Dr. Len's Cancer Blog

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Dr. Len's Cancer Blog

The American Cancer Society

I'm Back...

by Dr. Len August 27, 2012

Miss me?


In case you didn't notice, I haven't been around for a couple of months.  The good news at least for me is that I think I am back, and the reason I was gone wasn't so terrible.  Difficult, yes. Terrible, no. And although not completely recovered, I am making a valiant attempt to get back into the flow of things, since looking at the four walls of my house is driving me stir crazy.


Starting 9 weeks ago today, I began an odyssey that has faced or will face many of us folks as we age. My joints just wore out. No one can say exactly say why it happened, but it did. The pain was intense, my activities were limited, and as I tried my best to meet my commitments around the country I found it increasingly difficult to get to where I had to go. Even walking around the office was difficult, and my colleagues were noticing that I was limping and starting to hunch over to compensate for the discomfort.


Being the good doctor I am (? was) I thought I could fix myself. Lose a little weight, take some of those funky over the counter medicines advertised to make your dog young again, lose a little weight, get my uric acid/gout under control... You get the idea.


My dear wife humored me (she is an ob/gyn but she is still a thoughtful and excellent physician). We established a six month timeline, and agreed that absent any progress I would go see a real doctor to figure out what we should do.


Well, it took the real doctor just a couple of minutes-and a couple of plain old fashioned x-rays (no MRI for me!!!!!)-to let me know I had no cartilage left in either knee or my right hip. A steroid shot in each lessened the pain, but the best route was surgery. So surgery it was: three operations over a period of 7 weeks (that was my requirement) and I would be good as new-or as good as I was going to be.


Well, here we are, 9 weeks later and I am put back together at least most of the way. Still healing from the last knee done two weeks ago, but the major stuff is behind me.  I can't tell you how many people have called me the "bionic man".  For me, I feel like I have more titanium in me than a jet engine. And I can't wait to start traveling again and get to meet all my TSA friends at the airports up close any probably too personal as I light up the metal detectors.


Like everyone else, there are lessons I learned from my surgical experience that have indeed informed my outlook on life. So I hope you don't mind if I take a moment to share some of them with you.


Let me be clear at the outset that I have received excellent care from the doctors, nurses, physical therapists, hospital and staff, etc. etc. And it is amazing to me how kind people have been at holding open doors when I was using my walker or helpful when they noticed my bandages and otherwise slow gait. There is still much competence, compassion, concern, and decency left in this world, and that is a refreshing and comforting thought.


So here are some of the other lessons:


  • 1) Your caregiver is your most important asset.


My wife is an angel. She has hauled me, helped me, cared for me, and made my life bearable, even when I was not. It really hit home to me when we were at a dinner dance this past Saturday night, and they played Louis Armstrong's "Wonderful World", which was our wedding song. At that moment, the meaning of love and commitment and everything she had done for me-selflessly, I might add-over the past two months came to the surface, and I will freely admit I cried in appreciation of everything she means to me. True love is selfless and unconditional, as she has told me so many times.


  • 2) I may be a good doctor, but I am a lousy patient.


Sometimes you can just know too much, or be too smart or whatever. You need to trust the people caring for you. This may be your one experience, they do it every day.


  • 3) Hospitals are a tough place to be when you are sick.


A very important lesson: if you don't have to be in the hospital, don't be there!!!!! I stayed two days after knee #1, but was out the door 24 hours after the hip and knee #2. Not that there was anything wrong with the care or the people. It just isn't a great place to be. There are bad bugs everywhere, and noise, noise, noise.


For example, how about a clanging of metal being dragged into my room at 12:30AM by this wonderful nurse's aide who told me she had to get my bed trapeze set up before the next shift at 7AM since they hadn't been able to get it set up on the last shift that ended at 11PM?  We negotiated 6AM for the construction work, which was fine since I woke up at 5:30AM. (PS: I never used the trapeze.)


Or, how about the floor sweeper/vacuum/polisher that came through the halls at 1:30AM? The whirring of the machine going up and down the hall was bad enough. But you know those warning buzzers that go off every 10 seconds or so to let you know they are in the area????? Need I say more?


