Last Updated on: February 2nd, 2015
THIS IS A ‘TRUE TALES TUESDAYS’ POST
It’s been almost 9 years since I had two operations on my right leg. Today, I will share my story about what I went through to save my leg, and the amazing machine that helped me heal.
*To protect the identity of the people involved in this story, I will be referring to them only by their initials. And be warned – this is the longest post I’ve ever written and published on this blog. It’s also a very personal story, and was something I’ve been coping with for years.
Back in the winter of 2005, I was invited away for the weekend by a friend of mine, whom I will refer to only as M. He and four of his friends (two couples) were going on their annual weekend retreat to a resort at Pasha Lake, located in Jellicoe, Ontario. It is about an hour’s drive from a small town called Geraldton, where M lived. I was living in Thunder Bay at the time. You can click on this link if you want to see a map of where Pasha Lake is located.
On the morning of Friday, February 11, we embarked upon our adventure. We planned on meeting the other couples at the cabins. Two cabins had been rented for the weekend; Cabin 8 and Cabin 6, I think.
You can click on this link to see what Cabin 8 look like. (I asked the owner of the site if I could use their pics in my blog posts, but they told me “NO” and weren’t very nice about it. I’m not sure why; I never did anything to them. I even told them I’d be linking to their site, but the person I dealt with didn’t seem to care. I found this to be odd. You’d think they would want some free publicity!)
I had never been to Pasha Lake, and was looking forward to having a good time. I had packed my bathing suit, even though it was the middle of winter, since I was told that there was an outdoor hot tub for us to enjoy. M had taken me shopping the day before and bought me a one-piece canvas snowsuit since he was bringing his snowmobile and planned on teaching me how to ride it. Thankfully, he remembered his extra helmet for me to use.
The three couples arrived at the Pasha Cabins separately. When M and I arrived, we quickly unpacked our belongings, placing the food we brought into the fridge and cupboards, and putting our suitcases in the bedroom. We made ourselves at home quickly; we were planning on being there all weekend!
M, his roommate, G, G’s girlfriend and I were the four people who occupied Cabin 8. The other couple, whose names now elude me, bunked in another cabin. G also brought his snowmobile. At this point I have to tell you that the only time I had ever ridden on a snowmobile before was during a birthday party at P’s house when we were in grade school. P’s older brother gave all the birthday party attendees a ride in their backyard – they lived in the country, and their property consisted of both flat land and rolling hills.
G’s girlfriend and I hit it off right away, and decided to make the most of the hot tub shortly after our arrival. The other woman was not interested in being in an outdoor hot tub, so she didn’t join us. I’m not sure what she did instead. The guys unloaded their snowmobiles and went for a quick spin. They avoided the lake since it was getting too dark to see spots on the lake that could be dangerous. Then they prepared dinner for everyone, and had a few drinks. They brought a lot of alcohol with them!
After dinner, we sat around drinking, talking, and playing games, including cards. I showed everyone a neat card trick. Though I was in the company of total strangers (M was the only one I knew), I felt like I fit in. We all had a great time that night. The third couple, who had a cabin to themselves, disappeared early, for obvious reasons. They had been looking forward to spending time alone! I think they had children, too, and so cherished their weekend together. I didn’t see much more of them.
Saturday morning was sunny and warm. While M prepared brunch, G took his snowmobile out onto the lake, scouting for weak spots in the ice and making trails. When he came back to report that the lake was basically safe to ride on, M encouraged me to try out his machine. As he was instructed me how to operate it, I complained that I was having difficulty seeing through the helmet’s visor. It kept fogging up! M then let me use his helmet since it was equipped with a de-fogger. Much better – I was nervous enough!
Once I knew the basics, there was nothing left for me to do but begin riding. Following the trails made by G eased my nerves somewhat; I could see where I was going, and had a path laid out for me! After several minutes of driving, my tension slowly dissipated and I got brave.
I started experimenting with different speeds. I made my own trails next to G’s. I executed turns more easily, and began to relax and have fun. I finally saw the allure and experienced a freedom unlike any I had ever known.
