DIARY

MY NEAR-DEATH PARTY

When I was living in Russia, I was diagnosed with a heart problem, demanding complex surgery. The path to the bus-stop from the hospital led through an old cemetery. Twilight crept over the graves. A light snow was falling.  My mother stopped, my hand firmly clutched in hers. I was 10 years old, reading her thoughts and swearing to myself not to burst into tears. Later that night, I heard her crying behind the closed door to my parents’ bedroom and made another promise to myself: the surgery would not happen. I didn’t care how. It just would not happen.

Two months later, I came in for another test to finalize the verdict. The defect was no longer there. The doctors could not explain the recovery. My own explanation was that I had spent two months swimming at a local community centre, and the boundless desire for my mother’s tears to dry.

In 2016, at the age of 26, I faced a challenge which tested my limits again.

On the cusp of my birthday (April 25th) I asked my mother, “How much would you give to be 25 again?” She replied, “One million dollars.” I still had one week ahead of me and felt that I was losing a fortune with the passing of each day, which I could have invested into some glorious achievement.

The next day, I had a car crash. Although I couldn’t walk and felt excruciating pain, I was sent home from the hospital (after an X-ray) with a random painkiller and told to sleep off the nuisance.

Bruises bloomed all over me – my left knee was webbed with black and purple.

Having a masquerade gala to attend on April 21st   at Toronto’s AGO, I tried to stand, but couldn’t. I remembered the original “Little Mermaid” story where the mermaid’s every step was accompanied by the pain of a stabbing knife. It was clear that I would miss the masquerade, and that my diagnosis was wrong.  My condition worsened, so my parents drove me to the ER on the day before my birthday. The CAT scan revealed a hip fracture which was not visible on the X-ray done the night of the accident.  It was already 2 a.m., and I was told to wait in the ER for the specialist to see me in the morning.

“I will pray for you. Happy birthday,” wished my companion in woe – a woman with a broken leg – when I was taken to receive an IV.

Warning the nurses that I might have an allergy, I was told to keep quiet.

My body no longer belonged to me – fully controlled by them, for better or for worse.

An old man beside me called out to the nurses, asking for water.

One of them noted, “He’s being difficult.” He was getting on their nerves. Such cynicism was their defence against the suffering of others.

My wait lasted yet another 9 hours for the orthopedic surgeon to examine me.  My parents endured the hellish night with me. When mother took my hand, I trembled. Her agitation surged through me like a freezing current.

“Please rest,” I asked her. Once she dosed off, I regained control of myself, “I can handle this. Somehow.”

Dozens of people flashed around me on wheelchairs and gurneys, some in failing condition.

A birthday. A death-day. It was the same there.

Confirming a hip-fracture, the doctor told me I could avoid surgery (an eight-inch scar and a horror movie meatfest), if I were to follow a strict rehabilitation regime for six months.

Then, another surgeon appeared, dressed in what seemed a jogging suit, and said, “Let me take a few pics and send them to my colleagues for an expert second opinion.” His own opinion was that the surgery would be traumatic and could lead to life-long complications. He took a number of pictures with carnivorous delight. I felt like my CAT scan was a slapdash Picasso. Little did I know that the bidding war had just begun.

A few minutes after I’d met a physiotherapist who introduced me to crutches, my mother received a phone call from the same surgeon who informed her, “We are taking your daughter to another hospital. Tomorrow is the surgery.”

“Excuse me,” my mother was incredulous, “Whose decision is that?”

“My colleagues’ and mine,” was the categorical reply.

The physiotherapist bid me, “Good luck!” and fled responsibility. I was abandoned on crutches, blood pooling on my elbow from the IV, and the clock ticking, “Happy Birthday!”  What a surprise! I burst out laughing. Such was my own defence mechanism.

I then firmly refused, “No. I am going home to celebrate.”

My mother told the doctor that we were going home. We would weigh up our options after a birthday party and some sleep. We promised to call back the next day. I quickly mastered the crutches and made my way out of the hospital, leaving a negative impression on the staff who complained of my defiance.

“Never before!” one nurse admonished my parents for having raised a willful brat. My father apologized for not letting them sedate me.

During our ride home the surgeon called again, ignoring my mother’s request to give us time for a decision. He called back an hour later when I was trying to get some sleep.

I stayed awake listening to my parents’ anxious talk, and recollecting the events which had led to my accident.  Some of them bordered on omens incompatible with my skeptic’s mentality:

*I purchased a black evening dress for the gala masquerade ball. One blunt acquaintance, seeing a picture of the dress, issued a critique, “Good for a funeral.”

*I opened a book “Unsolved Mysteries of the 20th century” on the page about the Titanic. The author claimed that predictions were made about a disastrous voyage before the Titanic left Southampton. I pondered the essence of intuition. A few minutes later, I turned on the TV right on the channel showing the Titanic movie: the final scene of Rose ascending the staircase, applauded by those who perished at sea. I had a premonition.

