sonofabitch was what flashed through my mind. I was this close to going home…

Then he started talking about a possible torn fascia, which could be serious. He told me that if the fascia below was torn, they’d have to reoperate to close it up. He asked me when I’d last eaten, and I told him that I had a sandwich a few hours earlier.

“I need to look around in there, and to do that I need to get rougher with you than I can here,” he said. “I’d like to get you in an OR tomorrow morning.”

The liquid kept coming, and I have to say that I finally felt some relief from the pressure that had been building this weekend. Still, though, it was a pretty messy. The gauze pads were useless; Teresa had gotten towels which I held over my midsection, and both were getting soaked with this pinkish-yellowish fluid. I just lay there as he told me that he’d get me admitted and be right back.

So there I was, about to be readmitted, looking at (at least) one more trip to the operating room. Once again I was dumbfounded at how quickly things turn. A few minutes earlier I had been told I was free of cancer and was halfway out the door and back to my life. Now, who knew what was coming?

The curtain of the room parted and Dr. C came in. He’d spoken to Dr. K and wanted to have a look of his own.

It became quickly apparent that whereas Dr. K was reluctant to “get rough” with me, Dr. C had no such compunction. He snapped on a glove and started to probe my wound. And by “probe” I mean he really dug around in there. I groaned and clutched at the exam table.

“What’s wrong?” he asked mildly.

Uh, your goddamn FINGERS are in my BODY.

“Hurts,” I managed to squeeze out.

“I’m not feeling a fascia tear,” he seemed to say more to himself than to me. Then he went right back to digging around inside me.

He stopped and told me that he’d like to get something called a wound vac on me when we got to my room. He explained what it was and what it would do, but I was too distracted by the knifing sensation, which was slow to ebb.

“No surgery?” I croaked.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”

I was still panting when he returned.

“Okay, here’s what’s going to happen,” he said. “I’m going to pack your wound with a field dressing and then we’re going to walk briskly over to the hospital. When we get to your room, we’ll get some pain meds in you so that I can do a more thorough exam.”

“You mean like walk walk? Like literally walk?” That “more thorough exam” part also stuck in my head, but I had to take things one at a time here.

He looked at me. “Do you have a better idea?”

I had several, and not one of them involved me getting up on my feet. I had made that walk before when I had some pre-op tests done. It was about five minutes through a parking lot. I looked down at my body. I needed a new towel.

Dr. C packed the wound and started layering big gauze pads on top of me until my wound bulged to about the size of a softball. Then he slapped a giant abdominal pad over it and taped the whole thing down tight. He reached into a cabinet and tossed me a clean towel.

“You ready?”

My sweats were soaked almost to the knees, as was the back of my shirt. I had a gaping, wound in my midsection that was gushing some kind of fluid. And now I was supposed to get on my feet and walk “briskly” for about three hundred yards.

But then I looked at Dr. C, who had not a shred of doubt that I was going to make that walk. Emboldened by his confidence in me, I hiked up my soaking sweats, held the towel close over my dressing, and stood up.

He was a fast walker, and I did my best to keep up. It was a little difficult, because we were barely out of the building when I could feel that the dressing had given way and fluid was dripping down my leg. Halfway across the parking lot I looked behind me and could see a little trail. We hit the hospital lobby and made a beeline for Admissions.

“Have a seat over there,” he said, and turned to one of the admitting nurses.

I sat down for a few minutes and considered my soaked lap. I could feel the fluid rolling down my body, down my legs. When Dr. C called to me, I stood up and cringed at the giant wet spot on the seat. A puddle immediately began to collect on the floor between my legs. I looked over at the one other person in the waiting room—a man who stared at me, wide-eyed.



We hustled up to my room, where a nurse was waiting. He inserted an IV and started some pain meds while Dr. C was fiddling with some equipment.

“Okay,” he said. “Let’s have another look at that wound.”

Let me confess here and now that I would not hold up under torture. I always suspected as much, but I didn’t know for sure until I was on the bed in my room and Dr. C had his fingers in my body again. The meds had kicked in—I knew that much because my head was swimming—but it didn’t do much against Dr. C’s insistent fingers.

“Everything feels pretty good,” he said, which I mistakenly interpreted as meaning that he was finished. He wasn’t. He went back in twice more.

