Thursday, April 28, 2011

Top 10 memories from this wacky rehab from cancer, back surgery and assorted other things

In honour of my improving mobility, the hard-working staff here at G.F. Strong physical rehab and the fact that I've got a morning without any classes, may we present my favourite five memories so far of our little fracas with cancer, back surgeries and infection.
I've purposely tried to cut down on mentions of Carol-Ann, because every entry every time could be focused solely on her, considering how brave she's been and how much she's propped me up and kept me going in the right direction. She doesn't like the attention, for one, and I also want to try to keep some of the things that have happened strictly between my wife and I.
We had a hoot in the week-plus leading up to the diagnosis of a Solitary Plasmacytoma tumour in my T-2 vertebrae.. We had 75 different people visit over that time, and everybody was in good spirits, full of life. Nurses quickly referred to it as the party room, Carol-Ann apologized more than once for the racket we were making.
Carol-Ann and I have to take credit for some of the fun -- Bif Naked (shameless name drop) had prepped us well, saying, "Get ready to console people about your cancer,"  and we made sure that we had the one-liners rolling off the top of the morning.
There were so many fun things that grandmother admitting her crush on Jay Janower (shameless name drop) when he came by, Carol-Ann feverishly handing out candies and cookies to random people in the hallways on our final night to cut down how much of the sugary booty we had amassed that she had to take him with us, and Iain MacIntyre (shameless name drop) commenting "There hasn't been a pee that long since the Austin Powers movie," when I went to relieve myself in the bathroom in the room. (My ego and pride quickly disintegrated.)
My favourite moment of all may have been when a young intern from B.C. Cancer came to check on my strength with one of those "Arm tug-of-war" tests. I was still feeling pretty well back then, and was weary of not pushing around any of the nurses when they did those tests. This guy popped me pretty hard the first time, and said, "Yep, been going to the gym."
He had 10 years on me. I had 75, 85 pounds on him. I looked at my dad and he nodded, and the next time I sent the poor kid sliding across the floor, shuffling his feet to keep from tipping over.
Yep, I really am an old 12-year-old sometimes.
I hate operations. I loath them. I'm a control freak, and I can't stand having someone else having that kind of say over my body. As well, I'm a worst-case-scenario guy, so I greatly fear being one of those people who die during a "simple" surgery from an oddball complication.
I thought I hated flying. Compared to surgery, flying is like having a big, juicy BBQ'd steak. My hands still ache from the IV lines.
Every surgery, though, meant these intimate little moments for Carol-Ann and I. We'd sit in pre-op downstairs, and I'd cry like crazy, and she'd tell me over and over again how much she loves me and how everything was going to be alright. I'd grunt out: "I will fight for you," and she would nod and smile, and, before too long, they'd be taking me off to the operating room.
There were also one-on-one times with Dr. Robert Lee, our surgeon for six and half of the eight operations that we had. He was always very in tune to my mood and my fears. He knew how much I hate surgery. He knows how it freaks me out.
Before Surgery No. 7, which was the second rods-and-screws back rebuild, he came in to our hospital room to tell me that we had been pushed back a couple of hours. Carol-Ann was off getting a coffee.
After explaining the scheduling snafu, Dr. Lee looked at me, grinned, and said, " know I'll take care of you, don't you?"
I nodded. He grinned again. And, sure enough, I'm better than I was when I was thrust into his care.
I don't know I'll ever thank him. No clue. I'm also not sure if anyone -- including Carol-Ann -- understands the bond I feel with Dr. Lee.
In November, when I was living at home and doing radiation treatment, I wanted to do something physical to try to get in some semblance of shape. Finally, I got the OK from the powers that be to try walking in the pool.
I hate the water. (I'm a big wimp. I admit it.) But I knew it would help. Sure enough, we recruited eight people to come down to Canada Games that first time and either get in the water with me or cheer me on from the sidelines.
The support that night was pretty remarkable.
Surgery No. 7 took place on a Friday. Afterwards, Dr. Lee told both Carol-Ann and I that he wouldn't see us on Saturday, but he would be in on Sunday. Dr. Lee is amazing...we routinely saw him twice a day, seven days a week.
At about 5 p.m. on Saturday, Carol-Ann got up, put on her coat and was getting ready to go get some takeout for dinner. We were going over what I wanted to eat when Dr. Lee's head popped out behind the corner. He ducked back for cover. Carol-Ann had no clue what was going on. Dr. Lee popped out again, big, cheezy smile. I knew it was on.
Steve: "I have a feeling that Dr. Lee is coming today..."
