"Basically," he addressed us both, "nothing was found in the foot tissues that we didn’t expect. Gangrene, of course. This happens frequently in long-term diabetic patients where atherosclerosis is accelerated, limiting blood supply to the extremities. The tissue just dies." The doctor peeked at us over his half-glasses, first at Mike, then me. "Any questions?"
"What about his liver?" I asked.
"Most likely shut down due to poisons from the diseased foot. Now that the foot has been removed, the poisons should work their way out and the liver will begin to function normally again."
Mike glanced briefly at me, his eyebrows raised, then asked the doctor, "When can I go home?"
"As soon as we know that your liver is working, Mike. Maybe a week, maybe less. Your color is coming back, and that’s a good sign. After the liver biopsy we’ll know more."
"Okay …" Disappointment filled Mike’s face.
I simply nodded my head. "Thank you."
"You’re welcome." The doctor turned and left the room.
Mike spent a total of eleven days in the hospital. He left with a handful of appointment reminders—follow-up with the surgeon, physical therapy sessions at our local hospital, a liver biopsy in July—and a pair of wooden crutches instead of his lower right leg. An orderly helped get him into our freshly repaired car for the trip home.
We stopped in Mount Vernon to pickup a wheelchair I had arranged for—one I could fold up and put into the back of our little yellow wagon. Rather than purchase as I expected, we would end up having to pay monthly rental on that chair because the medical supply store ignored my instructions about how to bill our insurance companies.
Mike struggled up the three back stairs on crutches and into the house that day. Right on our heels came a delivery truck with the recliner I had ordered from the local furniture store as a belated birthday surprise. It would allow him to keep that stump elevated, as prescribed.
For several weeks thereafter, the plaster cast remained on his stump except when the surgeon periodically removed it to assess the healing process and then applied a new one.
When we were at home, every time I tried to sit down for a minute, Mike would ask for something—a cup of coffee, a piece of cheese, a warmer shirt, lotion for his stump, a certain book or magazine—and I'd jump right up to get it. He began to act as if it was his job to keep me on my feet, every moment of every day. On my aching, hurting, feet.
Later, when I tried to curb those requests in an effort to encourage him to do more for himself, I realized that Mike had become my patient, and I his caregiver. I was his nurse, driver, secretary, bookkeeper, butler, meal-manager, cook, cleaning lady, personal shopper, automobile maintenance manager and sounding board.
I tested his blood sugar, drew his insulin, monitored his medicines, made his medical appointments, laundered his clothes, helped him in and out of the shower, mowed the yard, and attempted to maintain his dignity, all while watching for signs of insulin shock. There were days I felt more like a hired-hand than a wife, and on at least one occasion, I reacted to one of his orders with, "If you were my boss, I’d quit!" He was courteous to me for a long time after that.
Our conversations had transformed from husband and wife dreams of the future into concerns for his care. I’d learned to protect myself from disappointments by never believing that any plans we made would reach fruition—the refurbishing of our Sedro-Woolley home, RV campouts and regional rallies, another visit to our friends in Colorado.
By early July, Mike’s stump had healed and shrunk enough that an artificial leg could be built.
Twice a week we traveled to the prosthetic office on the campus of Northwest Hospital in Seattle. Things progressed nicely, with fittings and more fittings, adjustments, grinding, filling, and padding his stump with two or three fine-woolen stump socks at $43 each. On non-prosthetic days, the physical therapy sessions continued. It wasn’t long before Mike was wheeling himself around quite well, despite the bad shoulder from his auto-accident in 1966.
My nephew showed up one weekend with lumber in the back of his pickup. He built a porch over the concrete steps to the back door, large enough to hold the wheelchair, then added ramps which his Uncle Mike enjoyed racing down to coast "hands-free" into the carports for a smoke.
No matter how often his doctors advised or I nagged him to stop smoking, he could not. Late at night he would roll out of the front door and onto the covered porch of our little house to have his cigarette. While I appreciated his consideration in trying to keep the fumes and odor away from my allergic self, it did not work—they engulfed his body for hours after he had rolled back in.
Suddenly it was time for the scheduled needle biopsy that would verify the condition of his liver and its viability for the future. It took an hour, as we’d been told, but only for the biopsy itself. What we were not told followed. Mike was moved from the emergency area where out-patient surgery was done, to a room far back in the hospital. He was directed to lay still for four hours, on his side, with pressure directly on the biopsy site to keep the liver from hemorrhaging.
I was instructed to keep track of his respiration rate—to count how many breaths a minute he took—and notify the nurse immediately if it fell beneath twelve. I watched and counted as Mike steadily lost patience with the whole ordeal.
He cussed. He cursed. He groused and bitched about everything to everyone. Especially to me. I can only imagine how extremely uncomfortable it became for him, lying on his right side with a cast on his right stump in a July-hot hospital room with no air conditioning. It was almost as if his days in that California hospital years ago had returned.
After much vocalizing on his part, a nurse finally got permission to release him and we were able to go home.
The days that followed were filled with trips for leg fittings, physical therapy, and to the R/C hobby shop in the next town where Mike would order parts for his little car and talk, talk, talk to anyone who would listen. I tolerated it all, not wanting to embarrass him. I rearranged our kitchen table so that he could work from the wheelchair on his little car kit. Work that brought frequent odors of model paints, soldering iron smoke and one burned-out hair dryer—mine—into the kitchen.
I dutifully transported Mike to R/C car club meetings and races, loading his boxes of stuff, then him and his wheel chair into the car. When we arrived at the race location, I would help him into his chair, pile the racecar stuff onto his lap, and push him into the building. He loved visiting with the other members, and they were friendly in return.
At our first indoor event, I placed his NASCAR type model on the track as directed. When the starting bell rang, his car darted out of control, first right, then left, spinning donuts, hitting other cars, stopping only when it careened into the track’s side rail and got hung up. Clearly his eye-hand coordination wasn’t working.
"Go set it straight," he barked at me. "Now! Hurry up!"
"I can’t, Mike!"
"Do it!" He demanded.
"No," I countered. "It’s against the rules, Mike. I can’t walk out onto the track during a race." He grimaced.
Didn’t he remember that those little cars whizzed around that oval at speeds up to thirty-five miles an hour—fast enough to break a human ankle if it got in the way? Where was his brain? It certainly didn’t seem to be working.
When this first race was over, someone handed his car to him. He thanked them, then insisted I pack up all his things and take him home.
"But there are more races coming," I countered. "Don’t you want to stay?"
"No! Take me home."
I felt sad for his obvious embarrassment, and couldn’t help but think of our early years, when he drove his Austin-Healey in competitions around the northwest circuit, and how the handful of trophies sitting on our bookshelf at home served as testament to his prowess. How humiliating this must be for him. I could have cried but didn’t. Instead, I piled his belongings back on his lap, and we left for home.
Between the R/C car events, home care, doctor visits and physical therapy sessions—where he learned exercises for strengthening muscles in his upper body and thighs to help with propelling the wheelchair and walking on a prosthetic leg, we’d visit the local Burger-King™ for a soft drink and fries. It was a welcome change of scene, and gave Mike something to look forward to.
Other times we would pick up hamburgers and drinks from the local 50’s drive-in, take them to the city park by the river and eat. Those were moments of respite, when we could share a meal and converse as husband and wife rather than patient and caregiver.