*Same night, I meditated for the first time in weeks (hindered by a busy schedule) and saw a few mental pictures featuring a car crash near my condo.  No matter how I tried to shift my focus from the image, my mind kept replaying it throughout the meditation.

*Going downtown on the fateful day, I passed a funerary home: a reminder of mortality on a luminous spring day. I might have passed such homes before, but this was the first time I had noticed one. The funerary home was closed, implying that my time had not yet come, but death kissed me on the chin leaving a scar after the car crash.

*I was advised not to travel downtown on that day, for no particular reason other than “I should stay home.”

Still, I couldn’t resist the temptation of an Italian restaurant with a mildly annoying but well-meaning company. I wanted to stay 25 a bit longer and almost became nothing due to the error of the driver whose privacy I won’t transgress. The accident occurred a mere 80 meters from the entrance to my condo. I hopped to the elevator and upstairs on one leg, overcoming the sensation of the other leg getting torn off. I had to tell my family that I was alright (if I am breathing – I am fine), grandmother in particular, who could have had a heart attack unless she’d seen me in one piece. When the ambulance took me away for my first, wrong diagnosis, the paramedics remarked that they had never seen such cheerful patients. I laughed, not to shriek with pain. We joked all the way to the emergency. I taught them, “Vse budet horosho!” (Everything will be alright!) in Russian, and they took a photo of my chin – open from the cut – telling me I still looked great.  As we arrived at the emergency, one of them picked a sparkle from my cheek – like a speck of fairy dust for me to make a wish upon. It was a piece of glass from the shattered windshield…

Back in the nightmare of my birthday, the surgeon called again, now telling my mother that my case was not that urgent but his colleagues expected our decision pronto.  The surgery had to be done within three weeks after the accident – leaving us with two weeks to proceed.

I came to see my family doctor and asked her to arrange a consultation with yet another local surgeon.  But the verdict of the experts from ER was unquestionable to her.

“If S—– hospital tells you to go for surgery, you go for surgery,” I was told to turn off my mind.

Later I learned that my family doctor hadn’t registered my visit. She feared responsibility. I promptly changed my family doctor.

We decided to seek guidance from credible but independent parties in Canada and Russia. My late paternal grandmother was the chief doctor of the Adygea Republic.  Her own students were glad to objectively assess the situation. My aunt (also a doctor) managed to gain a consultation at her clinic as well as from the St. Petersburg State Medical Academy professors.

Their opinions were unanimous: no surgery was needed, only rigorous physiotherapy; the leg-to-hip angle in my orthopedic chair had to stay 60 degrees for the muscles to align my fractured bones together.

I was aflame with the challenge, repeating to my parents, “I am fine.” I couldn’t surrender so easily, especially after the doctors from Saint Petersburg had explained, “Your fracture is unique. An unusual location. No wonder they want you for surgery. You will make a great study. An asset for their resume.”

Not a day passed without hearing from ‘admirers’ of my now-famous hip during those lucrative 3 weeks. The surgeon in the jogging suit couldn’t finish his marathon of intrusive phone calls. He tried to coax me under the knife with optimistic prospects of me becoming dependent for the rest of my life, “You’ll make your insurance company pay for decades!”

My surgery would be great PR: the proof that they could cut from any angle. My thigh was a treasure-bag, stuffed with thousands of dollars.

By this time, I had compiled a considerable research on misdiagnosis statistics, more in the US than Canada (the Canadian free health care system was less viciously attacked online, although the rates of satisfaction rarely rose over 60%). I kept those ominous statistics in a computer file, adding more facts about the ER, the pharmaceutical business worldwide, and the failings in medical care abroad.

Among those statistics were:

  • Medical errors are the 3rd cause of death in the U.S, predominantly due to mix-ups with medication and surgical complications.
  • In 2014, 12 million Americans were misdiagnosed.
  • 1 in 4 people in America visit the emergency each year.
  • Little more than a third of the American population can reportedly afford an unplanned emergency visit (of $1000 dollars and up).
  • Americans file more than 17, 000 medical malpractice lawsuits a year. According to the New England Journal of Medicine in 2011, one in fourteen doctors faces malpractice suits each year.
  • The U.S, the Canadian and the Mexican market are the largest continental pharma market worldwide. The US holds over 45 % of the global pharmaceutical market. In 2016 this share was valued at aprox. $446 billion dollars.
  • The World Bank issued a report stating that 400 million people lack basic health services worldwide (also that in 2011, 2.2 billion people lived on less than $2 a day).
  • More than 8, 500 hip and knee revision surgeries are being performed annually in Canada.
  • Due to the ongoing Russian financial crisis, cuts in health spending have led to a decline in the quality of service in the state healthcare system. 40% of basic medical facilities lack staff and others are being closed down (* I recommend the 2017 drama “Arrhythmia” by Boris Khlebnikov as an accurate portrayal of the hardships faced both by doctors and the patients).
  • According to the data provided in 2002 by the agency of Healthcare Research and Quality (interpreted by Doctors Peter Lee and Atul Gawande), the average number of surgeries in the lifetime of a U.S. citizen is 9.2.