Carol-Ann: "I know you love your Dr. Lee, but you know what he told us...he's not coming until tomorrow. Don't get all excited."
Steve: "Carol-Ann?"
Carol-Ann: "You know what he said."
Steve: " can just go get dinner then."
She turned, headed around the corner, and was absolutely stunned when she came across the grinning Dr. Lee.
He came into the room, did some strength testing, checked the wound, and said that he had decided to take Sunday off instead of Saturday. We would see him again on Monday, according to him.
Sunday, at about 11 a.m., Carol-Ann got up, got her coat on and was heading out for coffees when Dr. Lee's big, grinning mug popped out from around the corner again. He didn't have to do it twice for me to know what my job was.
Steve: "Carol-Ann...I hate to tell you, but I'm getting that Dr. Lee feeling again."
She was having none of it. She told me to stop it, but was concerned enough to turn around to see if she could see any feet under the curtain that just inside the room's doorway. There were none.
Dr. Lee, being Dr. Lee, had been crafty enough to jump into the bathroom. Our nurse that day, Julie, was coming around the corner at that time and he quietly waved her off. It was her second day on the job -- she had no idea who this strange man in our bathroom was, but she was willing to wait a few minutes to figure it out.
I tried to "warn" Carol-Ann, but she wasn't willing to accept my "help." She turned, went to leave, and was stunned AGAIN.
My Province colleague, Marc Weber (SHAMED name drop), has a way with people apparently. Sitting in pre-op before Surgery No. 2 (the first rods and screws), I was with Carol-Ann and, this time, Bif Naked.
I was facing the door. And I was more than a little surprised when Weber strutted through. Marc`s a tall, strapping lad. Good looking enough to be a doctor, or so I was told. (Thanks Bif.) That is one of the explanation of how he made it into that highly restricted area.
To this day, I haven`t gotten a straight answer on how he made it there.
My first trip to GF ended abruptly. My left leg up and quit on me. I couldn`t get it to move. I basically dragged it around behind me.
I went back to VGH and Dr. Lee and he said that he was 75 per cent sure that there was a problem with the initial rods and screws. They had found that one of the rods had broken via an x-ray earlier. During the surgery, they learned that the other main one was bent.
They try to get you up on your feet the day after surgery, in a bid, basically, to get your body restarted.
That first stand, when the leg didn`t fail, was major for me, because I wasn`t sure until then if the leg would work.
I have weak, wonky hips. (That wonky is for former Vancouver Giants trainer Cory Cameron, who hates that I use the word wonky to explain medical conditions.)  I have a big, burly buttocks.
In a bid to show me what I should be doing with my hips when walking, physios have routine had to grab my booty. Anne, my regular physio at VGH, is such a sweetie that she worried about how I was taking it.
I told her that not only was I OK with her grabbing my butt, Carol-Ann was good with it, too.
My second stint at VGH, which began in late November after my T-2 collapsed, was much different than my first. I was much sicker. Easily my least favourite memory was Carol-Ann relaying to me that one of the doctors told her after Surgery No. 3 -- The First Infection Washout -- that the next 24 to 48 hours were going to be crucial in my survival. The sheer fear on her face telling that story is something that broke my heart.
After having a huge, blowout party for our first stay, we toned things down for this time. Carol-Ann wanted a list of 10 or so people who could visit, and everybody else was off limits.
I quickly scribbled down some names of people who I thought would come. I forgot Iain MacIntyre (shameless name drop). It was middle of the hockey season...I never reckoned he`d have time.
He showed, but before I could say anything to Carol-Ann, she cut him off at the room`s doorway, physically blocked him out and started back-stepping him into the hallway. I eventually got her calmed down and got him back into room. It wasn`t funny at the is now. Except for maybe Iain.
Brett plays short on our slopitch team, Michelle pitches. They eloped over the summer and had their reception in October. We got a hall pass from VGH to go.
They had a quiz to decide table order for eating and one of the questions was: "Make up a word using the letters from BRETT and MICHELLE and describe why it best suits their relationship."
The answer from our table of ball teammates: "It doesn't matter what the word is -- Ewen has cancer. We should eat first."
One of the doctors here at GF is a stylish Russian gentleman, Dr. K. He surprised me when he knew the music of Bif Naked and made a point of introducing himself to her. I wrote about it, right down to how well put together the guy is.
The next day he came up to me and thanked me for noticing his shoes.  I didn`t see him as a Bif Naked listener, and I really didn`t see him as a Steve Ewen reader.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Come on Irene: Yet another role model vaults to forefront in midst of cancer, back surgery rehab

