(For Part I of this series, click here)
“You need to make friends with it,” advised my surgeon. She smiled at me, her long straight blonde hair pulled into a neat ponytail. She stood in perfect posture, trim in her blue scrubs.
Dr. Eberwein’s appearance was in direct contrast to mine. I peered up at her from a confoundingly uncomfortable hospital bed. My curly hair sprawled over the pillow. I wore a blue and white hospital gown, a “Johnnie” as they are called. Underneath me was a “Chuck,” a plastic backed, soft-topped rectangle used to catch errant liquids which might ooze from my hospitalized body.
I had one IV in each arm, two pumps coming out of two separate wounds, a blood pressure cuff on my left bicep. And, to my doctor’s point, there was a long hose, one end attached to my abdomen, the other end affixed to a large pump.
“You need to make friends with it.”
This “wound vac” was to be my constant companion for the next six weeks. Like Mary’s Little Lamb, everywhere I went, this vac was sure to go. Its hose stretched only 36 inches, tethering me in place like a horse. If I strayed too far, somehow forgetting about my new “friend,” it would tug painfully, pulling on my sizable abdominal bandage.
Picture a large plastic rectangle, affixed right under your breast line with glue, stretching as far as possible around both of your sides. Tug that plastic down below your waist. Fasten it tightly to your skin on all edges. On top, plug in a long plastic tube, and attach it to a portable vacuum. Then, turn the vacuum on. Feel the plastic bandage shrink down tightly to your wounded skin as all the air sucks out. Underneath the tight hot plastic, your wounded skin might give you shoots of pain. More annoyingly, it might itch the kind of itch that could drive you mad.
Wear this bandage 24/7 for six weeks.
There are worse things. In fact, there used to be much worse things. I have been skin grafted so many times I lost count. As a child, this grafting was torture. The pain of the bandage changes would reduce the entire children’s burn unit to howls of pain. Every child shrieked in agony, twice daily, when their bandages were changed. (For more on these early days, check out the award-winning Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor).
That was 50 years ago. Recently, I spent four nights in the hospital for this current surgery. At one point, I turned to my husband and said, “You know what? I haven’t heard a single person scream in pain. Not even once.”
Burn treatment has advanced. New bandage technology has vastly reduced the old torture that I, and so many others, once endured. My nurse advised me that “We aim for the pain level to be zero.” Zero! And indeed, my pain level, while not zero, has been remarkably low. So, listen, I am not complaining.
Although, I am complaining, because of this wound vac situation.
The purpose of the wound vac is to hold my open graft site in place, so that artificial skin can embed, take hold, and “vasculate.” Once the blood vessels have grown in, I will have yet another surgery (bummer!), to cover over the new graft with my own skin. In the meantime, the wound vac covers the site, encourages “vasculation,” and protects the open wound from infection.
“You need to make friends with it.”
Days later, I spontaneously dubbed my wound vac “Walter.” I don’t know how to make friends with something without a name, and Walter was the name that popped into my head. I don’t know why. The only Walter I ever knew was a Walter who attended the college my dad taught at. That Walter was a kind, lovely man and I liked him very much. This Walter sucks. I mean this both literally and figuratively.
“Don’t forget Walter!” warns my daughter when I stand up too fast.
“Walter got stuck,” I complain to my husband, waiting to be untangled.
“Can you plug in Walter?” I ask at bedtime, so that the wound vac can charge overnight.
Walter communicates. I guess he is trying to be friends, in his own way. “Blep..blep…blep,” he intones, when his suction is perfectly adjusted. At other times, he speaks more rapidly, “Bleppety bleppety bleppety,” letting me know that he is striving to maintain the necessary pressure.
“BEEP BEEP BEEP!” Walter shrieks in the middle of the night. I hoist myself up shakily, getting down on my knees to diagnose the problem. “Battery critically low” is the error message across the wound vac’s display. I thought I plugged him in, but I didn’t.
I hate Walter.
Walter embarrasses me. It is just weird to have a tube poking out the bottom of my shirt, drooping along the floor, and ending in the black messenger bag that hangs on my right shoulder. “Blep… blep… blep,” he drones on, in his endless loop.
Except it is worse than that. Every three minutes or so, Walter takes a quick breather. “Blep… blep…blep…. (silence)… PWPWUUUUT!” That final bit sounds exactly like an explosive fart. My family laughed at that in the beginning. We joked that Walter provided the perfect cover for a person who needed to pass gas. It was funny for about 20 minutes.
It has been 21 days.
“Blep…blep… blep… (silence)… PWPWUUUUT!”
I am glad that burn care has advanced. I am grateful to be in minimal pain, and look forward to my grafting being complete. Already I know it will be worth it.
“Can you take a deep breath?” my surgeon inquired, one day after the operation.
In my bed, I inhaled. Holy cow, it was true! My abdomen expanded and expanded. I had no idea that lungs could fill so deeply. It turned out that I hadn’t taken a full breath in… 40 years? So, even though my middle is still a vast open wound, I can tell that I will be much more comfortable inside the new grafts. The tight pressure that has been my constant companion, the permanent corset that limited my breathing and caused pain after any big meal, that corset is gone. I am going to be so happy.
Once I get rid of Walter.
“Blep… blep… blep… (silence)… PWPWUUUUT!”
Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.