by Jane Miller
I didn’t really mean to write about all of this. Traveling over the Santiam Pass on New Year’s Eve, I wrote notes for something vastly different. But that will have to wait.
December needs to be revisited first.
I have been so afraid and so deeply sad. I lost my eye. I almost died. My face is still a mass of bruises, swelling, and pain. I will heal, I know, but there will be scars inside and out.
This past month keeps replaying itself in my memory. My world exploded on December 1 – a catastrophic fall on our sailboat. Four days later, Erik and I traveled painfully back to the States with the help of porters at every airport. Over the next two days, I saw my first eye doctor at the Casey Eye Institute and then a facial reconstruction ENT surgeon. It was decided to do a new ultrasound on my eye and operate on my face toward the end of December. The news that I could be looking at multiple surgeries was more than disheartening.
But Erik, being who he is, pushed to move the ultrasound up to December 15 to give us time to reevaluate should any new information come to light. We drove back over the pass to OHSU in a blizzard, avoiding an avalanche, to have the ultrasound. The technician, a brilliant and perceptive angel, noticed some issues with my eye.
We were ushered in to a meeting with the retinal surgeon who told us my eye was too damaged to save, that to leave it in could damage the other eye. We took time to breathe, think, and decide.
We put out an all-call on Facebook, and with a speed and love I never could have imagined, we began receiving support and help from all over the world.
A friend of Erik’s – a lovely woman he introduced me to in the line at the post office, and to whom I spoke for maybe 10 minutes – offered to put us in touch with a world-renowned retinologist. A member of our “racing family” introduced us to a professional who studied with my retinologist in England. My niece introduced me to a “friend of a friend” who had faced the traumatic loss of an eye. Just messaging her helped.
And the love and prayers that cascaded over us … from “wraparound hugs” to entreaties to call should I need anything … from friends I’d had since high school to my sorority sisters, from my family to my person to my brand new racing family … tears fall as I type this knowing I would not be here without you all.
I had my surgery on December 20, and after four days in the “ambulatory” surgical unit, Erik drove me back home. Getting over the pass was intensely painful, despite his best efforts. Christmas was saved by the presence and hugs of our children.
We went back over the pass to see my doctors on December 30, just a week and a half after they put my face back together. Details were revealed that the doctors had told me, I was just not coherent enough to fully realize.
The orbit of my right eye was broken in so many places, the facial reconstruction surgeon had to find a piece that was still attached to my skull and tie that one to the next and the next one to the next. The only comparison she can make is to a patient she had who fell five stories and landed on his face.
My right cheek was disintegrated to the extent they had to use a thicker titanium plate to rebuild it so it would hold shape. My right eye had literally exploded. My septum was deviated and the right side of my nose broken in pieces too many to count.
The injuries to my face were the kind associated with the head-on collisions of drunk drivers. Minor in comparison, I tend to forget the depressed skull fracture on my right temporal lobe.
I was stunned. “Jesus,” I thought, “how can this be so bad?” I lost an eye, but it’s more than that. The pain, the loss, the fear. I can’t write these words without tears. I don’t know why it wasn’t just enough to give me Parkinson’s.
I hadn’t believed them when they said the pain and bruising from this operation would be greater than the original accident. After they rebuilt my face from one incision in my mouth at the gum line and other incisions behind my eyelids, I learned they were right. My allergy to opioids caused wracking nausea and vomiting, making narcotics as brutal as suffering through the pain. After two days I retreated to Tylenol, Advil, and Excedrin.
The real news from the doctors was encouraging, though. My facial surgeon was pleased. My nose was straight, my cheek and orbit were holding shape. The surgeon who removed my eye said I’d made the right decision. The eye he removed was soft and not viable, the retina had disintegrated. He promised to give us the pathology report that accompanies surgery “to remove a limb.”
I cried in his office as the finality washed over me again. Erik held my knee and told me it was ok to cry, that I had to grieve.
But here I am now, December 31, New Year’s Eve, sitting on the couch in the Tree House in Sisters. There’s no dancing, but there is a love that will sustain us through bone-deep fatigue, pain and sorrow, and enable us to find joy in all things.
We are making plans to go back up to the boat soon, and still plan to sail to Alaska this summer.
So while I have many more rows to hoe, bones to mend, bruises to heal, and lessons to learn, I can begin my new year with tears for the trials of 2016, a sense of dread about the pain I still have to endure, but also gratitude for the love of family and friends, and the man who brought me home.
Second star to the right and straight on ‘till morning.