My hero list continues to grow.
I don't know too much about Irene. I think she's a touch older than me. She arrived at G.F. Strong, the Vancouver physical rehab centre, from Vancouver General Hospital, a few days after this, my third  instalment there.
We do share the same spine surgeon, Dr. Robert Lee. Dr. Lee regularly asks about other patients of his that I've come across at GF, and during my check-up this week I remembered to tell him about seeing Irene doing laps in the gymnasium with her walker when I was doing the same.
His eyes got big. Real big. So did his smile.
Why? Seems that the doctors at VGH gave Irene a 10 per cent chance of ever walking again after a car accident sent her to hospital. Her injuries were sustained in the cervical vertebrae, the ones nearest the skull.
Irene even did some laps without a walker this week, leaning instead on the arms of a rehab assistant. And she proudly proclaims "I will walk out of here," in regards to her discharge in late May.
Coming across her story and her attitude was exactly what I needed. I had been feeling a little sorry for myself. I had hoped to be home by late Ap ril, and when I was given a May 26 discharge date I frequently put my sulk on.
I focussed too much on the rotten things that I have happened to me, rather than the fact that all the medical people I've talked to have said that I have the chance to walk out of GF as well.
In fact, I have a chance to be healthier and happier and smarter on, lets say, May 30, 2011, than I was May 30, 2010, and that's after a bout with cancer (Solitary Plasmacytoma, in my T-2 vertebrae), two back rebuild surgeries, a muscle-flap surgery, and four surgeries to combat three infections.  It is, in part, an indictment of my lifestyle a year ago, but no matter.
This is my fourth straight weekend at home and I feel like I did more yesterday -- highlighted by going out for lunch with my parents, grandmother, an aunt and uncle and Carol-Ann, plus sitting out in the yard for a time -- than I did in my previous three leaves combined. My occupational therapist, Erin, is trying to healthy up my diet -- I even made split-pea soup earlier this week.
I feel like I'm back going in the right direction, and I have at least one more prominent reason why.
Thank you, Irene.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Closer I get, the more I contemplate; can see light at end of rehab tunnel, but it keeps moving

The closer I get to getting my life back, the more conflicted I feel.
I'm in the midst of my second weekend leave from GF Strong, the Vancouver physical rehab centre. Getting to hang out with Carol-Ann on our couch in front of our TV in our basement filled with our sports mementos inspires me to work even harder, to get healthier sooner. It also depresses me, knowing that we have to pack everything up in a few hours and head back to GF Strong for another five-day stretch.
We had our team meeting this week, where you sit down with doctors and various therapists and talk about progress and discharge date. I was hoping to be home by the end of April. The doctors and therapists pointed toward sometime in late May. They said that they felt I could be safe at home by the end of April, but wondered if I wasn't shortchanging myself on rehab.
The belief, amongst everyone that we've encountered, is that I can get back to somewhere close to where I was before this all happened. In basic terms, the expectation is that I'll walk out of GF Strong under my own power. Considering we've dealt with a Solitary Plasmacytoma tumour, 20 radiation sessions, a collapsed T-2 vertebrae, two different surgeries where they put rods and screws into my back and a whole whack of infection, the prognosis could be much worse.
It's hard. Outside of these two little sojourns, I have been in hospital since late November. I miss Carol-Ann like crazy. But she also deserves a husband who is as capable as he can be. But rehab is largely mental and emotional at this point, too. 
What to do? What to do?
To the credit of the people at GF Strong, they're trying to come up with a plan to make this work. They're looking into what can be done as from an outpatient situation.
I don't know. To quote my good buddy Bif Naked (shameless name drop...always improves my mood), "Life is interesting." Of course, it's much more interesting, as it were, when Bif says it. That's just how she rolls.
This week, we take more steps forward. We have been cleared for pool time, which I found hugely beneficial back in the early stages of THE CANCER. I go see my plastic surgeon, Dr. James Boyle, and have a check-up with him. 
The biggest worry for me, to be honest, is that our cat, Figaro, has to have surgery on Tuesday to combat a weepy eye. I'll be focussed on that.
Life really is interesting.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The morning after: looking back at first weekend off from cancer rehab, as visit home marks first trip to house since late November

