Monday, September 3, 2012

The Rebirth

2 surgeries.  A month in bed.  A brittle tibia.  2 protruding metal screws. A bone graft recommended. 
Not good times. 
But then…
Ignored the bone graft medical advice.  A magically welded tibia.  2 screws removed. 2 holes plugged instantly. 
And my first mile run in 4 years. 
All that, and a random story in this blog post.
Things seem to be trending upward.  (Cue: knock on wood).  3 months ago, my tibia had healed enough that the surgeon could remove the 2 screws inside my leg.  As my previous blog post described, the surgery went swimmingly.  I love getting to use that word – swimmingly – a second time. 
The leg was understandably a bit ginger for the first few days – and by ginger, I mean sensitive, not red.  I took it easy for 2 weeks until Dr. Scheinberg cleared me to resume non-impact exercising.  Basically, the same stuff I had been doing before the screws were removed.  He told me to return 1 month later so we could see if the holes left by the screws had filled in.
I can neither confirm nor deny that Lance Armstrong and I spent that entire month injecting each other with banned substances.  Or perhaps it was the 14 calcium pills I popped every day. 
Whatever the reason, solid bone replaced the void left by the screws, almost like a reverse Black Hole implosion.  My leg’s not 100%, but it’s no longer a ticking time bomb, either.
And then Dr. Scheinberg dropped the hammer. 
“Jim, you’re good to go.” 
“What?  Like, any activity?” I asked.
“Well, I assume you won’t have 300lb defensive lineman landing on you,” he replied.  “But yeah.  Use common sense, of course, but no limitations.  You can ski, water ski, or kick people as hard as you want.”
Ok, I made up that last one.
A few days later, I decided to test his prognosis.  After warming up with some uphill walking on the treadmill, the MPH gauge was staring at me, tempting me to increase the speed.  The taunt was a direct challenge to my manhood.  In the past, I would’ve used my fractured tibia as an excuse.  “I really would like to run,” I would rationalize to myself, “but my leg won’t let me.” 
Well, I no longer had the crutch of a gimpy leg.  To the contrary, Dr. Scheinberg’s parting words energized me, and I was emboldened by my new athletic freedom. 
I jacked up the MPH on the treadmill, first to 5mph, before slowly increasing it a few tenths at a time.  Before long, I was jogging.  Triumphant, I looked to the girl on my left with a huge smile.  She glared back, “Stop staring at me, creepy gym person.” 
Not exactly the Lori Petty – Keanu Reeves, “You’re surfing!” Point Break moment I was looking for.  F*ck her.  She was chubby, anyway.
I jogged for a bit over 2 minutes before taking a break.  Caution still reigned.  A minute later, I picked up the pace, this time jogging at a 6mph clip.  A 10-minute mile pace.  2min 30sec later – ¼ mile – I resumed walking.  And then I jogged another quarter-mile lap.  I repeated the process a few times before calling it quits.  By then, the fatty on my left was talking on her cell and munching on some Doritos.  I handed her an application for The Biggest Loser.
Before my jog, the muscle on the outside of my calf near the screws remained sensitive.  Nothing painful; more like a pinch, an ache I figured would disappear after I re-built those atrophied muscles.  But I still worried I might aggravate the weakened tibia or something worse. 
The next morning, I awoke a bit apprehensive.  And then…nothing.  No pain.  No discomfort.  The jog didn’t cause any ill effects.  I’ve never been so thrilled with the feeling of nothing.
After a few more jog/walk combos at the gym, I went all-in.  9min 50 seconds later, I had run my first mile in almost 4 years.  Not quite a Roger Bannister moment, but definitely a Rocky climbing the steps feeling. 
Don’t get me wrong.  The leg is still sore at times.  The area surrounding where the screws used to be remains sensitive, as is the nearby muscle.  If somebody pokes my leg where the screws were removed, I won’t chuckle like the Pillsbury Dough Boy.  If you squeeze that area hard enough, in fact, I’ll last three seconds before punching your private parts.  