When I noticed the guys waving for me to return to the cabin, I disembarked with a smile on my face. Brimming with excitement, I related my newfound feelings of joy. M was proud of me; I did great for a novice rider! But it was time to eat; brunch was ready.
After sating ourselves, we relaxed a bit, and discussed plans for the rest of the day. I wanted to spend some time in the hot tub, and the guys wanted to go riding. Since the third couple was nowhere to be seen, the four of us decided to go “couples riding”, and then take a hot tub and a sauna. So we did, opting to use the trails leading into the woods for our journey.
We began with the men as drivers and the women as passengers. After about thirty minutes, the guys stopped. They wanted to switch, and let the women have a turn driving. I didn’t want to; I was having trouble seeing through the extra helmet. I also was not very confident that I could navigate the trails; they were filled with little hills and twists and turns. Everyone encouraged me and reassured me that I would do fine. They knew I was still nervous, despite my earlier success on the lake. But the lake was flat!
I ended up caving to the peer pressure. Why I didn’t stand my ground, I’ll never know. If I could go back in time, I would do things differently. This is the biggest regret of my life, for the ensuing events changed my life forever.
I mounted the machine with trepidation. M climbed on behind me. Both of us were pretty hefty people, but the Ski-doo obviously held our weight, since we had ridden quite a ways already. The helmet I was using this time, however, was the non-defogging one. In retrospect, I should have asked M to switch with me. Hindsight’s always twenty-twenty though, isn’t it?
I started the Ski-doo and we began cruising along. I thought I was doing well, but I was having problems seeing clearly. A short amount of minutes had passed when we got stuck in an ice rut. The snow on the ground had hardened and it was crunchy. The ice rut seemed to appear out of nowhere, and we started to veer off the path. Being an experienced driver, M saw what was coming before I did. We were going to collide with a wooden post, five feet high, to our right. I didn’t even see the sign it held; my helmet was fogging up!
M tried to warn me by yelling, but I couldn’t hear him. He also tried moving my arms, attempting to steer us away from disaster. I realized something wasn’t quite right, but I was trying to get back on the path. Everything happened so fast, and I panicked. This led to further problems since, in my panicked state, I grabbed on tighter. Unfortunately, I also applied the gas as I did so, since squeezing the handles of a snowmobile increases your speed! This fact had not completely sunk in that morning during my driving lessons, and ultimately caused us to hit the post with more force than we would have otherwise. At the last second, I saw that we were heading straight for the post, and simply let go of the handlebars and closed my eyes. I tried to make my body go limp; I knew that if I did that, my chances of survival would be higher. That was the last coherent thought I had before I got hurt.
In a matter of a split-second, I felt the machine connect and my body go flying. My right leg hit the post as I was thrown over it. I felt a burning pain and I landed with a thud on my back. The wind had been knocked out of me, too.
The next few moments were horrific. My leg felt as if it was on fire. I knew I was injured badly. It would be a month before I knew how badly I was hurt.
I had the sense to remain still and take stock of my injuries. I was having trouble breathing, but I could still think rationally. I knew that moving an accident victim could possibly cause further injuries, and so I took my time assessing my situation. I could breathe and think, so I obviously had not died. Gingerly, I tried moving. I was able to get up, but my leg hurt like hell. I quickly undid my snowsuit and rid my body of it. I wanted to see my leg!
M had jumped off the machine seconds before it hit the post. I didn’t know this at the time; I found this information out later, when he explained how he saw the crash coming, and how he attempted to warn me, and help me by steering us out of harm’s way. He suffered some bruising, but that’s it. His machine, however, was totalled. The front of it looked like it was hugging the post. The nose of the Ski-doo was split nearly in two, with each portion wrapped around the post that nearly took my life.
I was able to stand with M’s help. I felt so bad about destroying his precious baby. He loved that snowmobile! I apologized profusely. To my surprise, I was his only concern.
