Where the Rubber Meets the Road 

Earlier this month, I sat propped up in my hospital bed listening to an orthopedic surgeon and an infectious disease specialist address me with gentle concern. For a fourth day, intravenous antibiotics flowed into my veins through a clear tube. Beneath my red rubber-studded hospital sock, the fourth toe on my left foot felt scalded and rotten. Discolored, deformed, twice its normal size, and sporting an open wound, even the nurses said it was a stunner. I’d been neglecting it for almost two years, and my slo-mo crash was finally starting to burn. (Note: I won’t be too graphic, but the medically squeamish may wish to give this post a pass.)

“Osteomyelitis is very serious. Bugs, I mean, an infection in even a tiny bone can kill you,” the specialist warned again. “Amputation is definitely an option,” the surgeon chimed in. “In fact, most of my colleagues would recommend it in such a case. But as we agreed, first we’re going to see how these IV antibiotics go over the next several weeks. Maybe we can save it, and if the infection heals, we’ll surgically straighten the bones so you can wear closed-toe shoes again. And if it doesn’t heal, at least you’ll know that you did everything you could.”

I smiled gratefully. This wasn’t our first conversation, and I’d had four days of staring at the ceiling in my Australian hospital room to consider it. Hell, I’d had more than eighteen months avoiding medevac as an officer in Tashkent, knowing that as a dependent on my orders, my husband couldn’t remain in Uzbekistan working were I to be medically curtailed.

Besides family financial concerns, I was too proud and stubborn to not serve the tour I’d been assigned. I wanted to do line work, to use my Russian, to travel the area. And my nonchalance and pain tolerance are, well… are. So I stayed shuffling around Tashkent in slippers and sucking up arthritis pain and deformity no one should have to think about in their 30s.

Now in Australia, this was where the rubber was at last meeting the road. I replied, “Let’s try.” The doctors nodded.

Hours later, I was admitted into a program that cares for patients on an inpatient basis while allowing them to work, and to sleep at home. With this program, I get 24/7 intravenous antibiotics without lying in a hospital bed all day.

The nurse installed a chest catheter through a vein in my upper arm, which is covered with bandages. The tube connects to a 240 ml (8.1 oz) bottle of medicine that I have to wear around my waist in a fanny pack. The only thing funnier than that is that the Aussies call it a “bum bag” because the word “fanny” is apparently unforgivably crass.

Although I am incredibly grateful for this treatment, almost three weeks in, I admit that I’m tired. The medicine is heavy-duty, and makes me sleepy. I have to go to the hospital before work every morning at 07:30 to swap out the empty bottle for a fresh one. I live in terror that I will catch the foot-long lead on the tube on something and yank out the catheter. I miss laying on my right side, which I temporarily can’t do with this apparatus. The fanny pack screws up every one of my outfits. (So does the prosthetic boot.)

And putting on a tight elasticized plastic sleeve every morning so I can shower while wearing the antibiotics bottle in a mesh bag around my neck is annoying. Washing my hair with one hand (on which I must wear a hospital bracelet) is annoying. On top of everything else, I had to go last week and have a spinal injection for sciatic nerve damage from my injuries last fall/winter. It took me almost three full minutes to figure out how to lay down on the table, and more than twice that to get up afterwards, my left leg completely numb.

Um, did I mention that I still work full-time? In the last week, besides 7 hospital visits, me, my fanny pack and prosthetic boot were in the office every day, plus went to the ministry of foreign affairs three times, to a work lunch, out to dinner, to the mall, to the bank, to the nail salon, and to the DMV. “Mum, what’s wrong with that lady?” said a little girl yesterday in a public bathroom, staring at the tube hanging out of my sleeve. Indeed. 

So I have had to scale back a little bit. I don’t stay in the office as late. I had to bow out of a national day reception. Another day I was three hours late for work because I had a scare with a possible blood clot and needed an ultrasound – fortunately, it turned out just to be traumatic bruising from the catheter insertion.

Where the rubber meets the road is truly paying more than lip service to getting better. It’s putting health first and staying in bed when I feel I should be doing something else. It’s stepping back from household duties and delaying unpacking because I can’t tolerate much movement. It’s abstaining from alcohol because it could negatively impact my treatment. It’s talking with my network of family and friends who are supporting me and keeping me resilient. It’s making peace with the fact that one way or another, in the nearer future I will regain my health enough to have the life I used to have.

For now, I’m driving around Canberra on the left side of the road, with all four tires solidly on the pavement.

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