But I can’t complain.  Not really.  Life is good. 
With the shackles removed, it’s time to start setting some new physical activity goals.  Right now, my spare time is filled with soccer coaching 3 nights/week.  Plus, we usually have multiple games on the weekends.  That doesn’t leave any time for a new leisurely activity. 
When the soccer season ends in November-ish, however, I plan to test my leg . . . by taking Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu lessons.  I always wanted to learn BJJ, and actually planned to take classes 4 years ago when I messed up my knee.  Luckily, a brand new dojo opened nearby.  I’m anxious to see if my leg/knee can handle the grappling.  Assuming the price is right and their class schedule meshes with my calendar, perhaps you’ll see me in the Octagon in a few years.
(And to all the UFC and BJJ haters, hugging and rolling around on the ground with another man doesn’t make me gay.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that…)
And then I plan my long-awaited return to the volleyball circuit.  Watching the Olympics rejuvenated my dormant passion for the game.  Or maybe it was all the hot chicks in the skimpy bikinis.  Either way, I reached out to my old partners about playing in a league or some tournaments next spring/summer.  That’s right – we’re getting the old gang back together.  Like me, they’ve been retired for the past few years.  No matter.  We’ll drop down another competitive level to offset my gimpy knee and the fact they’ve spent the last 4 years on the couch.  Sure, competing against the trucker hat and beer gut folks might seem like a letdown – like Antoine Walker suiting up in the D-League – but I’m just thrilled at the prospect of hitting the ball around again.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll embrace the rec level camaraderie and opportunity to chug some Bud Lights in between serves…
So, 3 years, 8 months.  That’s a long time.  I’m still not “normal,” nor do I ever expect to be.  I continue to see improvements, even now.  Frankly, that’s shocking.  I’m wiser now, too.  So that helps.  I won’t do anything stupid to risk re-injuring my knee.  But I also feel more confident to push things a bit.  I’ll never reach 100% -- who does at this age, really?  I’ve got hope, like my good friend, Andy Dufrane.  The next chapter promises to be interesting…
And now, I wanted to share a story, something that will resonate especially for parents.
The dreaded Emergency Room visit.  It’s happened to every parent.  Assuming your kid’s ok, the visit itself is no big deal.  But here’s the unspoken secret behind Emergency Room visits -- it doesn’t matter what happened to the kid.  Rather, it’s which parent gets blamed for the accident. 
Unfortunately, my son injured himself on my watch.  Not good.  While I worried about the health of my kid, the wrath of my wife hung over my head like a French Revolution guillotine.  I hurt her baby.  That’s every dad’s nightmare. 
At the time of his accident, my oldest kid, T, was 4 ½ years old.  His baby sister was 6 months old.  For the first time since her birth, my wife planned a complete girl’s day out.  Mani/pedi’s, spa, dinner and drinks, capped with an overnight stay at a local hotel. I was responsible for the kids.
I invited a couple of friends over to watch the UFC PPV.  They were scheduled to arrive around 8.30; the fights started at 9.  The day had been uneventful.  Dad survived his first real day completely alone with both kids. Whoo hoo!
About 5 minutes before my guests arrived, my daughter was tucked away in her crib, comfortably asleep.  Unlike her older brother, she was a perfectly docile baby.  She started sleeping through the night at an early age, and rarely wailed loud enough to wake up the neighborhood.  I was looking forward to watching the fights over a few beers with my friends.
After the obligatory 5-minute bedtime warning – my son already had negotiated an extra 10 minutes – T started walking to his room for the night.  As he strolled across the living room floor, he tripped over one of his sister’s baby toys and lost his balance.  The slow motion free fall began.  T’s startled expression during his tumble matched my paralyzing realization that he was falling sideways toward the fireplace.  Unlike the movies, however, I could not dive ahead to cushion his fall.
