Lockdown in the Desert

Dear Family and Friends:

I’m writing to you today to let you know that I’ve had quite a time in lockdown. Even though we are to stay-at-home I’ve managed to get out a little bit, but many times to see a variety of doctors.

When you move to a new town, you need to get new doctors.

I saw a dermatologist. She was concerned with my scalp and not because it is sans hair. She saw it as a minefield of possible skin cancer. I’ve had a couple pre-cancerous growths froze off my head in Colorado, so when I saw her for the first time, I mentioned that fact. She said that she was concerned. She gave me some goop to slathered onto my scalp every day for six weeks. She also gave me some advice.

She advised me to … avoid the sun.

Just a quick reminder here for those of you joining the program late … I LIVE IN TUCSON!!!

I would describe the sun here in Tucson as omnipresent. Difficult to avoid, unless you were a gopher or badger, who lives in a hole in the ground, which I am not.

I did the six weeks and sent her an email. Nothing happened, I wrote. In her notes, I should have seen a certain amount of hell fire and destruction on my melon. Redness and blistering. “If you can’t make it to six weeks,” she said, “just try to get through four.” I told nothing happened, no redness, blistering, nothing.

She said keep gooping for two more weeks. She seemed disappointed.

One thing I’ve learned is that it’s not enough to put on sunscreen. If you are going to be on your bike or out on a hike for hours, reapplying is the answer.

In case you didn’t know, I have a high-pain tolerance. I can put up with things that others simply would not. Like my shoulder pain. As soon as I got to Tucson, I sought assistance with my weird shoulder issues. My right shoulder is often in pain and/or discomfort and has been for years. I was diagnosed in Colorado with an ‘aggravated nerve’ and that was the cause of the frequent ‘buzzy’ feeling in my deltoid, bicep, tricep and even my flactoid muscle.

Driving a car, typing, standing, sitting, breathing would all cause the buzzy sensation and pain.

The University of Arizona, being an amazing employer, hooked me up with a fancy up-and-down desk, a Cadillac chair and a space-aged mouse ‘system.’ I use my thumbs to move the mouse. It’s pretty fancy.

And after several months in town, I saw a doctor, who referred me to a physical therapist and when that didn’t help, I got an X-ray, which showed that I had issues with my spine. Arthritis in my discs. Then I got an MRI, which is like being swaddled up like an infant or a burrito and slid into a gigantic toaster oven, it’s a different experience.

BTW, My good friend, Nicole Anthony, just had a baby during COVID-19. So that’s bigger deal then getting pictures of your neck taken in a confined, claustrophobic space,

When the tests came back, the verdict was in. I had a ‘severely compressed nerve.’

I go back to my primary care doctor. We discuss the MRI. She tells me that she’s going to refer me to neurosurgeon; the options are likely surgery or injections for pain management. But she wants to talk about one of the other discoveries from the MRI … the MRI showed that I had an “abnormality” on my tongue. “An abnormal finding on imaging.” She tried to play it cool, but it is obvious and I mean obvious that she thinks that abnormality is cancer.

We discussed a number of issues in that visit. She recommended that I see the ear, nose and throat doctor first. The thing on my tongue is priority number one.

Now keep in mind, all of this is happening one thing on top of another during a pandemic, working from home, etc.

I see the ear, nose and throat guy. First off, he asked, “Are you a smoker?” I said no. “Have you ever?” I said no.

And fuck him, he actually exhaled deeply, sighing in relief, like a giant stone was lifted from his chest.

Oh, okay. Let’s continue, he says, but it’s probably nothing. He put a camera down my nose. Said it was an impressive tonsil. Not cancer. Probably. Come back in a couple months and I’ll put another camera down your nose. If it’s bigger, I’ll cut it out. If not, well, then we’re done.

But who knows, that abnormality might be the one thing that makes me me. Who’s to say?

Next, I have a zoom meeting with the neurosurgeon. He seems like a good guy. He said your options are … to do nothing, get injections from a pain management center or surgery. He says I think you should do the surgery. It’s out patient. In and out. No big deal. I’ve done 3,500 of ’em.

It’s a super high-tech meeting. He holds up his phone to his laptop camera to show me a healthy spine compared to my super fucked-up spine.

He explains. We go in through the front of your throat, make a four-inch incision here. Afterwards you’ll feel some discomfort, but that’s just because I move your esophagus over during the operation.

I feel compelled to say … I know this is no big deal compared to others’ situations … but what the fuck!?!?

He’s going to move my throat over and then he’ll separate two sets of vertebrae in my neck. That should be beneficial because I’ve told everyone that I’ve met about the ‘crunchiness’ in my neck. Snap, crackle, pop. I know know that that sensation is just my vertebrae scrapping on each other. There’s a similar procedure in cycling where you insert a shim to make the brakes easier to grasp. This operation will be the same thing. They will use an artificial graft to make the shim — they used to take a piece of your thigh bone or whatever — and then fuse it in place or, in other words, create a spinal fusion.

