Sunday, October 23, 2011

Medical Update: A Chest Half-Full (Not Half-Empty)

As most of you know, I had reconstructive surgery at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston last Wednesday (10/12). Following the ten-hour surgery (in which tissue from my abdomen was used to reconstruct my chest), I had two main complications that were both related to my blood system.

I began bleeding internally in my chest on the Friday morning following the surgery (10/14). The loss of blood made me incredibly weak and really messed up my blood levels, so I had to have a blood transfusion to stabilize me. It took several days for my body to recover from that difficulty, but I was finally able to go home from the hospital the following Wednesday (10/19).

Some MUSC residents discussing my internal bleeding.
It was so good to be able to be home and see the kids. The night before we returned home I was looking through pictures of the kids on my phone and I just couldn’t stop crying. I missed them so much! God was so gracious in allowing me to be able to come home to see my babies. As it turns out, I was only able to spend a day with them before returning to the hospital in Charleston.

Hudson and Samuel getting ready to watch the Cardinals play in the NLCS.

Lydia at Hudson and Samuel's train-themed birthday party.
The day after I returned from the hospital (Thursday, 10/20) I developed a blood clot on the left side of my chest. I began having significant pain, swelling, and bleeding from my incisions, so I knew something was definitely wrong. Shortly after midnight I called my surgeon and described my symptoms. He told me to come back to Charleston immediately so he could see what was happening and to make a decision about what to do. Thankfully, my mom was in town to help with the kids, so she came to the house and Matt and I made the long, painful, nerve-wrecking drive to Charleston. Matt hates driving when he is tired and he hadn’t gone to bed before I began having problems, so that drive was especially hard for him.

We arrived at the hospital at 3am on Friday morning (10/21) and it was quickly determined that I needed surgery to resolve the situation. The clot was in the vein dedicated to taking blood away from my newly formed tissue flap on my left chest. If the vein remained clotted, the tissue flap would be consumed by blood and would die. So in order to preserve my reconstructed left chest, surgery was absolutely necessary. I was in surgery from 6:30am to 10:30am, allowing the surgeons to remove the clot and repair the vein. My surgeon was not sure what caused the vein to clot, but was pleased with the quality of the vein following surgery. He and his team were very diligent in checking the vein regularly for healthy blood flow, and it initially appeared to be working well.

Heading towards the operating room before my final surgery.
But about twenty-four hours after the vein repair surgery, on Saturday morning (10/22), I once again started having pain, swelling, and bleeding in my left chest. My surgeon quickly came to the hospital and sure enough, there was no blood flowing through the vein. For the second time in two days, the vein had clotted. And for the second time in two days, I had to go back into surgery. Sadly, despite their best efforts, my surgeon was not able to repair the vein. In one last attempt to save my reconstructed chest, he removed a vein from my left ankle and attempted to connect that to my tissue and chest vein. But after about an hour, that new hybrid vein clotted as well. My arteries were delivering blood to my chest, but I had no vein to pump the blood out again. There was nothing left to do except remove the tissue transplant. My surgeon had spent months preparing my chest to receive these two tissue transplants, and had spent dozens of hours in the operating room attaching and forming the tissue in order to restore my chest’s natural shape. But now one of the transplants was going to die; it literally had to be cut out and thrown away. My surgeon and his team have performed over five hundred of these surgeries, and I was the first person who has ever lost a transplant due to vein failure. 

When I woke up in the recovery room I asked myself, “I wonder if I have missed any of the Cardinals game (Game 3 of the World Series).” And after the surgeon told me that I had lost my reconstruction, my mind quickly shifted to the seriousness of the situation and I asked myself, “Why would God allow this to happen? Isn’t it enough to have cancer? Isn’t it enough to have complications in my cancer treatments? Isn’t it enough to have multiple blood transfusions and surgeries to sustain reconstructions? Why would God put me through all of this just to have half of my new chest thrown away?” I waited for answers, truths, and Bible verses that I had hidden in my heart to pop into my head. Quick, easy answers didn't come. But a phrase from 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 kept coming to mind, “You are not your own. You were bought with a price, so glorify God in your body.” I may not have all of the answers to my questions, but God's call on me is the same: glorify me, glorify me in your body, glorify me even in your broken body.

For my chest to be broken is very discouraging – both for me and for my surgeon. My body is only half-way repaired, and his work was only half-way successful. But to borrow and modify a common saying, my perspective on the situation is this: “my chest is half-full, not half-empty.” Sure, it’s discouraging that the left side of my reconstruction was lost after so much work. And it’s very discouraging that I am now left with no good options for reconstruction on that side. But I am so thankful for my surgeon’s hard work, and I truly am thankful that half of my reconstructive surgery was successful. As Matt has reminded me, the shape of my chest doesn’t change my beauty one bit. And as God’s Word has reminded me, my beauty isn’t defined by the shape of my body, but by the quality of my soul.

In the days and weeks to come I hope to be able to discern more answers to some of my "why" questions. But for now, I can take comfort and joy in the fact that God is good, faithful, and will be glorified even in this tough situation. And of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Cardinals won their game last night thanks to a record-breaking performance by Albert Pujols…and that I get to watch them again tonight. Go Redbirds!