Three Times Seven

For the first time in my memory, I measured the two surgical scars on the front of my torso. Both are roughly seven inches long. Though I can’t readily reach the scar that runs from my back around the side of my torso, in the mirror it, too, looks to be about seven inches long. Twenty-one inches of evidence suggesting I would have been long dead by now, in the absence of those surgeries.

The oldest of those scars, memento of my first serious surgery, was given to me courtesy of doctors whose names I do not know and probably never did. The operation took place during my one and only visit to Toledo, Ohio, a visit intended to demonstrate my respect of and appreciation for local members of an association of which I was the chief staff executive. Doctors rushed me into emergency surgery to deal with what they believed, based on my symptoms, was appendicitis. Instead, they discovered a lengthy stretch of badly-damaged intestine, courtesy of Crohn’s disease. The horizontal seven-inch scalpel wound low on the right side of my torso gave the surgeon the space necessary to cut out the useless and painful length of bowel, stitch the intestines back together, and—since they were already deep in my gut—remove my healthy appendix. Several days later, I was allowed to board a plane to take me back to Dallas, where I had moved only months before. I convalesced for a couple of weeks before returning to work. At the time, I think I valued my work more than I valued my health.

The next scar was delivered by a cardiac surgeon fourteen years later. This incident, too, was done on an emergency basis. My symptoms suggested to my family practice doctor that I needed to see a cardiologist right away, in the emergency room. That’s where I met the man who would become “my first cardiologist” for the next eleven years. My cardiologist tried to insert stents by way of an angioplasty, but was unable to make that work. So, they opted to open me up.  The fact that the vertical scar is in the middle of my chest is a reminder that the surgeon did some serious work. He used a Stryker saw to cut through my sternum bone, and then used a retractor spreader to open the chest cavity to give him access to my heart. While inside, he performed a double bypass. During a follow-up visit with him a week or so later, after I went home from the hospital, he told me I would be dead within two years unless I stopped smoking. I told him I had already stopped, thanks to the surgery he had performed. He said he had heard that too many times from people who did not stop; soon they were dead, he said. I had told him the truth. That’s when I stopped smoking.

The scar whose length I could not measure (but guess is about seven inches) was made because I had not stopped smoking soon enough. That scar, created the week of Thanksgiving 2018, was made to give the surgeon access to the lower lobe of my right lung, which he removed in its entirety. I think I was in the hospital ten days afterward, then recuperated at home for what seemed like an eternity. Then, I was treated with thirty radiation sessions and four chemo treatments; the doctors wanted to make sure any remaining cancer cells were killed. About half way through the radiation regimen, the radiation burned my esophagus, making it painful to swallow. That side-effect, alone, was enough to make me wish I’d never picked up a cigarette in my youth. But my experience with lung cancer and the treatments I received for it was far more tolerable than what many others have gone through. In fact, I feel guilty for remembering the experience as painful or unpleasant, when the nightmares others have gone through make my experience seem like a minor inconvenience.

Without having experienced those three incidents of life-saving surgery, I feel certain I would be dead by now. While I doubt that any of them were “touch-and-go” in terms of my immediate survival, in all three cases I suspect I would have been dead within months without them. Had those challenges to my health taken place only fifty years ago, the odds of my medium-term survival even after surgical intervention would have been extremely low. I was fortunate, indeed, to have been born during an era when science and medicine were making such magnificent strides.

I am sure I’ve written about all three of these surgical interventions before; probably several times. Anyone who has read this blog for long is probably tired of me returning to them as often as I do. I suppose my fascination with each of the three surgeries is that I feel certain that, without them, I would have died. And that means I am living on borrowed—or stolen—time. I am alive despite the fact that, in the normal course of Nature, my ashes should be providing sustenance to earthworms and oak trees. I made reference to that yesterday. And I wrote about the scars of battles with time. I guess today’s post is a continuation, of sorts, of yesterday’s musing.  Hmm. Death and dying is on my mind, too, courtesy of my sense that I’ve “dodged a bullet” three times.

The concept that some things are “meant to be” is not an idea that has much room in my head. I do not subscribe to belief in a grand plan in which “everything happens for a reason.” That idea suggests free will does not exist. Ach! I was about to go off on a tangent that might take me days to finish, so I won’t go there.

Something in my head suggests I’ve only touched the surface of what I feel or think about my three major surgeries and what, if anything, they mean. So, I’m afraid I’ll probably continue writing about them off and on until I figure out what, exactly, I’m trying to tell myself or trying to learn. Or trying to make sense of the fact that I’m still alive when, according to the natural progression without massive intervention, I should be dead. And why me, instead of someone else who wasn’t so fortunate? Is there an answer to “why?” No, I think not. I…we…want answers that do not and can never exist. I tend not to cry when I write, because writing is more an intellectual than an emotional exercise. But for some reason, tears keep slipping from the corners of my eyes as I write this. And I don’t think I want to deal with today. I just want to stay safely in my cocoon and rock myself back to sleep.

But I haven’t had breakfast yet and I’ve allowed my coffee to get cold. So I suppose I’d better get up out of this chair and face the world. I’ll rock myself to sleep later, when I can confidently predict no one will intrude on my thoughts.


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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3 Responses to Three Times Seven

  1. Ungrateful visitor says:

    But if you had not survived , then what? The story tells me nothing. It wastes my time.

  2. Colleen, I’m glad you’re grateful for them…so am I! And I’m glad to be here among nice people like you.

  3. Colleen Boardman says:

    Grateful for those scars. Glad you’re still here!

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