Yesterday was the first day since my surgery–exactly one week ago–that I didn’t have a fever for most of the day. I wasn’t exactly fever-free, as my temp peaked at bedtime, but that’s the best it’s been for one very long week, so I’m claiming it. After coming this close to needing IV antibiotics — again — I’m beyond thrilled to have been (mostly) fever-free yesterday. I’m guessing that the docs in my life would laugh a little, shake their heads, and maybe massage their temples a bit at me claiming yesterday as fever-free. I’m guessing my friends in the white coats would consider my being almost fever-free akin to being a little bit pregnant–it’s an all-or-nothing condition. That’s fine. They can chuckle and shake their heads at me, I’m still claiming it as a victory.
See, fever can indicate infection, and after my surgery last week, the fear of recurrent or new infection abounded. That fear was thick in the OR and it was pervasive in the days after surgery as we waited to see what would happen. It’s still lingering, in the back of my mind and on the fringes of my daily activities. I’m not a big fan of that loss of control. We did increase my course of oral antibiotics — both in duration of course and milligrams per dose. The usual suspects in the roster of awful side effects are back, but that tells me the abx are working. If there was a niggling infection trying to re-establish itself, the mounds of abx I’ve been taking for the last 7 days have contained it. I’m almost afraid to say this out loud, but I think I’m out of the woods.
Can it be? Like the joyous girl in the gorgeous Maria Pace-Wynters art, coincidentally titled “Out of the Woods,” I want to smile big and enjoy the view of the woods from the other side. I want to feel the relief that washes over me as I realize that the 6-day fever has broken, the pain & redness & swelling in the original infection site have abated, and I may be able to breathe easily now.
My infection-induced PTSD makes me wonder if I really can believe that the tide is turning, that I may be out of the woods. It’s been a long, long haul. A super-long haul. Reflecting back on the havoc that the post-mastectomy infection has wrought makes me very uncomfortable. I’m not yet in that happy place, and the calamity is not far enough in the rear-view mirror yet. Instead of feeling enormous pride, accomplishment, gratitude and general kick-ass-itude that it’s over, I’m gun-shy and untrusting.
This time last year, I was fresh out of the hospital, having just served day 27 of intermittent, back & forth hospital stays and at-home IV antibiotics. The last hospital stay to treat the infection was at Methodist in the Med Center, so I’d served time in 3 different hospitals–Memorial Hermann Southwest, Methodist Sugar Land, and Methodist Med Center–which allowed me to sample Houston’s best. I recall the direct-admit to the Med Center for the last stay, late on a Sunday night just before school started. Sweet Dr S had handled the details for me so I had a “fast pass” to get admitted quick, which allowed me to circumvent the circus that is a Med Center ER on a weekend night. Dr S and I were texting back & forth during the speedier-yet-still-complicated process so he would know that I was in the room before he had to get up and leave his family to come see me and get all of our ducks in a row.
I remember being furious about having to go back into the hospital. At that point last year, I’d been on antibiotics all summer, oral and IV, in every imaginable combination. Biaxin. Cipro. Minocycline. Zyvox. Vancomycin. Cefapim. Doxcycline. Bactrim.Vancanese. Levaquin. We were on the cusp of finding the magic bullets that would target the slow-growing and slow-to-kill infection (Bactrim & Minocycline), but it would take time to decimate the wily bacteria, so the infection still had the upper hand. As I settled into my room after navigating the maze that is Methodist Med Center, I was completely and utterly pissed at the ugly-ass artwork in my room. The shoddy impressionist landscape was hideous, the colors were barf-inducing, and the mere site of it reminded me that I was once again a prisoner — of my failing body and of yet another hospital. I couldn’t avoid that uproariously unpleasing “artwork” because it was in my face and I had nowhere to go to avoid it. That framed print became a symbol, a poster-child if you will, for all that had gone wrong last summer, and I was stuck staring at it. If I hadn’t been so ticked and so upset, I would have taken a picture of that “artwork,” and one day it will make me laugh instead of making me want to punch someone. But not yet.
Here’s what I wrote upon settling into that room; note the frustration surrounding the words that described the room but actually meant a whole lot more:
So I got through the masses in the ER pretty quickly and got into my room and thought, yuck, this place is a dump compared to my lovely one-bedroom suite at Methodist Sugar Land. Call me a snob, but I like those hardwood floors and new, unchipped paint. I don’t really need the laminated sign on the wall here reminding me not to leave my dentures on my lunch tray. The view out my dirty window is of a wall, with patient rooms too far away to spy into [one of my pastimes at Methodist Sugar Land]. The chair I’m sitting in to type this is vinyl, and there is a lovely faux-cherry-wood desk with ornate colonial drawer pulls. I could sit there, but the desk chair is super scratched with dingy upholstery on the seat cover. And don’t even get me started on the artwork on the wall across from the 20-year-old bed covered in ultra-scratchy sheets. No wonder people get sick in hospitals. It’s from the decor as much as the bacteria.
I was one unhappy girl.
I was coming to terms with the fact that the infection superseded the cancer in every way. For a while, that was a good thing — being so focused on the infection kept me from thinking about the fact that I was a 41-year-old mother of 2 young kids battling cancer. The cancer was easy compared to the infection. While a cancer diagnosis is one of the scariest things ever, the treatment for and eradication of that cancer was, for me, much more logical and linear than the infection. The cancer left me flat-chested, but once the tumors were removed and the lymph nodes declared clear, it was done. My game plan was defined: a 5-year course of Tamoxifen for adjuvant therapy along with hormone suppression to snuff the cancer’s fuel. The cancer battle was over and the treatment had begun, but the infection war hadn’t even revved up yet. Little did I know that more than a year later, I’d still be fighting that war, and that sometimes the infection would gain ground and force me to retreat.
The infection left me with a hole in my newly flat chest — literally. The excised tissue created a wound that measured 5.6 cm long and 3 cm wide. Grab yourself a ruler and feast your eyes on those dimensions. That bad boy took 8 weeks to heal, almost double the healing time required by my bilateral mastectomy. I’d faced my diagnosis, done my research, made the hard decisions, endured the systematic removal of both breasts, and was still standing. The infection, however, was a whole ‘nother ball game. There was no logic and nothing was linear — it was a guessing game. Educated guesses by a crack team of infectious disease docs, but a guessing game nonetheless. Will this combo of antibiotics work? How long will I need to stay on them? How will we know if they’re working? What are the side-effects of long-term abx therapy? Will I ever get my normal life back? The questions were many, the answers were few. I wrote this after one particularly frustrating day in the infection war:
All this talk you hear about being a pro-active patient, being your own advocate, researching and digging up as much info as you can and thinking for yourself — forget it. Today is one of those days that makes me wish I was a sheep. I just want to follow along and do what I was told. Except I can’t. It’s not how I’m made. So I continue to ask questions and solicit advice, all the while feeling like I don’t have all the puzzle pieces. Sometimes there are a few pieces missing, or you have to wait a while for them to fall into place. You can’t force it, although I want to. I am impatient and a forcer. An impatient forcer.
And I’m still waiting for the pieces to fall into place.