These contemporary stats echoed the horrors of the past: medieval lobotomies; extraction of humors; surgeries during Napoleonic wars with alcohol for anesthesia.

I tried to think of lighter things and quote Voltaire: “The art of medicine consists in amusing the patient while nature cures the disease.” 

Two weeks after the accident, I met a former military surgeon from the Ukraine (my next unbiased opinion) who recounted a story of how his teenage son was spared from surgery which could have cost the boy his arm. Only the father’s expertise saved the boy from a devastating fate. Examining my X-ray, the doctor took my hand and said, “What happened to you is a misfortune. Not a tragedy. Seize the day. Adapt. There is nothing in “today” that you can’t handle.”

He looked into my eyes with a firm and focused gaze, testing my fortitude and grinned, “You are already fine.”

He estimated I would walk in 2 months…

***

 

“You have a nice room!” one friend noted, visiting me.

“I like it too,” I agreed, and she smiled, “That’s good news! You are stuck here for a while.”

She would come by each week.  A staunch realist, who never believed in God, she prayed for me to recover.

Another visitor exclaimed, “Hey, cripple!” with such buoyancy that I instantly felt better. Sighs and tears were useless to me.

Some friends brought silica, mumijo (shilajit), and symphytum, known for treating fractures since antiquity. Others travelled by bicycle for 3 hours to lighten my days.

One friend showcased his talents as a dietitian, texting me daily with suggestions to raise my calcium levels and my vitamin reserves.

He said, “In the past, pioneers of medicine would eat herbs to see whether they would heal or die. Now, it’s the same with pharmaceuticals.  Death brings more profit than life. Think of the trillions of dollars dripping into the drug business, and then you’ll see that humankind is more valuable sick, experimented on…addicted. Like you would be with your hip, had you gone through the surgery. You would be dependent on painkillers for the rest of your life.”

The bride of his former classmate died prior the wedding after her doctor insisted on an overdue vaccine. Another mutual acquaintance was prescribed antidepressants with the risk of kidney failure. Changing her diet and sleeping patterns had naturally solved the problem.

I also recalled a neighbor who took pills for anxiety with side-effects of panic attacks and nervous convulsions. I had not seen that woman for years…

With my friends’ support, no time was more productive as I was working on my two books. Days passed quickly, and I revelled in the speed I could move on my crutches; my parents barely keeping up during our walks outside.

“I’m not allowed to walk yet,” was my excuse, “They didn’t say anything about running.”

Two weeks later, I had an X-ray done to track my progress. I was going to meet the surgeon from my birthday in ER, who had initially advocated the non-invasive therapy. Entering the hospital room with a flock of medical students, he shook his head, “Anastasia, we are trying to take care of you. Why are you being difficult?”

I could still agree to the surgery, and the scar would be “only 8 inches,” he reminded, tracing the hypothetical scar on his own hip and making it sound like a beautiful tattoo.

I could not be swayed: “I will not go under the knife.”

The medical students were red in the face, not used to patients talking back. We all felt the room turn hot.

“Can you guarantee a successful outcome?” I asked, with no intention of agreeing to the surgery.

“There is no guarantee,” the doctor adopted a sugary tone.

“Will more surgeries be needed in case of a bad outcome?” I was advised to ask this question by an independent doctor.

“Yes,” the surgeon confirmed with a nauseating smile.

He appeared to be saying, “Your bone is broken, poor girl, so why not break your life as well?”

I inwardly wondered if he would council the same option to his loved ones, had they (God forbid) been in my place.

To the frustration of the medical students, I refused the surgery again. Arguing with me was useless. Before I left, the doctor advised taking blood thinners with nasty side-effects or doing basic foot exercises to keep good blood circulation. I vouched for the latter.

I had my next scan scheduled for the end of June. I was determined to show them a full recovery.

My next appointment was fast approaching. My friend (the atheist who prayed to God) came to visit the night before.

She asked, “When you start walking tomorrow, which places will we go to first?”

“Everywhere,” I laughed, foretasting a wonderful summer.

I was ready to stand and stand up for myself…

Returning from the hospital, my email to a dear friend (fellow writer, Kay-Marie Fletcher, based in Trinidad) read:

The X-rays went quickly.

