Warning: this post has graphic descriptions and imagery of surgical procedures and wounds.
Eight years ago, I had one of the most traumatic experiences of my life and my health journey.
One of the surgeries I desperately needed at the time was on both of my upper thighs. They were ravaged by infection at this point, and I went into the surgery completely unsure what to expect. I can tell you that I certainly did not expect what would transpire after the surgeries, which is 4 separate and intense traumatic experiences that have been burned into my memory.
Due to the nature of the surgery and how deep they were planning to cut into my thighs, the anesthesiologist suggested an epidural combined with the general anesthesia, hoping it might ease the burden of pain on my body some. But when I woke up after surgery and for days later, I was unable to move my legs. A nurse would pick up my leg or bend it, but as soon as she let go my leg would flop back down to the bed. I had feeling in my legs, but I could not control them, no matter how hard I tried. This would be devastating to anyone, of course, but to add another layer to it–I had just run my first full marathon a year before then. I was genuinely picturing what my life would look like in a wheelchair moving forward.
Fortunately, the physical therapist was able to work with my legs to restore muscle memory; and within a few days I was able to independently move my legs again. But I will never forget the fear, feeling frozen in time, picturing the worst because I had zero distractions from the pain and horror.
The first time they tried to get me to walk after the surgery. It took 4 nurses + a walker to realize that I was NOT ready to be walking. We made it a few steps before turning me back to the bed because my body was shaking so violently from the pain. We did not try again for a full week because it was clear that we had tried far too early. Coincidentally, this experience was exactly a year to the day from when I had run my first marathon. That juxtaposition was almost too much to bear. I allowed myself to cry and feel defeated, but I developed firm resolve in knowing that by that time, the following year, I would run another full marathon (spoiler alert: I ran one less than a year later).
The next day, I vomited in the middle of the night, and we noticed that my right leg was bright red and swollen all the way down to my knee. My fever confirmed what we had feared–that the surgical wound had become infected. My pain went through the roof at that point, and I couldn’t even sit up for more than a few minutes because the pain was too intense. What became significantly traumatic about this scenario is that the infection caused my surgical incision to open back up. It was a deep incision made along the crease between my thigh and groin, and it made walking (when I was finally able to do so with 2-3 nurses in assistance) excruciating.
I remember a specific moment when the nurses helped me to the bathroom and I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I did not recognize the person who looked back at me. Pale skin, sunken in cheeks, dark circles, thinning hair, a shadow of the person I was used to seeing when I looked in the mirror. It didn’t even feel like I was looking at a human. There was a complete disconnect between me and the person looking back at me. And then…I saw it. I saw the open wound at my thigh. Only for a moment, but it is forever etched into my memory–what the inside of my body looked like. I will never forget the dissociative horror of that moment and still feel it in my gut when I think about it.
Because of the infection and subsequent wound opening, my doctor decided to utilize a wound vacuum to aid in my healing. For those of you who aren’t familiar, a wound vac is a machine used to help eliminate infection or fluid buildup in surgical wounds. On one side, there is a sponge that is applied to the open wound. A dressing is applied over the sponge, and a tube is attached to it, with the actual machine on the other end. When you turn on the machine, the suction causes the sponge to contract, safely closing the surgical wound while suctioning any fluid build-up as the wound heals. I got to carry this wound vac around with me for 4-6 weeks after I was discharged from the hospital, until my wound healed. It was painful and inconvenient…to say the very, very least. But it was necessary.
Now that you have a small picture of the trauma that occurred after this surgery, let me tell you…for the first time since then, I have a surgery scheduled for the same right leg that brought upon so much trauma 8 years ago.
Fortunately, this surgery will not be anywhere near as involved or serious as the previous one, but explain that to my anxiety, will you? Because this heavy feeling of all the past trauma being unlocked is like an elephant sitting on my chest. It’s making me realize that I never fully processed the trauma of those months, and it’s making me feel desperate for relief.
So what am I doing about it?
I contacted a therapist, and I set up my first appointment with her. I don’t expect healing to occur overnight by any means, but there is comfort in knowing that I am doing what I can to heal emotionally while I have such support for physical healing. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t set up every protective factor I could to save me when I know I’ll need it.