  • 4) Sometimes your negotiating skills come in handy at the unlikeliest times in the unlikeliest places.


There are those among us who negotiate things as part of our daily lives. But institutions like hospitals-for some very good reasons-have routines so that they can offer the right care to the people in the beds. It's just that when one medicine is due at 1AM, vital signs are due at 2AM and the next medicine is due at 3AM that I decided to take matters into my own hands. I determined that they had a one hour leeway on those 2AM vital signs, so we made an agreement that allowed me to salvage two hours of uninterrupted sleep.


  • 5) Your body needs to heal, so listen to it.


I think this is the key reason there are nurses and doctors and then there are patients. Nurses and doctors are the ones standing up; patients are the ones in the beds. The ones standing up don't have the pain or aggravation of the surgery; the patient does. That's why nurses and doctors can be so cheerful and optimistic while you are lying there wondering when the next pain pill is going to show up. I have been a doctor, I have never been a surgical patient.


I thought being the good doctor that I was that a couple of days post operatively I would be up to working, chatting, and making merry. Three weeks later I still felt like crap. As they used to say in an old commercial, " Drink no wine before its time." My version: Take time to heal. Your body is a pretty amazing machine. Listen to what it tells you.


  • 6) You have friends and colleagues who understand your situation. Let them help you. The world will not end if you rely on the willingness of others to handle some of the burden.


Perhaps one of the most important lessons. Some of us just don't know how to stop or even to let others help.  I can't begin to say enough "thank yous"  to those who have (and continue to) stepped in to take burdens off of my shoulders. I have never been in a situation like this before and had no idea what to expect. I am so gratified to work with some wonderful people who made this time much more bearable.


By the same token, some times you do have to draw the line, and separate from certain demands. If you are too ill or uncomfortable to do your best you may just have to take a pass. For me, the reason I concentrated so much surgery in such a short time is that I want to get back to work and move forward, not "piece-mealing" it one surgery at a time every couple of months. I think I have been/will be successful in my journey but I could not have achieved that success without the support of so many wonderful, understanding people.


  • 7) We live in a new world, where technologies-both communications and medical-allow us to do some really crazy things.


Like the time during this recovery when  I was participating in a committee meeting by phone. There was a part of the meeting when I had to make some comments. As luck would have it, at that precise moment when I had to give my brief spiel I was lying on an exam table with two doctors standing over me, one holding an ultrasound machine to guide the other doctor as he stuck a needle in me to drain off some fluid that had collected under a surgical scar. As you might expect, my comments were brief and to the point. Having described my plight, I understand that some of the committee members listening to this in Atlanta were squirming a bit in their chairs.


Or the other committee meeting where I felt that I had a problem with my airway, arranged to get an urgent outpatient examination of my larynx, got the exam where I found out I had only a minor irritation, and stayed on the call-all without my colleagues ever being aware of what was happening while I continued to participate in the discussions.


So, that's enough of my tale for now.


I am still not completely mobile. After all it's only two weeks post-op following knee #2 and I still have some minor complications and major rehabilitation to complete. But I am going to try to "re-engage."  And it is that need to re-engage that I find so interesting and so important.


If you have been ill or had surgery, perhaps you will understand that there is comfort in the routine of working and interacting with others, making decisions, participating in discussions, making progress. I am fortunate that I work for a wonderful organization where there is so much support and commitment to what we do. It is comforting to be able to return and reconnect, and once again hopefully feel useful.


That's one way to say it. The other way-the true motivator--is how many reruns of the cooking shows, real estate agents selling outrageously priced homes, Happy Housewives from Wherever, or TV news and dueling commentaries can you watch?????


I am glad to be back.




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2/23/2013 9:57:58 AM #

Name Change Kit

Great list of lessons. And I couldn't agree more that hospitals are tough places to be when your sick.

Name Change Kit

About Dr. Len

Dr. Len

J. Leonard Lichtenfeld, MD, MACP - Dr. Lichtenfeld is Deputy Chief Medical Officer for the national office of the American Cancer Society.