Stretched out on the hospital gurney, awaiting the results of my x-ray, I stared at my sister Sandy with dread. I knew the doctor was going to tell me it was broken. A broken bone meant surgery.
I was terrified of surgery. The last time I had “routine” surgery prior to January of this year, I almost died and spent four days in a coma in the intensive care unit. My respiratory status makes me a higher risk for complications. So I was nervous when the orthopedic resident, a handsome twenty-something who flirted with the nurses and told me to call him Chaz, was not confident I would need surgery. Rather than argue with him, I asked to see the orthopedic surgeon.
I was high on pain medications and don’t have clear memories of the first time Dr. Czajka came to talk to me. Knowing how I react to medical professionals who think they know what is best for me without taking the time to listen to me, I have no doubt I was obnoxious and petulant. Thankfully, Dr. Czajka is a veteran surgeon, and knows that a patient with a broken femur who is under the influence of narcotics is probably not functioning as her most reasonable and level-headed self. Because Sandy and my friends know me well, they grilled him with the questions they knew I would want answered. I know they made an impression, because every time I saw him for follow up he asked me about my sisters.
My respiratory status, combined with my progressive neuromuscular disability and the lack of bone density in my legs, made my situation a complicated case. Dr. Czajka was honest and told Sandy he would do his best to repair the fracture, but even with the images he wouldn’t know exactly what he was facing until he got inside my leg. He was hopeful my bones would tolerate the hardware he wanted to use to put my leg back together.
My memories of heading into surgery are fuzzy. I remember the anesthesiologist and I arguing over which side of my neck would be better for the central line (I wanted the left, he won and it went on the right). Dr. Czajka was matter of fact.
Relax – I’m the one who has to do all the work! You just have to lie there.
When I woke, two things registered: 1) I was alive (yeah!) and 2) I was cold (I’m ALWAYS cold). Dr. Czajka was standing at my feet, his gruff voice cutting through the brain fog.
Your leg was a mess, but I think we got it all back together.
I had not been extubated from the ventilator yet, so I was unable to use my voice. Dr. Czajka smiled at my eye roll, and shouted a warning as he walked away.
Try to be a good patient until I see you tomorrow!
Someone, most likely Sandy, had warned him I tend to be non-compliant. When you’ve grown up in the medical model of disability, where medical professionals try to insist they are more of an expert on your body than you are, you develop proficiency in non-compliant behavior.
Two days later, when I was more coherent, Dr. Czajka came to my room to monitor my progress. After asking about my sisters (three of them had been there over the weekend), he warned me about the force of their advocacy on my behalf.
You’ve had to deal with them all your life? No wonder you’ve got an attitude!
We talked about the surgery, about my pain, and when I could expect reduced swelling. I questioned him about the hardware I now sported, wondering when I could see the x-ray of my repaired leg. He flashed a cocky grin before telling me what he had used to put my leg back together.
You need to be careful with that leg. It’s held together with a plate, screws, some chicken wire and bubble gum.
He never gave me the exact ratio. When I finally saw an x-ray, I asked him to point out the wire and the bubble gum.
Sometimes that’s hard to see on film.
Two months after my surgery, I went to Dr. Czajka’s office for a follow-up appointment. Once again, he started by asking about my sisters and almost looked disappointed when I told him I was there on my own. Then, Dr. Czajka surprised me with what he said next.
You’re lucky. You have some great friends and family who you can call on to be “Johnny on the spot” if you run into trouble. How do I get on that list? Because you’re going to fall or break the other leg eventually. And when you do, you need to call me right away because I don’t want you to waste your time with someone who is afraid to operate on you if surgery is necessary.
I tried to make a witty comeback about how I didn’t know we had progressed to that state in our relationship. He cut me off, turning serious.
I mean it. Just call me. But don’t do anything stupid. You break my work, I’ll kill you.
Believe it or not, I have been a somewhat compliant patient. I haven’t tried to stand on my leg since surgery. Well, at least, not on land. I’ve been standing on it in the therapeutic pool in water up to my shoulders so only ten percent of my body weight is on my feet. As grateful as I am to Dr. Czajka for performing surgery, I can only be so good. But, I think he’s secretly proud of my determination. Even if he likes my sisters more than me.
Thank you Dr. Czajka for performing surgery when others were hesitant. Because of you, I was out of bed and working with therapists to rehabilitate my body within a week, instead of being bed-bound for months after my femur fracture. Your number is now programmed into my phone, and I promise to do my best not to break your work. Once is enough for me!