Marge Fenelon, spine surgery, wound vac therapy

It’s been a while since I’ve added to my series on the lessons I learned from my spine surgery. Part of the reason is because my recovery has been so time-consuming. The other part is that it ran smack-dab into my busy Spring speaking schedule, leaving me precious little time to write about anything outside of presentations and PowerPoints.

To refresh your memory (and mine, for that matter): In Part I, I wrote about the need for humility and silence. In Part II, I wrote about the gift I discovered through my sister-in-law’s breast cancer diagnosis, and in Part III, I wrote about isolation and the value of friendship.

Today I’m pausing the rest of my work to write about the setbacks I’ve experienced post-surgery. I think this might be the most important part of all the series, as we all face setbacks in our lives. Sometimes we know how to handle them; sometimes we’re clueless.

I was clueless.

For the most part, I’m still clueless, although every once in a while I pick up on a hint from God.

The chronology and dates aren’t all that important, but I’m going to try my best to relay the main points of what’s happened in the past four-and-a-half months.

In terms of healing the incision, everything looked great until I got about a month out of surgery. Then, I sprang a leak. I’ll spare you the icky parts, but suffice to say that I’d developed a seroma – pocket of fluid – under the incision that didn’t become evident until then. According to the PA, seromas happen in about 5% of patients who have any kind of surgery. God chose me to rank among the lucky five percent. In most cases, the fluid is re-absorbed by the body and the pocket fills in on its own. I wasn’t one of the “most cases.” My seroma was extensive, deep, and stubborn.

The surgeon tried his best to help things along – even meeting my husband and I at his office on Christmas Eve when things had suddenly taken a turn for the worse. Within a couple of weeks, it became apparent that I needed stronger measures for healing and so I was referred to a wound clinic for treatment. The wound specialist’s conclusion was that the only way to get me healed was for me to undergo negative-pressure wound therapy, more commonly known as a wound vac. It’s a portable machine that was bandaged to my back 24/7. The negative pressure kept the wound clean and instigated rapid healing. The wound doc figured it would take 3, 4, maybe 5 weeks of the wound vac to get me healed. I started on the vac January 11.

I had a terrible time reconciling myself to the need for a wound vac. I was supposed to have been all healed and back on the road by then! The bandaging needed to be changed twice-weekly at the wound clinic, which meant limitations and cancellations, including a promised visit to see my daughter and her family out-of-state during the Christmas season. That was crushing for me.

Trying to make the best of it, I decided to name my wound vac  Marty. If we were going to spend so much time together, then we might as well be on a first-name basis. Plus, giving the thing a goofy name made it less threatening when folks gawked or asked about it. And they did plenty of gawking. On top of that, Marty was noisy, making whirring and gurgling sounds and frequently what the user manual called a “burp.” That was not a burp! The amazing resemblence to human flatulence made for some truly embarrassing moments, especial during the quiet parts of holy Mass.

Eventually, I learned to laugh it off. The temptation to point to my husband every time Marty “burped” in public was awfully hard to resist.

Deep inside, though, I was losing hope. The progress was slow, stretching on for weeks with one step forward and two steps backward the whole way. The weeks went by and I struggled to be optimistic. I was hurt, confused, and defeated. It felt as though God was playing games with me. He wasn’t, but it sure felt like it.

During the first part of February, the healing slowed way, way down. I blamed myself, convinced that it was something I was – or wasn’t – doing that was causing the problem. In actuality, we discovered that Marty had been malfunctioning. For how long, we have no idea. It didn’t become evident until February 15 when he stopped functioning entirely and I ended up in the ER one Sunday because the wound became putrid. The ER doc got me cleaned up and rebandaged. Thanks be to God there was no infection! An urgent call to the wound vac company got us an expedited delivery of Marty II. Marty II was defective! Another urgent call to the wound vac company brought us Marty III. Marty III worked, but we’d lost five days of valuable therapy time and who knows how many more before we noticed the malfunction.

By March 9, it was time to say goodbye to Marty III and proceed with less-invasive treatment. This included cooking up (literally) a low-concentration bleach mixture to soak the bandages in before application. We were back to twice-daily bandage changes. Everything had to be sterilized and  the wound washed out with special soap and washcloths before applying the bandage each time.

I think my husband deserves a vacation and an honorary nursing degree for the perfect care he’s given me these past months!

This new bandaging therapy has been quite effective, and the wound is closing at a rapid pace. Unless there’s another setback, I should be as good as new in a couple of weeks or so. For the first time, I’m allowing myself to feel a smidgeon of optimism – always with hesitation and expectation that something could go wrong at any moment. All of the setbacks have made me gun shy, so to speak, of expecting too much from this ordeal.

With all of this, God has proven to me that he’s in charge. Period.

But that’s about as far as I’ve gotten in trying to figure out this mystery. I have a clue, though. When we first found the seroma, one of our parish priests anointed me and urged me to meditate on the story of Jesus curing the blind man at Bethsaida (see Mk 8:22-26). The first time Jesus healed him, he could see, but not clearly. It took a second healing from our Lord for the man to finally see clearly. “Some healings have to happen in layers,” the priest told me. I believe that’s true of my own healing – it has to happen in layers and the layers have not all been peeled away yet for me to see clearly.

I’m between layers now. I think I’ve identified some of them, but not all. I’ve been praying to our Lord and his Mother to reveal them to me so that I can see clearly. Until then, I have to trust and wait patiently.


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