I went to the doctor’s office expecting to confront the man who pushed for the surgery. Instead, a handsome intern came in.

 He glanced at the computer and exclaimed, “Is this yours?! Looks horrible!”  

My heart stopped for a moment.

…Turned out, the scan on the computer belonged to a previous patient.

  “Oh, thank God,” the intern sighed, “You are too young for THAT.”  

  He downloaded my X-ray and frowned again, “What are we looking at here?” He was surprised that I’m on crutches.

The intern gave me a heavenly smile, as the doctor from hell entered the room. It wasn’t in his interest for me to heal. He must have taken the oath of Hypocrites, not Hippocrates at school. He avoided my look, and cursed the x-ray technicians, “Those idiots! (Yes, he actually said that). They took scans of the wrong side…” This implied the healthy side. 

The intern corrected, “No, this is the left side. Isn’t it a miracle?”

Who was the IDIOT now?

It was a glorious moment. He didn’t say “congratulations,” visibly angry and ashamed. Instead, he mumbled, “Keep using crutches for another 4 weeks with 50% weight-bearing. Then proceed to full weight-bearing. “

I would walk not in six months but in three!

 He curtly asked, “Do you want another x-ray in 4 weeks to confirm that you have fully healed?”

  “No.”

  “Do you want to see me again?”

 “No!” I pronounced resolutely. Borderline shouted. 

 We had already spent my birthday together. As a belated gift from him I wanted to never see him again. 

 He got the message, leaving the room without saying goodbye.

The medical report reads that my fracture is no longer visible. My hip looks like pure Love again, because it was Love that healed it: my family’s, my friends’ (old and new), YOURS (Thank you!!) and the love of honest people who don’t let greed eclipse humanity. 

I kept visualizing throughout the night that my scan would show this love. I was furious with doctors who pushed for the surgery. Then, I subdued that blazing rage by counting the people who wished me well with word and deed.

I thought of my ancestors (Cossacks and Vikings) whose strength flows within me; of the universal spirit (God, higher self, etc.) which acknowledges no limits, and of a future bright with friendship that I am blessed to share with you.

My physiotherapist (whom I gave a triumphant call) said, “Imagine if you had opted for the surgery! You dodged a bullet!”

Naturally, there are cases when people need surgery. But this was not the case. They could have spent this time and effort in aiding those who needed it – not hunting after the unique location of my fracture for their resumes.  

They said my bones were dislocated. It is the same with their morality. My fracture was 3 mm wide, but the whole darkness of humanity seemed to flood into that space: all of the nasty ways that people cheat and traumatize each other.

What could I expect when we are the generation whose grandparents had witnessed the Holocaust? Experiments are far from over.

Incorrupt opinions could save many people from suffering. Money tips the scales of conscience. A scratch becomes an amputation.

True competence lies in diversity of opinion, not when a group of profiteers gather to pronounce a verdict.

This said, the 2 month hip-ache has its perks. The insurance ladies so enjoyed my story that they let me keep the chair: that fabulously cozy orthopedic chair, which I’ve gotten used to. It helped me to heal my bones. Now, I will heal the pain of others with my work. Emotion-wise.

  So let the conquest resume!!!! Full throttle on publishing and reaching our dreams!!!

  We will see each other soon on the summit of SUCCESS!!!

My parents were shocked that the best time of my 20s (so far) has been my 26th year. Never were my body, mind and energy so attuned toward one goal: so afire for one purpose and so glad to have attained it. I discovered the connections between myself and the people who were fearless in defending a healthy outcome for me. I discovered that connection with myself.

The unbiased experts in Russia; the Ukrainian war-surgeon, who correctly estimated that I would walk in 2 months; Kay-Marie Fletcher who kept track of every physio visit and doctors’ appointment from 2536 miles away; the many examples of miracles from around the world which inspired me – were indispensable to me.  Due to our collective courage, I had a blast of a recovery.

We possess the inner strength to overcome whatever hardship: through patience, discipline, willpower and the passion to transcend. Through our unity in peril.

The summer of 2016 saw me become athletic: swimming up to 3 hours daily to restore my stamina. Travelling to Niagara Falls in July with a friend, I was almost late for the bus home. I ran under the full moon and never felt younger, more alive, or capable of anything. The food in Italian restaurants never tasted better: a kaleidoscope of flavors. The views from the CN tower were never more radiant when I climbed the stairs atop. I flaunted my Holt Renfrew dress at a spectacular gala in the fall, where none of the men I had danced with could suspect that my hip had been recently broken…

I do not wish my story to be an example for everyone. Each case is unique. There is a Russian saying, “Doctors are second after God.” Some situations do require surgical intervention.  But having an injury should not paralyze free-will. Do not let fear corner you into a lack of options. Reach out. You owe it to yourself.

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