Numb Hands and Dragon Scales: Coping with a Traumatic Health Experience
It is still with me. The ICU experience, the hospital stay, the surreal fact that I was so very sick, that I came so close to death. It colours part of every day and I suspect it will continue to do so for some time to come. Trauma sticks around.
At first, I thought I was fine, even Fine. But after a lot of conversations with my family and with others who have been there, and quite a lot of this presence of memories, I have come to realize that it was a trauma. You might think this is obvious, what with waking up with a crapload of equipment in my throat doing my breathing for me, not being able to speak, and having multiple tubes hooked up to my body, but it took a while for me to recognize this. Because I’m not always totally smart about my emotional reaction to things.
My rheumatologist told me of another patient of hers who after a lengthy ICU stay made a career out of writing and speaking about ICU PTSD. Which turns out to be fairly common. Having hallucinations while sedated is apparently also a thing – this article reminded me of my own very realistic dreams of being held hostage in the hospital. Although I don’t believe my own reaction is all the way to PTSD — I think the notes that were kept by The Boy and the conversations I’ve had with family and friends that are filling out the blank spaces are helping me process what happened in a healthy way. Nevertheless, it is haunting me more than a little.
I also have a few reminders that make it hard to move on. One is the bandage on my throat protecting the trach stoma (hole) that still hasn’t seen fit to closing. Thankfully my airway has healed, which means I have my voice back and that helps with feeling closer to normal. Despite my late afternoon nap, I still have to lie down for an hour in the evening. If I don’t, the pain goes a little wiggy. I run out of breath a little sooner than I used to and hit the wall pretty quickly when asked to focus, but those are getting better.
And then there are my hands. When I woke up, they were swollen to the point of looking like air-filled balloons made out of surgical gloves.
All of me was swollen, my rheumatologist mentioned something about the lack of protein, but I don’t really know why. Well, I know why my stomach looked like I was pregnant — one of the nurses said they had pumped me full of air when trying to bring me back from the crash. This didn’t explain my hands and feet, though.
At first, I could barely lift my hands and it took weeks until I could reach my face. As I started using my hands, trying to write to communicate, moving and exercising, the swelling began to subside. And that’s when I realized that parts of my hands, as well as part of one of my legs and the top of one foot, were numb. The rheumatologist intern tested whether I could feel vibration and I could, at least where she held the vibrating device. The day after, I realized that I had an ulnar nerve entrapment in both elbows, and the equivalent by my knee. I’ve had it once before, the memory of that numbness along the edge of my hand and in my ring and little fingers coming back.
It wasn’t until over a week after I came home that I realized I had something else, as well. That the little finger on my left hand was partially paralyzed. The injury is worse on the left arm than the right and I remember a very realistic dream — hallucination? — of someone holding my arm up and stretched, creating agonizing pain in my elbow. I think it was probably when they inserted a PIC line on the inside of my upper left arm. Clearly, it damaged something.
The numbness used to be up both arms, as well, but that has gone away, the numb areas shrinking gradually. The areas still affected also buzz now, sometimes painfully so when touched. My doctor says it is a good sign, that it means there is life in the nerve. She also says that it can take up to three months to heal.
My left little finger didn’t buzz, though. It has been completely numb, without sensation. It has gone so deep within that I can’t feel it at all, would be surprised when my right hand touched something and I’d look down to see my left little finger there. There was little motor control, as well, which I only realized when trying to do Alt+Ctrl+Del on my keyboard and nothing happened.
I worry that I have lost that finger. My other little finger is still functional, despite the numbness and the buzzing. Something more is wrong on the left-hand side. I have tried to wrap my head around potentially having lost that finger. I tell myself that it is a small price to pay for surviving this critical illness. And then I tell myself that it has only been six weeks since I woke up, so perhaps I shouldn’t leap to conclusions. The continued swelling along the outside of my hands and in the fingers affected doesn’t help. I can’t wear my ring because of the swelling in my left ring finger and much of my frustration focus on that. Because that’s easier than thinking about the finger next to that.
On a shelf in my living room sits a tiny stuffed dragon, green with purple wings. It was a gift from my sister Janne the second-last Saturday I was in the hospital. She came into my room on the regular ward, the dragon poking its head out of her purse. She handed it to me with a smile and said “this is for you. Because you are fierce as a dragon.” And when things are hard, I look at the dragon and remember my sister’s faith in me and my ability to bounce back.
Last week, I decided to do something to celebrate being back and to make it about my hands, creating a positive when I looked at them, rather than the constant worry in the back of my mind. So I took the green nail polish with a shimmer of gold that my sister also brought me, and went to see Catherine at Poa Studio and she made my nails look beautiful.
Janne says they look like dragon scales. And now I have a reminder that I can do this right on my fingertips.
Is it a coincidence that just this Sunday, my left little finger started buzzing?