T cracked his head on the fireplace.  His fall didn’t look that bad, but after an obligatory 2-Mississippi pause, he let out the blood-churtling scream all parents immediately dread.  The “Oh, sh*t, my kid’s hurt for real” cry.  At first, there was just a small cut at the corner of his forehead/temple, right above the hairline. With frozen doe eyes, he stared at me like the deer which just spotted the hunter but didn’t appreciate the loaded shotgun pointed at its face.  I comforted my son…and then the blood began to pour out.
Within a few seconds, the small cut grew to a half-inch gash.  Having watched many Ric Flair wrestling matches as a kid, I understood that all head wounds bleed significantly.  Part of me heard one of the wrestling announcers commentating, “Good Lord!  T’s bleeding like a stuck pig!  Luckily, blood flowed down the side of his face. 
Because the blood didn’t spill into his eyes, my son couldn’t tell how badly he was injured. (Of course, he saw the blood on my shirt as I held him, and the blood all over the paper towels I used to douse the cut.)  Thankfully, I remained calm. T was a champ. He quickly calmed down after his initial spill. He even stayed still while I dabbed his cut with paper towels, and cleaned it with alcohol.
I soon realized T needed stitches. I couldn’t reach my wife, however. And the baby was asleep…and I had guests arriving any minute. 
This situation wasn’t covered in the fatherhood parenting book.
While T’s cut was “serious,” his life wasn’t in danger.  I didn’t have to rush him to the emergency room. I decided to wait a few minutes for my guests to arrive, and asked one of them to stay at the house with the baby while I took T to the hospital.
My wife finally called me back 10 minutes later; she hadn’t heard the phone ring at the restaurant. It turns out the guest I was awaiting on to stay with the baby – his wife was with my wife – stopped halfway to my house and went home when his wife told him about T’s accident. Frantically, I called one of my other guests to see where he was. He was in the middle of dinner at a restaurant only 10 minutes away. He immediately left and came over. I then picked up my wife so we could all go to the hospital together.
(My buddy’s wife and another couple arrived a few minutes later I left. They watched the PPV and enjoyed my hospitality (and beers) while I was gone.)
The hospital visit went pretty well. As soon as the nurse attended to him, a perceptive T immediately asked if he was gonna get stuck by a needle. The poor RN looked at me and replied, “Uh, I’m not gonna stick you, kid.”  Of course, he didn’t mention that his colleague was going to.  When doling out bad news to kids, even nurses pass the buck.
To keep T motionless while they stitched him up, they first wrapped him up in a sheet. Not realizing he was about to get a shot, he thought this was fun. He pretended to be a mummy and wanted to “break free.” Then they placed him on a stretcher backboard with thick Velcro straps. T thought this was fun, too….until the doc came in. Even before the doc removed the needle, T recognized what was about to happen next. Poor kid. They gave him a few shots on his forehead to numb the area while the orderly held him still.  A handful of stitches later, we left the Emergency room with our exhausted child.
6+ years later, he’s fine.  His hairline covers the small scar.  He’s got a ridiculously full head of hair now.  Hopefully he didn’t inherit my balding gene.  It would be a shame for that scar to re-emerge 20 years later when his hairline drifts back.
And now for the worst part – I’m still suffering blame for T’s injury.  The Emergency Room visit has become my wife’s trump card during parental arguments.  It’s like slapping down the Queen of Spades.  BAM, bitch.  Yes, honey, you’re right.  It’s my fault.  You’re the smarter parent, and know what’s best for the kids.  I hang my head in absolute defeat.
I’m now forced to root for one of our kids to get hurt on my wife’s watch to even things up.  Nothing serious, of course… 

