Friday, December 30, 2005

Hawkeye and me

I've always liked Alan Alda, although more now than I used to--a little of that M*A*S*H*/Groucho Marx/mugging schtick goes a real long way, and he's gotten much more interesting as an actor over the years since--but I just learned we have something in common (besides being a smart-ass, I mean).

I was in an observatory, in in a remote part of Chile, interviewing astronomers for a science program called Scientific American Frontiers. The show often called for me to do dangerous things in far-off places, and I was always a reluctant adventurer because I’m a cautious person. This wasn’t dangerous; it was just talk, but suddenly something inside me literally started to die. My intestine had become crimped and its blood supply was choked off. Every few minutes more and more of it was going bad, and within a few hours, so would the rest of me.

I can't even begin to describe how bad the pain was as my small intestine was dying. Mr. Raven drove me to the hospital, and even hitting small bumps in the road just about tore me open in agony. Mercifully, the ER staff knew how to take care of that kind of pain; but as a result, a lot of that whole experience is a blur. All in all, I was in the hospital an entire month while they established what the problem was and what the extent of the damage was, took care of it, and then took care of a complication that developed with my left lung.

I could have lost enough of my intestine to end up eating from a tube the rest of my life; I was fortunate enough and had a good enough surgeon to end up being able to manage it so that I only lost 3 feet in the end--sounds like a lot, maybe, but in the context of the small intestine, not enough to seriously affect my quality of life.

The reason my small intestine began to die was a clot in my superior mesenteric artery. These are notoriously hard to diagnose, and as my surgeon informed me, "What you had is usually diagnosed on autopsy.". As sucky as the whole experience was, the fact that they were telling me my diagnosis, instead of writing it on my autopsy report, made it a whole lot more bearable in context.

I woke up a few hours later with a deep understanding that this surgeon had given me my life. I was grateful to him in a way I had never been grateful to anyone before; I was grateful to the nurses and to the painkillers; I was grateful to the soft Chilean cheese they gave me to break my fast. The first bite of that bland cheese, because it was the first taste of food I had in my new life, was gloriously complex and delicious. Everything about life tasted good to me now. Everything was new and bright and shining.

When Mr. Raven took me home after a month in the hospital, I burst into tears at my first sight of sunlight in a month. After all that fluorescent light, I had forgotten how sweet something as ordinary as sunshine could be.

It’s only been two years since that night in Chile. Maybe this will all go away, and maybe I’ll take life more for granted again. But I hope not. I like the way it tastes.

He's held on to that feeling better than I have in the meantime. I had it for a while after returning to my life, but then the routines of life started to obscure it again. Sometimes I get glimpses of it and recognize it, but it fades in the light of responsibilities and deadlines.

This year, though, I plan to make some changes to my life that will, I hope, open more opportunities for that feeling to not only peek in intermittently, but to actually stay for a while.


At 6:41 AM, Blogger Bro. Bartleby said...

wonder if hawkeye's clot had anything to do with his air flight into Chile ... do any flying before your clot?

At 9:03 AM, Blogger Raven Travillian said...

It's possible that the immobility involved in flying could have caused it in his case, although typically the clots from flying described in the literature manifest in the veins of the legs, for some reason. When it occurs there, it's called "deep venous thrombosis", and they can dislodge and return, by the venous blood flow, to the heart and lungs.

Mine, by contrast, was in the superior mesenteric artery, which directly feeds the small intestine with oxygen (via arterioles and capillaries, of course). Although it's technically deeper anatomically (= further from the surface) than the veins of the leg, it's not included in the definition of deep thrombosis flyers are warned about. And it is arterial, not venous, so it doesn't return directly to the heart and lungs. Although there is not a literature on this kind of clot as a consequence of flying, I don't know why it couldn't be, as well.

Since Alda doesn't say exactly what his diagnosis is, I can't be sure, but from his description, I am guessing his clot was very likely also in the superior mesenteric artery, or very nearby. And you are right; he must have flown into Chile, so it could very well have had something to do with it.

Although there was no recent flying involved in my case, ever since the surgery, when I have had occasion to fly, I have become a fanatic about getting an aisle seat, so I can get up frequently to walk up and down the aisle, or park myself near the flight attendants' area, where there's enough room to stretch, march in place, and do similar exercises.


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