Finally, he was done. He packed the open wound with some foam and attached the wound vac, which was a little nozzle taped down tight over my belly and attached by a long thin hose to a portable unit. Once he got it fastened and turned on, pinkish liquid started to fill the reservoir tank on the unit.




It filled fast. Five hundred milliliters in about twenty minutes. When they changed the tank, they had to clamp off the suction, and a few seconds after they did, I could feel liquid seeping out from the tape around my wound and rolling down my body.

I filled a lot of tanks that night. The first couple took 20-30 minutes, and then they held steady at about an hour each. At some point, they brought in a big red box that said HAZARDOUS WASTE, where they deposited the full tanks. I wondered about that “hazardous” part; I had, after all, left a trail of this stuff across the parking lot and downstairs lobby, not to mention the puddle in Admissions.

Once they analyzed the fluid, there was a diagnosis. I had something called chylous ascites (KYE luss uh SITE eez), which was a possible complication of this surgery. What happens is that the channels that convey the lymphatic fluid get compromised during the surgery and don’t seal up, leaving the fluid to continue to flow and collect in the body. It resolves on its own, but timetables vary—days to months. It’s also exceedingly rare, occurring in only about 2% of patients who have the surgery. I knew it was rare because every doctor who visited me in the days that followed—Dr. K, Dr. C, a resident named Josiah and a medical student named Dustin—went out of his way to tell me just how rare it was.

I wasn’t sure what I should take away from that stat. Why should I care that it happens to only 2%? All that mattered right now was that it was happening to me.

Meanwhile, I continued to leak like a tanker run aground.

It was weird watching those tanks fill up. Those times when our bodies betray us have to be the most disorienting sensations there are. Our very identities come under siege, and from within no less—a civil war between our mental and physical selves. We all face it at one point or another and to varying degrees. Maybe we sweat uncontrollably in an interview or have a sudden gas attack in a crowded elevator. Or maybe it’s more serious—some cells decide to start growing and not stop. For sure, I’d been at war with my body since last October, but this last bit here was too much. I lay in bed that night and the next day and watched that fluid collect and collect with no end in sight, and there was nothing I could do except put my head back, close my eyes, and hiss, through clenched teeth, “STOP LEAKING.”

Not very effective.

They put me on a thrice-daily shot of Octreotide, a hormone that would reduce the production of the lymphatic fluid. They also put me on a no-fat diet to help accomplish the same. That’s “no-fat” as in zero fat, which is a lot different from “low-fat.” My meals consisted mainly of juice, tea, skim milk, and a plate of something like this:



They also started to give me a tiny sip of something called MCT oil every three hours, which extended through the night. So, every three hours I’d be awakened to drink a tiny amount of oil.

Eventually, my leak slowed. The tanks started to take about three hours to fill, and then on Tuesday night, they put a new one in that didn’t fill until twelve hours later.

On Wednesday they removed the vac and packed the wound. I kept walking but had to bring a towel along, because the dressing would only hold up for about an hour before it needed to be changed again.

My nurse that day, Juna, found wound bandages that were little plastic bags with a spigot on the end. She figured this would work better than gauze because when the bag filled up, I could just empty it.

We had to empty it twice that afternoon.

Around dinner time, Josiah came in with the new plan. I would have a CT in the morning and they would insert a drain in my side. I wasn’t crazy about the first part and even less enthused about the second. At this point, however, I kept telling myself, cancer-free.

The way I figured it, this was way more annoying than dangerous. In my mind, Cancer was pissed that I won and was giving me one last kick on my way out the door. If I handled everything that had come before, I could handle this, too.

The next morning when I woke up, the bag was almost completely dry.

Josiah was surprised but wanted to see how I did after eating and moving around. In the meantime, he canceled the CT.

After breakfast and countless laps through the hospital, the bag remained dry.

On Friday morning they decided to discharge me. Josiah came in to go over some instructions. Something had occurred to me, and I wanted to ask him about it.

“So I have a question for you,” I said.

“What’s up?”

“Now I know this surgery is pretty rare, and this condition is even more rare, right?”

“Right.”

“So, are you guys a little excited about it?”

I’d expected to encounter an immediate denial and effusive reassurances that my care was foremost in their minds, but he surprised me.

“Oh, yeah. That fluid was really something. I mean, to actually see it. Most of us will just read about it in a textbook.”

Well, glad to have helped out with their education.

Then he got down to the discharge instructions.