Monday, May 28, 2012

Hardware removal

Some folks have told me I have a screw loose. Well, make that 2 screws loose.  And a pair of washers.  Check them out:

 I'm still trying to figure out how best to display them.  Glass showcase above the fireplace mantle?  Mounted criss-cross atop a wooden board, like a medieval family Coat of Arms?  Or lying parallel across some toothpick stand, samurai-style?  Please add your thoughts in the Comments.

The surgery went well, and quickly.  I was in the waiting room twice as long as the operating area.  The anesthesiologist and nurse wheeled me back shortly before 3pm, and I woke up in the recovery room at 4.  The actual operation lasted around 15 minutes.  2 incisions, 2 screws yanked out.  No post-op nausea.  After a dozen Graham crackers and a Ginger Ale, time to go home. 

According to my wife, Dr. Scheinberg said my tibia was solid.  No issues or complications.  No need for new screws or bone graft material.  I’ll find out more details next week at my follow-up visit, but, in short, the operation apparently went swimmingly (I never got a chance to use that word. Swimmingly).

Anyway, here’s his handiwork.  With the knee shaved, you can really see the original scar. And my hair is already growing back.

I used crutches the night of the surgery, and again at breakfast the following morning.  But that was more out of precaution than need.  I’m walking around just fine now.  I took half a Vicodin the night of the surgery, the following morning, and again before bed the following evening.  I added the remaining 28 pills to my home pharmacy.

I was told I could drive when I felt “ready.”  For the past 3 days, my wife chauffered me around, Driving Miss Daisy-style.  Her driving was scarier than the actual surgery.  Just kidding, sweetie! I should be ready to drive to work on Tuesday.

I also couldn’t shower for 48 hours after the surgery.  I don’t know how Europeans survive without daily showers.  Good lord.  I almost passed out from my own stench.

Amputees often describe the phantom pain they feel in their newly amputated limb.  We have something in common.  In the first 2 days after the surgery, I still “felt” the screws inside my tender leg.  It wasn't pain, but nonetheless a very odd sensation.  I suspect that as my leg heals, that phantom discomfort will disappear.  At least I hope it does.  Each day the leg shows daily improvement.  It's probably 70% normal 3-4 days after the surgery.  For now, the leg feels a bit like it did after a particularly grueling workout when the hardware was still in.

I meet again with Scheinberg 10 days after the surgery.  I’ll probably get a more detailed summary of the surgery.  Hopefully he'll clear me to resume exercising.  I’m anxious to “test” my leg. I don’t plan on completing a triathalon or entering the Octagon any time soon, but I'd like to pick things up a notch.  The screws had limited how vigorously I could exercise, which, in turn, limited how far I could push my knee.  By year's end, I hope to get a fuller picture of how well the ACI surgery worked.

Enjoy the rest of your Memorial Day Weekend.  

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Hardware Journey - A Brief Detour

I’m about to have surgery to remove the screws.  Well, at least I hope the leg has healed enough so the doc can simply yank them out.  I can’t imagine waking up post-surgery, and learning, “sorry, we had to insert new screws,” or worse, “we had to pack in some bone graft stuff.”   Talk about a major buzzkill.  Anyway, send your positive vibes my way.  I’ll share the details and perhaps post some pictures afterward.

Meanwhile, enjoy one of my favorite “legal victories.”

Before joining the government, I worked for one of those mega law firms with a gazillion lawyers and offices all over the world.  The Uganda office was spectacular.

One of the best parts of being a lawyer is the ability to represent yourself.  It rarely happens, but when somebody tries to screw you, it comes in handy.  Like my dry cleaner tried to do.  Emphasis on “tried to do.” 

My wife and I used the same, local dry cleaner for several years.  They did an admirable job.  Friendly people.  Not too smelly.  The right amount of starch.  Exactly the type of relationship you want with your neighborhood dry cleaner. 

I wore a suit every day.  When you take that much stuff to the cleaners, you understand the cleaner will eventually screw something up.  Death, taxes and lost/ruined shirts.  Not a big deal, but you expect the laundrymat to make things right when it happens.

In August of 1999, the dry cleaner lost 7 of my shirts.  Unfortunately, this included 3-4 brand new custom-made shirts, which cost double or triple a normal men’s dress shirt. In total, the 7 shirts cost $650.   

(These were the fancy, high-thread count shirts.  In a shocking coincidence, I was somewhat of a douchebag back then). 

As a regular customer, Christina was on a first-name basis with the store clerk/manager.  When she first arrived to pick up the 7 shirts, the manager couldn’t find them.  With a somewhat stupefied look, she told her, “huh, I remember you dropping them off yesterday.  Maybe they’re still off-site.” 

No big deal, Christina replied.  I’ll come back tomorrow. 

When Christina returned, the shirts were still AWOL.  Christina even helped the lady look for them – they examined every plastic-bag on that electric clothesline in the backroom.  Nothing.  The clerk called the sister dry cleaning franchise.  Still nothing.

After confirming there were no delivery issues, the conversation shifted toward reimbursement for the lost shirts.  The clerk told Christina she needed to confer with the owner. 

The owner was a bigger douchebag than even me.  But he was far dumber. 

