Wednesday, June 20, 2007

How Can You Watch That? (~Shudder~)

You might think that having gone through so many surgeries and medical experiences -- good and bad -- that I'd run screaming from the room when a medical reality shows came on the TV. But strangely enough, it's just the opposite. I can't get enough, from pregnancy and birth shows to ER traumas to plastic surgery -- I'll watch them all.

The shows that fascinate me the most are those dealing with the specific conditions and procedures I've had. There aren't a lot of them out there that match up exactly with my diagnoses because some of the stuff I've dealt with is pretty rare, but there are enough to give me a pretty good third party view of what's going on with my body. In fact, that's why I'm drawn to this type of programming -- to see what was going on to cause me to go through the many, many experiences I've had.

I'm particularly drawn to programs about astrocytomas (which is the type of central nervous system tumor that I've been dealing with for the last 32 years) and other tumors that invade the spinal cord. I'm absolutely fascinated by seeing the spinal cord up close. Watching neurosurgeons try to remove tumors from that critical and oh-so-delicate area of the body always renews my gratitude to and awe of the doctors that performed my three surgeries for the amazing work they did to remove as much tumor as possible while still leaving me much more functional than science predicted I should be. Learning about other people's experiences with astrocytomas of the cervical spinal cord and brain stem on TV is almost the only way to get info about cases other than mine because the chances of surviving the type of grade of tumor I had are frighteningly bad -- when I was first diagnosed, I was told that only 5 percent of people with a Grade III astrocytoma of the spinal cord lived longer than five years. In years of searching, I've only ever met one other living person with a tumor with the same grade and location as mine.

There's only one procedure that I've had that I absolutely cannot bear to watch being performed -- harvesting donor skin for skin grafts. In 1984, I had to have 10 vertebrae in the upper par to my spine fused together to prevent the severe back-to-front curvature of the spine from getting any worse than the 90 plus degrees it had reached -- if it did get any worse, there was a very good chance that it would stretch the tiny bit of remaining spinal cord so far that it would break and leave me paralyzed. Removing the discs between the vertebrae and replacing them with donor bone taken from my pelvis went very well, the incision to get to the back of my spine wouldn't to heal, probably because that patch of skin had already been opened twice before and had endured 6000 rads of radiation that further damaged the skin. To get this area to heal, and stop the dangerous leak of cerebral spinal fluid through the open wound, doctors finally ended up removing the entire trapzius muscle from my left shoulder -- including skin and blood supply -- and moving it over to cover the incision that ran from the base of my skull down the spine to the bottom of my shoulder blades. To cover the donor site, they took a large rectangular skin graft, about 3 inches by 7 inches, from the back of the left thigh. Before I knew how donor skin was collected, I used to jokingly refer to the doctors taking a cheese slicer into the OR with them for the procedure. Turns out the joke was pretty accurate -- the device used to remove a layer of skin just millimeters thick is pretty much an electric cheese slicer. I was so excited the first time I knew I'd see this process as part of a plastic surgery program because it was one of the few surgical techniques I'd been through that I hadn't seen performed. Believe you me, once I saw them fire up their instrument I hit the channel change button just as fast as my thumb could get into position. It's strange, though, because I'm fine with seeing the skin graft get prepped (they crank it through a device that stretches the skin even thinner and perforates it so the graft site can drain properly, otherwise fluid will get trapped underneath and separate the graft from the graft site). I'm even fine with watching the graft get placed onto the donor site. It's just that process of getting the donor skin that gives me a major case of the heebie jeebies. ~shudder shudder shudder~

As with so many other things that I do, I often wonder if others with complicated medical histories share my fascination with watching others go through some of the same things they've experienced, or if being a voyeur into their own medical dramas is just too horrible to imagine. Perhaps on a slow afternoon I'll see what info I can find on the Web. I won't be surprised to learn that I'm not alone in my viewing habits -- the Internet has been a remarkable way for people to discover that they're not nearly as weird as they may think they are.

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