The couple we were riding with finally noticed that we were not trailing them, and turned around. When they located us, they were shocked to find that we had been in an accident. The owner of the resort was also riding that day, and soon he came upon us. Suddenly, there was another flurry of activity. Plans were made to transport me to the cabin and then to the closest hospital. Decisions to stay the night in Geraldton and then have M take me back to Thunder Bay were voiced and then finalized. Apologies to the other couple sharing our weekend would be expressed by G to them. I remained silent throughout, trying to envision the possible consequences of the horrific accident that had just happened.
The owner of the resort gave M and me his machine to use return to the cabin. I could barely move; I was in so much pain. M helped me pack up our belongings and then helped me get into his truck. We were on the highway before I knew it. I felt horrible for wrecking M’s machine, was in massive amounts of pain, and was crying. My wonderful weekend retreat became a disastrous event. The hour-long ride took forever, too, even though M did his level best to reassure me that my life was more important than a pile of metal. He was being kind, but I knew that he was crushed that we crashed.
Finally, we arrived at the emergency room. X-rays of my leg were taken but no bones were broken. My skin was red and bruised. My leg, somehow, was also deformed, since the force of the accident pushed a lot of flesh to one side. The doctors initially thought that I would recover, but they were wrong; to this day, flesh hangs over my knee. There is no other way to describe it. It looks awful, but I’ve been told that it is not noticeable unless you know what you’re looking for. This offers no consolation to me; my leg is visible to me and I see it daily!
The Geraldton doctors and nurses simply told me to follow up with my own physician and that I “wouldn’t be going dancing” for a while. (No kidding!)
Telling My Son
The worst part of this whole ordeal was phoning my son when M and I arrived at M’s place. I turned my son’s life upside down when I delivered the news to him. Somehow, I didn’t brace myself for his reaction. I should have. He was really, really worried. And shocked. And probably felt a bunch of other emotions, too. He was pretty scared, he admitted to me later.
Once M brought me back to Thunder Bay, I followed up with my family doctor. He put me on some antibiotics, but they didn’t help. He sent me for an ultrasound, too.
When I went for the ultrasound, my mom accompanied me. The woman conducting it couldn’t even finish it, though. She revealed that I had an abscess in my leg and simply could not get an accurate reading as to what was going on. I recall crying in pain as she touched me with her instrument and squeezing my mom’s hand. My mom was so upset at seeing my reaction that she begged the woman to stop hurting me!
In an attempt to alleviate some of the infection, I was sent to the hospital for seven days straight to receive antibiotics via intravenous. They didn’t help.
Getting Good-Bad News
I had no idea what was going to happen to my leg until March 10th, 2005. That morning, I answered my phone to find out that the doctor had been given the results of my unsuccessful ultrasound and had made arrangements for someone to see me in the emergency department of the hospital. All I had to do was get there. Again, I called my mom for help.
When I arrived at the hospital and was waiting in an examining room, I overheard the nurses talking about me. They were having a hard time figuring out which doctor to call to take a look at me. I could hear, “No, don’t call him; he’s a knee specialist. There’s nothing wrong with her knee.”
Finally, I was seen by a surgeon. Dr. P took one look at my leg and assessed it immediately. The next few minutes and his assessment came as huge shock to me.
“As soon as the OR (operating room) becomes available, we’re going to do surgery. I’m going to remove all that flesh from your leg. You’re going to have a big hole in your leg. But don’t worry, we’ll help you get better. We’ll hook you up to a machine that will assist you. Trust me. You’re lucky that you still even have your leg. You’re this close to losing it.” Dr. P pantomimed an inch with his forefinger and thumb as my world came crashing down around me.
What? I tried to process this as he continued, “You’re going to be in the hospital for a few weeks, and it’s going to take you about six months to get better. You’ll get home care when you are released. Nurses will come to your house to change your bandages and make sure you don’t get any more infections. You’re very lucky, you know. You have me to save you. A nurse will come by in a few minutes with the paperwork. We’re admitting you right now. See you tonight. 7 o’clock. The OR should be available then.”
Now, perhaps these weren’t his exact words, but they’re pretty darn close.
“I can’t stay.” I told him as my thoughts rushed through my head. “I have to go home, pack a bag, grab some books to read, get my nightgown, and make arrangements for someone to look after my son and my dog. I’ll come back as soon as I can. Give me a couple of hours to set this all up, please.” I practically begged him.