I'm wearing all black today. I'm mourning the end of my weekend.
I returned from first weekend pass at G.F. Strong, and my first days at a our New Westminster home since late November, a tad sad that things ended so quick.
It was a perfect weekend in a lot of ways. We got in and out of the house safely. I managed my way around inside with little problem. And I was reminded how much I love it there -- at one point I said to Carol-Ann, "Man, our TV picture is clear. Has it always been like this?"
It has, too, inspired me to get better sooner. The latest goal has been to get out of here and sent home by the last week in April. We'll have a better gauge on whether that's realistic come Thursday, when we have our first planning meeting -- we meet with our therapists, nurses, etc to talk about a possible discharge date.
I've always wanted to get home, but now I want it that much more. And that should only increase -- we've been told that I should be free and clear to go home every weekend now until discharge.
Carol-Ann said that she was surprised, frankly, at how well things went. I wished that my movement was a little smoother, but I'm always like that. (I ran into former Vancouver Whitecaps stalwart Amy Apps in the halls here this morning. She was at GF Strong as part of her physiotherapist training class. I told her how embarrassed I was by the wheelchair and the walker, and she returned a shrug and smile, a shorthand for, "You've had eight surgeries since October...settle yourself down.")
Carol-Ann has always been a glass-half-fulll type, while I'm often a glass-half-empty. Dr. Brad Hallam, the psychologist we met together here, said that he'd have people be realistic thinkers, seeing the "whole glass." (Dr. Hallam was very complimentary of our relationship, saying that he didn't feel the need to see us again.)
Either way, I'm excited to see where we're going next.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Home, sweet home: Weekend pass to our house marks first time here since November

I'm home.
It could be my favourite sentence ever.
The good folks at G.F. Strong, including the ever-dapper Dr. K, agreed to let me head to our New Westminster residence for the weekend, before returning to the Vancouver facility for more physical rehab. It's the first time that I've been here since my T-2 vertebrae gave way on Nov. 28, starting my back surgery and rehab run.
I cried almost the entire car ride. (I gave up trying to be cool long ago. Luckily, Carol-Ann doesn't need me to be cool.)
I'm still not confident, or adept frankly, at navigating the stairs, so we're staying in the basement this weekend.
Last night, I slept in the same bed as Carol-Ann for the first time since Oct. 18. (When we got home from our first stint  at VGH, I was so much pain from the cancer that I was afraid to bump into her in the middle of the night, and I slept on the couch.) It obviously agreed with me, since we went to bid at 10 p.m. last night and I did get up until 10 a.m. today.
Carol-Ann and I both agreed that we'll keep this weekend pretty low key. Her folks were over last night, and my parents came by this afternoon, along with my Cancer Coach, Bif Naked. (Shameless name drop...can we have a CTTWH without a shameless name drop? I think not.)
My endurance is coming along, albeit slowly, and my balance is making baby steps forward every day. Still, there's loads to be positive about. My sits and stands (getting up and down on a mat without using your hands) were as smooth on Friday as they've been since this whole mishmash started. My walking feels more fluid than it did a week ago.
And, maybe most importantly, I got a good response from my radiation-oncologist, Dr. James Morris, this week. One of the dozen or so markers they got from me via blood tests was up slightly, although not into the danger numbers -- Dr. Morris said it wasn't significant enough to worry about now, but they would re-check it in a month.
By then, hopefully I'm much more accustomed to being at home.

PS Figaro, the family cat, has had her weepy eye attributed to eyelashes getting caught up in her eye. She get some kitty stitches this coming week in hopes to keep that from recurring.