A spinal fusion.

This is the operation that every famous wrestler you’ve ever heard of has had after receiving one too many pile drivers.

I asked him, what caused this situation, thinking it was the car accident or the bike accident or that one time I walked into a plate glass window (that was not adequately marked). He said that my ‘significantly compressed nerve’ was caused by degenerative discs filled with arthritis. You just got unlucky. You didn’t do anything wrong.

So, I’m mentally preparing for the surgery. I’ve biked a lot, gone on five-mile hikes. I want to be strong going into this no-big-deal procedure.

A WEEK AGO TONIGHT

So a week ago tonight, I’m walking on a trail under the power lines in the middle of the wash. I see a cactus to take a picture of and I leave the path to take it.

Let’s take a step backwards for a second … on day one in Arizona, someone told me to never leave the path. But what if I see something that I want to take a picture of?

Never leave the path.

And we’re back … I left the path, took the pictures and got back on the path. I’m heading up a slight incline when I feel an electrical shock in my right heel. It felt like a snake snapped and bit me hard. I reacted instantly. My water bottle flew 10 feet. I must have looked like someone walking into a spider web. My arms are flailing about. I look down to see what has bitten me, but my sunglasses have prescriptions from two prescriptions ago … I see a vague outline of a foot.

I bravely slap at whatever might be snacking on my ankle.

There is no snake that I can see. But that doesn’t mean anything. Evolution has given animals in the wild ways to conceal their presence. And there are a thousand things that can bite you when you go off the trail in Tucson. I’ve personally seen bees the size of a canned ham here, for example. Scorpions, spiders, tarantulas (a hairy kind of spider), murder hornets, fuck, you name it.

I examine my foot. I don’t see two bloody bite marks that I expect to see. The spot doesn’t hurt to the touch. Maybe I just kicked my right foot with my left foot; I’ve done that before. Yeah, that’s probably what happened. Nevertheless, I checked the trail to see if I could see an ankle-biting critter. I could not.

I walk a ways. Then I think about KD. Kevin Durant. See him sitting on the court holding his ankle. And Kobe. He and KD blew out their Achilles. A very difficult injury to recover from. Have you seen the video of Kobe walking up to the free throw line to shoot those free throws after rupturing his Achilles. Athletes always say the same thing. “It felt like somebody kicked me.” There’s even videos showing them looking around after it happens. I think about my Achilles. Did I blow up my Achilles? There’s no pain. My Achilles seems pretty intact.

But fuck it, when you’re older things just break or fall off of you. Everything’s possible. Everything’s on the table.

I keep walking. I walked for three more miles. I even ran a little. I get home and tell Rose and Sam the story. Exactly what I just told you. I stayed up a little late watching a movie, and then when I was getting up to go to bed, my ankle is surprisingly and completely hurting and stiff. I guess I did injure myself.

I go to bed. Fuck my ankle is hurting. I can’t find a position to lay my foot down that does not kill me. At 1 a.m., I tell Rose. Help me, please. I am hurting. She jumps into action. Gets me some Advil and props me foot up with a pillow and a bag of ice. The ice soothes like you wouldn’t believe, like it was putting out a fire.

Later, I have to walk to the bathroom. Rose comes over to help me. I can’t put any weight on my right foot. And I mean, no weight at all. I can’t walk.

What the fuck?

What is going on? I’m having troubled thoughts. I’m hip deep at work. I think about work and how I won’t be able to work in the morning because I’m obvious going to the hospital. I’m going to need reconstructive surgery. I get to have the spinal fusion while I’m relearning how to walk. That’s just great.

I fall asleep.

In the morning, Friday morning, I wake up and put my feet on the ground. My right foot hurts, but it’s a thousand times better. I can walk without assistance. I’m happy. It feels like I had a bad fever and the fever broke, which for my simple mind, points me to thinking that I did get bit by something.

I meet virtually with my physical therapist. He’s helping me with something completely unrelated to anything I’ve mentioned thus far. I show him my ankle with my phone. He gives me a couple movements to do and quickly determines that I haven’t done anything structural to my Achilles. He thinks a tendon or a ligament got out of place and when I stepped down on it, something got rubbed the wrong way. I’m paraphrasing.

But he said that he wouldn’t rule out that I got bit by something.

By Saturday morning, my foot feels 100 percent back to normal.

I ride my bike. 28 miles.

Man, I’m a tough son-of-a-bitch.

That was Saturday.

On Tuesday, I wake up and I don’t feel too good. I poop a lot. I barf a little. That night … more pooping than sleeping. I lose seven pounds in one night.

What the fuck?

Today is Thursday. After days of pain-free ankles, my right is sore and stiff. Shit. I’m limping.

I need to make an appointment to get a COVID-19 test at an urgent care facility. Sometime between now and Sunday.

Surgery is scheduled for next Thursday. A week from today.

May 23

I did the COVID test on Saturday, May 23; it took about three seconds. No big deal.

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