“Okay, do what you have to do. Just make sure you come back and register soon.” With a flourish, he was gone, and I was left, flabbergasted, to explain all of this to my mom, who ultimately took me home to get what I needed for my hospital stay, took some money from me (along with a list of things to do for my son), and brought me back to the hospital for what would be exactly a three-week long stay.
This all happened on a Wednesday. Both my son and I didn’t know what just hit us. He was 13 at the time, and able to stay by himself, but was not able to shop for groceries himself. As a single mother, I raised him to be very independent and basically fend for himself. For one of the weeks I was hospitalized, he was off from school for his winter break. That was a small consolation in the grand scheme of things; he ended up having to care for me for months afterward. Our roles were certainly reversed during those times!
My first operation went well. On the following Monday, I had my first dressing change, and was able to see what the doctor did to my leg to save me. When the bandages were removed and I got my first look at the hole in my leg, I puked. Me, who has watched The Operation Channel and has been witness to several different types of surgeries, vomited from the shock and disbelief at what I saw. I had a hole in my leg large enough to fit my hand in, with room left over! Ugh. It was disgusting. I was nauseated for the rest of the day, and dry-heaved whenever I thought about what my leg looked like.
Two weeks later, I had a second surgery, to remove the remaining necrotic tissue. This was black tissue that rimmed the outermost layer of the hole. I’d like to say that my leg looked better after that, and it did, but I still had a huge hole in my leg. I had no idea how it was ever going to heal.
A few days before I was released, I had my answer. The VAC was going work miracles for me. VAC is an acronym for Vacuum Assisted Closure. The VAC was a machine that would suck the guck out of my leg while simultaneously helping suck the wound closed. It was quite the concept, really, and was what Dr. P had referred to during his initial assessment.
How it works is as follows: a piece of medicated “sponge” is applied to the inside of the hole. This has to be custom cut to “fill” the wound. A piece of Saran-wrap-like adhesive is then placed overtop to hold it in place. A hole is then cut with scissors in the middle of this adhesive. A suction cup is then attached to this hole, which is also attached to a hose that is attached to the VAC. When the VAC is turned on, the sucking begins. It’s a whole process to go through, setting this up and making sure everything is sterile. But it works. It works wonders!
I was hooked up to the VAC for a month-and-a-half. It was portable and had to be plugged in to work, but did run off a battery if mobility to the outside world was needed. However, the battery life was only about 2.5 to 3 hours long, so any time I wanted to venture out, I had to limit my visits!
Nurses visited me every two days to change the canister that contained the guck the VAC sucked out of my leg, and to re-apply new dressing. Patrick, this one nurse I had, was pretty cute. 😉
After the expulsion from my leg slowed down (in other words, the guck that got sucked out eventually decreased), I was able to use the mini-VAC. This made my outings a bit easier, since the mini-VAC was about as big as an average-sized purse. It came complete with an over-the-shoulder strap, too. I was able to go grocery shopping by then, and to bingo. I did other things, too, but that’s another story altogether. 😉
The VAC truly worked wonders on me. It took about six months for my leg to grow new tissue and close the opening. I was surprised that the skin eventually grew closed, too. I will always have a scar on my leg, and will always be a bit deformed, but have finally come to the realization that, yes, I was lucky I didn’t lose my leg. I’d rather have a scarred leg than no leg at all!
How the VAC works
If you are wondering how I was able to heal, take a look at these photos. You’ll be amazed.
My final thought
So there you have it. The complete story of how I nearly lost my leg, the hell I went through, and how I was able to heal. The length of this post clearly shows just how big a part this played in my life. It was such a big part of my life for the last 9 years. I’m so glad I’m finally coming to terms with this; it’s been a rough journey, and one I hope to never repeat during this lifetime.
Do you have any thoughts you’d like to share about this experience, this true story, or any of your surgery stories? If so, I’d love to hear them! I would also like to invite you to read a poem I wrote the day before my accident. It’s called A Pasha Poem. And don’t forget to sign up for my new newsletter!