By Susan Tretakis – Coral Springs, Florida – People are asking me whether I am ever to go to write for Care Wellness again.
My immediate reaction is one of surprise: the concept of having actual “followers”- people out there who read my posts – and people who really think that my research into TCM, Chinese herbs and acupuncture amount to more than just my opinion – is, truly, astounding to me.
My second thoughts are a bit darker.
I haven’t written for a while because there has been such much so damn noise in my head. There have been too many doubts for me even to verbalize what and why I was doubting. Together, these noises and doubts successfully blocked out any ability to transfer them to the screen. My words seemed to ricochet in my mind like the horrifically pummeling winds of any recent hurricane.
Let me tell you why.
On September 4, 2019, I underwent a nearly 6 hour surgery to replace both of my knees. Yes, it was “elective surgery” – elective in the sense if one “elects” to walk without pain, stand without falling and manage to keep a part time job.
Trust me. This was not a frivolous decision; I interviewed nearly 6 different surgeons in three counties for nearly 4 years. If anything, in retrospect, I waited too long.
While I “packed” my own blood pre-surgery, I ended up needing 4 transfusions, so two transfusions came from strangers. I thank them.
I was told originally by my surgeon and the surgical coordinator at our “Pre Joint Replacement meeting) – I would be in the hospital for a maximum of 4 days.
The reality is that I was hospitalized for ten, very long days. Ten days filled with physical therapy (excellent), ten days of hospital food (awful) and ten days of nursing and medical care (questionable.)
Everyone has horrific hospital experiences; and most people have no trouble in sharing them with anyone who will listen. My issue was darker – and to me – much more frightening – and therefore, not easily shared.
I’m doing so know.
My world tilted after surgery; many of my beliefs faded away. I was, for the first time in nearly four years, questioning the teachings of Traditional Chinese Medicine, the value of acupuncture and many lessons my TCM doctor had taught me about my wellness.
If you know me, even just by FB, you know how much it hurts me to write that paragraph; understand that it is these words that kept me from the keyboard.
Suddenly, I didn’t believe in the benefit of nutrition any longer when my first meal after surgery was a questionable type of meat loaf and mashed potatoes swimming in gravy with white flecks. When it remained untouched on my plate, I was told if I didn’t eat, I’d never get well.
I stopped believing in what I thought I knew about nutrition when I asked to speak with the head nutritionist. I wanted to explain to my previous weight loss battles, and to ask for “clean protein” – real eggs instead of the powdered eggs currently served every morning. I even asked for some type of protein supplement.
The nutritionist said no. He explained that I would need an order from my doctor and since this was now nearly 3PM on a Friday afternoon – the chance of that happening was slim to none. And his response – when asked if I could have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich rather than the turkey or roast beef sandwich where the preservatives glinted brightly under the hospital lights – was to tell me “that peanut butter and jelly was only served to children – not adults.”
I didn’t believe in hospital health care when I broke out in a total body rash and was told it was my fault because my skin was too sensitive. But no worries – they had two creams, and one pill for me to take to stop the itching – and to charge my insurance company.
I didn’t believe in the wisdom of a doctor who insisted the only way for me to get through this time was with oxycodone 4 times and day and to encourage me stop asking questions and just follow recommendations.
In my younger days, my friends and I would sneak candy into the movies to avoid paying the high prices at the concession stands. In 2019, these former licorice and chocolate bar smugglers were bringing me fresh bananas, almond butter and fresh apple slices, hard boiled eggs, my Juice Plus Complete protein drink to sip out of sight, mixed in my opaque water bottle. My Juice Plus pills had already been confiscated. “We do not allow supplements of any type here. Do you want to compromise your surgery?”
For years, I wrote about being your own health advocate, but suddenly, I was cowed into silence. Perhaps it was the non-stop pills – Oxycodone, Tramadol, Vicodin and the other medicines far too many other to name – but my inner warrior advocate simply withered away.
Was I a writing fraud?
Eventually, I made it home on a Friday evening, well past 6 PM. I came home and wrapped my leg as in plastic and did a senior citizen version of Jennifer Beal from the movie “Flash Dance”. You probably remember the scene where, after a steamy dance, she sits under a bucket of water and washes away the dirt of her life. In my version, after “dancing through a 4 hour discharge process, I sat in the shower, under the showerhead, for nearly thirty minutes trying to rid myself of the nightmare that was the last ten days.
And while home physical therapy began immediately, and while I soon advanced from walker to cane, to now, walking without assistance, it was still difficult to write. And while my PT, surgeon and most who see me congratulate me on my success, there was still a darkness.
An emotional darkness that just became bleaker. There was just so damn much noise in my head. So many questions. Why was everything – from standing at the stove, to walking to the bathroom taking so long? Hadn’t I prepared for this? Wasn’t I someone who knew what to expect?