And this is when being a lawyer helps.

When Christina discussed reimbursement with the owner, the clerk was there, too.  The conversation did not go well.  Instead of apologizing for losing the shirts – and upsetting a long-time customer – the owner called Christina a liar and claimed she never dropped off the shirts.  Not a good start. 

As a long-time customer on a first-name basis, we stopped receiving and turning in laundry tickets on our orders, leading the owner to automatically accuse Christina over trying to screw him.  Shocked, Christina turned to the clerk who had admitted to receiving the order and spent several hours over the past week searching for the shirts.  Instead of correcting the owner, the clerk slinked away from the conversation.  Apparently job security trumps honesty.  The owner then berated Christina for 5 minutes, like Kobe Bryant scolding Pau Gasol.

Frustrated at the tongue-lashing, Christina turned things over to me.

I met with Mr. Patel (which may or may not be his real name).  I was polite.  I also might have been wearing a custom made shirt. 

I told him I didn’t appreciate him calling my wife a liar, especially since we’ve been customers for many years.  Regardless, I told Mr. Patel that the shirts cost over $650, but in the interest of putting this matter behind us I would accept a $400 check.  Mr. Patel was defiant.  He refused to pay a dime.  I’m sure Mr. Patel’s response usually dissuades most disgruntled customers from pursuing things further.  But I wasn’t like most customers.  Instead, I shared with him that I was a lawyer who would gladly sue him for losing my shirts.  He chuckled and told me to go for it.  I think he grew up watching Rocky.

Egging me on was not a wise move.  I was Drago, and he was Apollo, only not nearly as pretty and charming.

I gave him one last chance.  I pulled out my fancy law firm business card, which listed our offices all over the world. 

“Mr. Patel,” I began, “I don’t think you understand.  If I sue you, I won’t be asking for just the $650.  Oh, no.  I will also ask to be reimbursed all of my attorney’s fees, too.”

He seemed confused, but I continued.

“And see all these offices?  This means I’m very expensive.”

“Besides,” I told him, “you’ll have to hire your own lawyer, and you’ll wind up paying him far more than you would pay me to settle this matter.”

I reiterated my generous offer to accept $400 to avoid a fight.

And then Mr. Patel uttered his famous last words.  “Go ahead and sue me.”

So I did.  And boy, did I f*ck him up.

Under the legal rules, defendants have to respond to a lawsuit within a certain time frame.  Of course, he didn't bother to hire a lawyer -- they cost a lot of money :-)  He missed the deadline and never filed an answer. 

I immediately went to court to obtain what's called a "default judgment." This means the court accepts everything in my lawsuit as true, including the fact that Mr. Patel lost my shirts and owes me $650.

But the fun doesn't end there.  Just like I warned Mr. Patel, the judge also awarded me my attorneys' fees: 12 hours of my time x $185/hr = $2,200.  Grand total -- $2,830.

(This happened 13 years ago.  $185/hour is about as outdated as a rotary phone.  I’m pretty sure my billing rate today would be over $500/hour, perhaps more).

But the fun doesn't end there, either. 

I called Mr. Patel, told him about the judgment the court awarded me and asked for my money.  With some swagger, he said, “yeah, the check is in the mail." 

The little f*cker still refused to pay me!

Mr. Patel obviously didn’t learn his lesson the first time.

When defendants refuse to pay, folks are forced to seize assets to satisfy their debt.  Again, being a lawyer helps navigate this process.

I left Mr. Patel a voicemail delicately telling him that if I didn't hear from him within 24 hours, the next thing he'd see would be me, a Dallas sheriff, and a U-Haul loading away sh*t from his store. 

(My lawyer colleagues gave me their shirt sizes in case I confiscated other people’s dry cleaning to satisfy my judgment.  I told them they would look odd if their monogrammed shirts listed somebody else’s initials.  Or if they showed up to work wearing Prom tuxedos).

The threat worked.  Mr. Patel returned my call about an hour later and promised to mail the check.  Because I wasn’t going to fall for the banana in the tailpipe, I insisted on picking it up. 

And I did.  $2,830.  The check didn’t bounce.

Final score: Jim 1 – Weaselly Dry Cleaner 0.