“For the next two weeks, we want you to maintain a no-fat diet.”

“No problem.”

“Also, we want you to continue to take the oil every three hours.”

“All right.”

“And you’ll need to give yourself a shot of Octreotide three times a day. Your nurse will show you how to do that.”

“Um, what?”

My friends Barb and Deb were visiting that morning, and I immediately confessed my anxiety about giving myself a shot. They tried to come up with possible solutions—driving to my doctor and having a nurse there do it, talking with someone in the Nursing Department at our college—but the more I thought about it, the more I decided that I  didn’t want to puss out before I even gave it a try.

My nurse that day, Sil, came in with some needles and saline solution. Once she laid out the materials and I saw them right in front of me, I felt myself starting to freeze up. But then I felt something else—something gathering inside me. It wasn’t anger, exactly; it was more like a fed-upness with things. I’d been poked, prodded, poisoned, scanned, injected, cut open, and stapled up over these last several months, and I’d be damned if I was going to let this last wrinkle get me.

I tugged my sweatshirt up and over my head. “Okay, let’s DO this,” I said.

I’ll spare the details of the self-injection, though I will say that sticking a needle into my abdomen ranks very high on my list of things that I hope to never have to do again.

So now I’m back home, eating my zero-fat diet, drinking my oil, changing the dressing on my wound, and giving myself a shot three times a day. I’ve got an appointment next week that I hope will put an end to three of these (I’ll still need to change the dressing), but if they have to go on a little longer, I can do it. And if something else comes up and I need some other procedure, I can do that, too. All of these scars have got to count for something.






Monday, March 31, 2014

My Hospital Adventures, Part I

A lot has happened since I last checked in. At the time of my last post, on March 8th, my surgery was still nine days away and the real dread hadn’t yet set in. But when it came, it came gradually and then rapidly, kind of like this:




The hours just before surgery were the worst.

The procedure, even in its abbreviated form—RPLND—sounds awful. All those letters. The full name is worse, of course. Retroperitoneal Lymph Node Dissection. “High risk,” according to my surgeon and everything I had been reading on the internet. Six hours on the table, an incision running from my sternum to below my belly button, scalpels (and whatever else they use) slicing around organs, nerves, and two major blood pipelines—the aorta and vena cava.

I checked in at 5:30 on the morning of the seventeenth. Outside the hospital it was dark and quiet; inside the hospital, the only activity was from the few of us scheduled for surgery. Me and Shannon, an older couple, and two women. It was easy to identify which person in each group was headed for the table; told to wear “comfortable clothes,” we all opted for sweats and slippers. After we handed over our insurance cards and got tagged with wristbands, we shuffled over to the elevator and headed up to pre-op.

Prepping for surgery entails getting naked, being hooked up to machines, and waiting.

When you’re waiting to do something unpleasant, time does funny things. It’s both longer and shorter than usual. At one point I lay there for what seemed like an hour to see that only ten minutes had passed; another time, the clock had jumped from 6:30 to 7 seemingly in the blink of an eye. During all of this, I was visited by various people—all kinds of nurses, members of my surgical team, anesthesiologists.

At a certain point, you just have to give in and see yourself as a piece of meat to be poked, prodded, moved around, cut open, and put back together.

Close to 7:20, they wheeled me into the OR, put an epidural into my back, and not long after that I was asleep.

I blinked myself back into awareness in the recovery room. People were calling my name. I made no attempt to move, and nobody asked me to. I couldn’t have even if I wanted because of a few new tethers—two more IV lines (though they weren’t attached to anything), cables on my chest, an oxygen line under my nose, leg massagers, and a catheter.

They didn’t have a room ready for me, so I lay in recovery for a few hours, over which time I became vaguely aware of a dull ache down my middle. I had two triggers for pain—one upped the epidural and the other Dialaudid, a painkiller. While I was there, they continued to wheel people in from the operating room. The only one who made an impression on me must have had some serious sedation based on her anesthesiologist’s half of their conversation, the only half I could hear:

“MICHELLE! Wake UP!

“MICHELLE!

“MICHELLE! Can you raise your right hand?

“MICHELLE! Raise your right hand!

“MICHELLE! Wake UP!

“MICHELLE!”
  
The first day was all about immobility, and only partly because of my huge incision. The drugs from the epidural had not quite distributed themselves evenly, so my right side was way more numb than my left. I couldn’t, in fact, really move my right leg at all.