Where was my ability to meditate? To visualize my complete recovery?
One week after being home, my eyes became infected – requiring more prescription drugs. Soon after that, the implants, crowns and front teeth that I had finally finished paying off before surgery, shifted and cracked. My gums became infected. With all of the contradictory information on Google about dental repairs and joint replacements and the constant, rumbling fear of Mersa in South Florida hospitals, I opted to wait at least 8 weeks. Easy to do, if one does not smile and limits contact with people.
I am a loner and introvert by nature. It’s difficult for me to ask for help. It was even more difficult now because I seemed to be suffering from non-stop weepiness. If anyone asked me anything, I cried. I cried when my neighbor brought in my mail. I cried why my home PT congratulated me on completing an exercise. I cried when the phone rang and it was a damn robo call.
So, as unfair as it may seem, I began to question everything – my pre-op prep, what I had learned about TCM, what my doctors – who I genuinely love – told me. I questioned – dare I say it– acupuncture and my acupuncturist. My life was never ever really like his; now my life was never like my own.
Who, what, could I believe?
But somehow, after far too many NCIS and Law Order Marathons playing in the background, I kept coming back to the major concept of TCM – that of “Qi”. Unknowingly, I was doing what my acupuncturist taught me nearly 4 years ago – I was trying to identify a root cause for all of my current misery – physical and emotional.
I’m smart of enough to know that everyone – amputees, the disabled – have active “Qi’s” – but could mine, in 6 hours and followed by 10 ten days abusive health practices – somehow, have been interrupted? Could this be the reason for my emotional darkness? Could all of body’s system failures – eyes, teeth and gums be related to one root cause? Could my knees be doomed because my Qi was no longer strong enough to make it through hardware – with swelling – which now weigh approximately 10 pounds more on each leg?
If, as I wrote last year, it is true that Traditional Medical views the body as a one complex, self-centered system, then had I severely doomed my “system”; more importantly, could I recover and repair my Qi.
In 2018, I quoted a 2015 study reviewed in the Journal of Traditional Chinese Medical Science that outlined a variety of possible factors that can lead to a Qi deficiency. The article suggested various ways of nourishing one’s “Qi” – walking, being in the sunshine, eating certain foods and taking certain Chinese Herbs. None of this was possible for me for at least three weeks; I was homebound, struggling each day just to get showered and dressed. While the study suggested that there could be a link between “Qi” deficiencies and aging, by week 4. I was pretty sure that being pumped with morphine, Vicodin and oxycodone as well as epidurals and other narcotics – has to somehow, somewhat, alter one’s Qi.
And how do these medicines – again – not available in 4000 years ago – affect my organs? Do they stay in my liver, my kidneys, my heart, my teeth, my gums and my brain? Do they attack my body later; is there a way to lessen their damage.
My Western doctors and nurses told me I thought too much. And, with yet another prescriptive pill, I slept and stopped questioning.
I’ll be the first to admit that bi-lateral knee replacements were not available 4000 years ago – so whatever I could learn from treatment for depression, for exhaustion of the mind and body fell solely on myself. Whatever I could learn about nutrition as it relates to rehabilitation fell to me.
The role of becoming my own health advocate shimmered in the background of my mind, but truthfully, I was just too damn tired to put on the cape, pick up the sword and fight the battle.
I had to step back – I had to list all of my questions – all of my anger. I had lost 160 pounds – why was I still in pain? I had just had this major surgery, why were my eyes acting up? I spend a fortune skin products and skin care – why do I look like a runaway prickly pear cactus? Why would I now – again – have to pay for new front teeth?
When was enough – well, enough?
Where was my new and improved immune system – compliments of acupuncture and Chinese herbs?
What was true and what was not?
Could my self-pity party get any louder?
Back in 2016, I wrote that there were so many “Qi-sucking” attributes of our daily lives. Family and workplace stress, too little downtime, and money concerns all take an emotional toll as does our reliance on and keeping current with the continual changes in technology. Care-givers are under enormous stress. Our ingrained link to social media – where we compare and contrast our lives with the lives posted by others – can quickly drain anyone’s energy. And then there is the randomness of life – when the dishwasher or washing machine floods your kitchen or the car needs unexpected repairs and we have no choice but to “deal with it”.
As week two morphed into week three, the shimmer of my inner advocate took a more pronounced form. I knew I had to fix my “Qi” – simply putting aside – at least for right now – the question of if I still believed in Qi as a concept.
I had to go back to my own research. To pick the minds of my TCM doctors (if they answered me) via text and email.
I did not know if it would help – but I had to try.
I went back to the Chinese Yin Yang symbol.
