Friday, April 29, 2011

On ill health

It's time to share some personal information here, since I've said more than enough about politics and religion recently. I haven't spoken much about my family, although those who have noted my planned joint recital with my son Jeremy must have concluded that I have one. They are correct, and we've had some health challenges that have made this past couple of years particularly difficult for us.

The hero of our family is unquestionably my wife Barbara, who has endured a catalogue of illnesses that would challenge even the most robust among us. A thirty-two-year cancer survivor, she has been deaf for the last eight years because of the damage done by the massive dose of radiation she was given after her surgery. She hears only with cochlear implants, which are an improvement over deafness but far from perfect. She also struggles with balance, which is undermined by the loss of both inner ears and part of her cerebellum. Over the past two years, she has had surgery for an excruciatingly painful rotator cuff tear in her left arm that was pinching a nerve, and for trigeminal neuralgia, called the "suicide disease" because it is believed to be the most painful condition known to man.

That's an awful lot to lay on one person, so it's a good thing that I've usually been able to take my own good health for granted. This year, though, my body has thrown me for a loop. Last April I suddenly experienced a sharp and growing pain in my lower left abdomen. When it didn't subside for over a day, I was taken to the hospital for a CT scan, which revealed extensive diverticulitis and a near-ruptured abscess in my large intestine. (I wasn't told about the latter at the time.) Diverticulitis is a bacterial infection that develops in pouches in the sygmoid colon. Almost every American has these pouches by middle age, but it's unclear why they sometimes become infected. Mine did, though, with a vengeance.

I missed nearly a week of classes, but massive treatment with two different antibiotics got me back in shape. I was told to expect another infection - eventually. In the meantime, I should eat lots of fiber and probiotics. With luck, it would be a few years before I had to worry about this again.

It turned out to be two months. In June, at the height of my summer term teaching, I was struck once more. Once again the antibiotics, and once again a few days when I couldn't work - though with no student assistant to back me up this time. A few more days teaching against medical advice, sitting when I prefer to stand. Two weeks of antibiotics this time instead of ten days.

In July, another relapse. Three full weeks of antibiotics this time. Then, except for a false alarm in September that sent me to the hospital for another CT scan, it held fire for over half a year.

It returned out of nowhere in February as I was teaching my afternoon seminar. By the time I got back to my office, the pain was so severe I couldn't drive, so I had to call Barbara to pick me up. The same pills, the same five-day recuperation period, and I was more than ready for the Spring Break respite that came shortly afterward.

Episode number five began on Thursday of last week, during a committee meeting. I was able to drive myself home this time, but the painkillers I had to take kept me doped out for most of Good Friday. (Perhaps that explains my blog post that day, with the nostalgia for Earth Day 1970. I didn't say that.) According to the well established pattern, by the time Easter Break was over, I would be on my feet and ready to teach again - just way behind on my paper grading. I even took some time to practice intensively for the joint recital. Then Wednesday came, I taught three classes, and I returned at 5:00 deeply weary and in pain. It was clear that I just wasn't getting over this episode as quickly as in the past, and I had to make the painful decision to postpone the recital (until June 5) so I could focus on getting my final grades done.

This time, my doctor gave me what I hope is the full story. The flareup I had in April of last year was so bad that it damaged my sygmoid colon irreparably. The only way to stop these increasingly debilitating attacks will be to have surgery to restructure my intestine. Believe it or not, they can do that with lasers and a few small incisions. However, they can't do it before July 18, when I'm finally done with my summer teaching and will have three weeks to recuperate. In the meantime, I just need to keep those pills on hand and try not to get too stressed out, since it's glaringly obvious that stress makes this worse.


Do you think that's going to work? Neither do I. At least, though, I've had the opportunity to experience first-hand what it's like when your body just doesn't do everything you think it should. Barbara has been living with that for over thirty years, so I can surely put up with it for a few more months. It's sobering, frustrating, and a little scary. It's part of life.


  1. Sorry to learn of this, Robin. I hope the surgery does the trick, and that you have a speedy recovery.

  2. Hang in there, Robin. It may be part of life, but it's one of scary parts. I'll be sending lots of positive thoughts your way.

  3. Thanks, Melissa. Great to hear from you.

  4. Wow, Robin, that is pretty tough. You guys are in my thoughts. Not that I know anything about this, but have you gotten a second opinion on waiting? Your health is more important than any classes!!

  5. Thanks, Marc. I could have it done a lot earlier if I weren't already committed to teach summer term. An hour and a half of classes five days a week simply doesn't allow for recovery from abdominal surgery. And frankly, I need the money. My son is going to Europe this summer and my daughter is returning to college in the fall. My wife is on disability, which brings in a pittance, so there's not much wiggle room.

    Ironically, if this happened in the middle of a regular teaching semester, I could qualify for temporary disability and still be paid while somebody else taught my classes for a few weeks. I'm not sure that would work for summer term, which is something I take on voluntarily and not part of my regular job duties. I may start looking into it, though.