I was in the first bed of a semi-private room. My roommate was a gravelly voice on the other side of the curtain. I asked him how long he’d been there, and he just said, “Long time.” Other than that, I only heard him say “No” (in response to the nurse asking if he wanted to get out of bed), “Pain meds” (in response to the nurse on the other end of his call button), and “Nausea meds” (in response to the same).

When lunch came that first day, the voice croaked out, apropos of nothing, “You should get the baked fish. I get it every day.”

“They’re not giving me anything yet,” I said. “Not even ice chips.”

“The baked fish is good. I get it every day.”

“They said I might get some liquids tomorrow.”

“Y’oughta try that baked fish.”

Okay, I thought. Please stop saying “baked fish.”

Shannon brought the boys to visit on Tuesday afternoon. I wanted to at least be on my feet for that, but nothing doing. Instead, a nurse’s aid helped me into a wheelchair and rolled me out to a lounge area, where I had the energy to visit for about a half hour.

On the ride home, Shannon told me later, Tony said that he didn’t like how everyone could see my butt. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that my catheterized wingwang had also been on pretty prominent display.

The next day they removed the main dressing and I got the first good look at my scar.




The days unfolded in long stretches of nothing punctuated by short bursts of intense activity—a nurse appearing to check my vitals and give me a shot, a resident stopping by to look at my incision, my phone ringing. This would go on through night, too. I’d be lucky enough to slip into some pocket of deep sleep, only to wake up as a nurse velcroed a blood pressure cuff on my arm.

And everyone asked the same question—Have you passed any gas?

I slowly shed my tethers—first the EKG cables, then the oxygen, and then the epidural. I wanted to start walking, and my main inspiration was my roommate.

I never really found out what was wrong with him, but he never had any visitors, and I overheard his nurses talk about moving him to a care facility. I thought he was pretty old, but one night, there was an Emergency marathon on the retro channel that he never seemed to shut off, and he said that he watched that show as a kid.

Holy shit, I thought. I watched that show as a kid. He couldn’t have been more than fifty.

He was in a bad way, but it was also clear to me that he was playing a kind of game with his nurses. During a shift change, I heard his nurse tell her replacement that he could move all of his limbs but refused to get out of bed. And at least twice a day, when his nurse suggested that he get out of bed and sit in a chair, he’d respond, “Nice try.” Once, he even warned the nurse, “I’m going to spoil your day today.”

Near the end of the week I was free of everything but my IV (the catheter came out Wednesday, and it was not a pleasant experience). I worked hard to get out of bed and into a chair by myself. To do that, and to then get myself out of the chair, I had to focus on using just my arms and legs. This is harder than it sounds; we use our abs for nearly everything. But whenever I’d use mine, a lightning bolt of pain would rip down the front of my body.

Once I could get up and out, I would amble, turtle-like, around the halls outside—first one lap at a time, then three, then as many as I wanted. There was a magnetic board with little cars on it in the hallway where patients could keep track of their laps (twenty-six equaled a mile, apparently), so I commandeered a green pickup truck and started keeping count. 


Every time I walked past that board and the sign next to it—“Bed is the patient’s #1 enemy”—I thought of my roommate, and how the nurses were now working on a new problem with him. He’d been constipated for four days.

“Ya better bring the dynamite!” he told them at least five times, inexplicably cheerful.

I’d hear this and think, Oh, hey, here’s an idea, Mr. Beddy-Bye: get up off your ass and stop packing your gullet with baked fish.

I couldn’t hang around that room. I walked lap after lap in the hall, and then I’d venture outside the ward and into the hospital proper. I kept track of the NCAA tournament games on my phone, and when a close one was winding down, I’d slip quietly into my room to catch the end.

Discharge came a day early—Friday instead of Saturday. The charge nurse removed my IV, went over instructions with me, and asked if I wanted to be taken downstairs in a wheelchair.

I didn’t. I worked hard to get walking again, and I wasn’t about to be wheeled out. Before I left, I wished my roommate luck. I felt bad for him. Life in a bed is no life at all. I had no idea what led him there or what was keeping him there, and I didn’t want to know. I hope I never know.

Leaving that hospital, I was happy to be heading home, and I felt a lot better than I had on Tuesday.

What I didn’t know at the time was that things were going to change over the weekend, and that in a few short days I’d be readmitted.