As we know, “the Chinese Yin-Yang model, Yin (the black) contains a seed of Yang (in the form of a white dot). There is Yin, but interestingly, Yin is also Yang because it contains some Yang. The truth is Yin can transform into Yang under certain conditions. It can do this because Yang is present in Yin. So there is balance, but the relationship goes beyond balance to one of harmony. When two things are balanced, they are equal but still separate. In a relationship of harmony, the two energies blend into one seamless whole, as perfectly embodied by the swirling Yin-Yang symbol.”
How could I apply this awareness to my life?
For most people, this recovery and acceptance is a process that happens over time. I was not willing to give it more time. I have – as of now – already given it 8 weeks. I hope to share with you how each overwhelming issue because less difficult and overcome. It wasn’t easy, but something happened last week which literally blew away much of my brain fog.
For 12 weeks, I am in Physical Therapy three times a week at a local hospital, under the care of the most incredible physical therapist, who just happens to my neighbor. The PT room is adjacent to the occupational therapy room. There are no walls, so patients often see each other and nod hello. We are usually there at similar times, so a certain comradery has formed.
For me, the lack of walls has taught me to be grateful for what I have – and perhaps, more important, for what I don’t have.
Let me explain:
This past Friday I am on my stomach (a small miracle in itself), with a belt tied to my ankle, and I am pulling my ankle to bend my knee as far past that 118 flex point as possible. I need to complete 8 lifts on each leg for five times. I need to get to 128 inches.
I am not one to cry in front of others, but after 75 minutes of stretches, going up and down stairs, crossing up and down curbs, walking on grass and sloping roads, using the stair stepper and riding the upright bike, this is a killer series for a last exercise.
And I indeed hurt – a lot.
Trust me, one can only blame watery eyes on allergies and eye infections for so long.
So, finally, I am finished. I flip over onto my back (another post for another time) lying there with ice on my knees and heat on my hip when I see this lovely young woman, with a prosthetic on each arm and hand attempting to spread jelly on a piece of bread.
I am stuck in my position – and she is stuck in my line of sight.
But here’s the difference: where I am angry and depressed that my knees still don’t fit into my jeans and weigh approximately now 100 pounds each, she is joking and smiling as she makes the sandwich with her new prosthetics.
I am furious with myself because I never correctly rehabbed my hip in 2011 because “I just had to get back to a job soon”; a job which I suspect has long since forgotten I even existed.
Now, thanks to the keen eye of my PT, I am rehabbing both my hip and knee as well literally learning how to walk for the first time in almost 19 years. As I am aching from “heel, toe, push off and follow through with the other leg”, she is congratulating herself because it took her only 30 minutes to make and cut the jelly sandwich.
Whereas I can’t wait to get the rest of the “sick stuff” out of my house – the walkers, the commode, the shower seat – she quietly waits for the therapist to lift her and lay her down so that the therapist can remove her two leg prosthesis.
This young woman is missing 4 limbs and still has a smile that lights up a room. She even sits up to tell me how great I am doing.
I admit – I cried all of the way home. I was ashamed of myself. I was in pain. But I knew something had to change.
The Universe, in her infinite wisdom, had just slapped me across the face with the reason. There are no excuses to not heal myself; I was reminded me that I choose my path, much as I choose my thoughts and words..
And that for my own sanity – I best choose wisely.
I had just fought too hard to get where I was to let it all go.
I suddenly remembered that from the TCM perspective, there is no point in continually treating symptoms that are caused by emotions, patterns of thought, belief systems, or a lifestyle that is out of balance. If I truly wanted to heal – in the most complete manner, it was necessary for me to understand and work to change the root cause (or causes) of the problem. If, as I used to believe, the entire Universal pattern is one of establishing balance and harmony, perhaps it was time to do so again.
My acupuncturist has always told me that this perspective can help you more peacefully view the world and your role in it. But that was before to what I refer to “Qi-Interrupted” experience. Prior to September 4th, I was quite content of my perspective of my life; now not so much.
Could I learn to trust and believe in TCM again? Can I re-build and strengthen my Qi? Could I not be a “holistic fraud”, just simply be a human one who suffered a crisis of faith?
I hope so. If there ever was a poster child for a fully functioning Qi despite major life obstacles, it is my fellow patient in occupational therapy.
She humbled me. Humbled me enough to make my dental appointment and make an acupuncture appointment.
I am writing.
I am no martyr; I still complain and I still get overwhelmed. Rehab is a full time job and it is tough. Each day there is a new bump in the road. Each day is better than the day before.
I hope to share more of my recovery with you; much of it seems to weave in and out of TCM, acupuncture and herbal therapy. Much of it has to do with faith, resilience and spirit.
All of it is related. And for all of it, I am grateful.
It’s my hope that my words will help anyone who suffers a fear of surgery and rehabilitation see how Traditional Chinese Medicine ideas and treatments from 4000 years ago can impact todays’ medical advances. They can – if you let them.
I’d like this story – my story – to matter – so that it may help someone.