‘Any more questions?’ the doctor, who is shortly to perform the hamstring autograft ACL reconstruction on my right knee inquires patiently. He has a bright, reassuring face, which radiates energy and confidence. I trust him with my knee – and, thus, my now illusory plans for the future – not because I must but because I simply do. And so, lifting my laptop from the bedside desk, I show him a picture, which represents all of my questions for him and my demands of myself.
‘A request, if that’s ok. Make it so that I can climb this. Please.’
Puzzled yet amused, he studies the photo of the mountain on the screen and then, sighs, noticing that my hands tremble a little.
‘I will do my best that you may have as good a chance to do this as you would have before your accident. But you must understand, this will take time,’ he implores. I nod in reply and smile at the floor.
‘Thank you,’ I finally mumble as a way of letting him go, ‘see you in the OR.’ As he turns to leave, he suddenly freezes and looks back at the picture. ‘How high is the peak?’ And his eyes widen a little when I give him its elevation. My doctor, the great skiing aficionado and frequent visitor to the Alps that he is, knows better than most what I’m really asking of him. He understands what I love, and I chose him to perform the surgery for that reason among others.
It is cool and bright in the OR. Several people in white hover about the room; surgical instruments clatter. A nurse wires me up and administers a sedative, but complains to the anesthesiologist that she can’t take my blood. I feel like it’s frozen in my veins – frozen at the fear of having to flow through the body with even more limitations than the one it used to nourish.
‘Leave it,’ the anesthesiologist says when my right hand loses color and goes numb. He asks that I lie on my right side, in fetal position, so he can inject the anesthetic into my back. I would have preferred general anesthesia, I say to myself as I grab the metal rails of the stretcher, the needle sinking into the flesh. The injection takes some two minutes, and the doc asks me about Muay Thai to distract me from the pain and, perhaps, to remind me that I should bear it stoically.
‘All done,’ he says at last. ‘Now, you will be conscious during the operation, but it should’t hurt. Let me know if it does, and I’ll give you another back injection.’ Brilliant, I swallow nervously, it shouldn’t hurt…
I am lucky, and it doesn’t, but, I do feel everything that is being done to my knee: the instruments being inserted, the piece of the hamstring being cut out, the femur and the tibia being drilled through, the pull of the thread on my tissues as they are being stitched up. Nevertheless, in this limbo of the mind created by the sedatives, the feeling, overpowering all others, is this of complete disconnect from my body. Albeit for just under two hours, but I knew it wasn’t as truly, perfectly mine as I had imagined. It was merely a machine being repaired by strangers, space hanging between us like heavy fog. Naturally, to the people in white that body was a broken mechanism, but it was for the first time that it was also simply an empty shell, a burden even, to me. General anesthesia, I must say, could be tougher on the body but is certainly easier on the mind than the spinal one I had: with the former, one falls asleep and regains consciousness whole – injured, hurting, yes, but whole; with the latter, however, one is separated in two, and as the divide grows, the mind does wander.
‘There,’ I am being helped onto a different stretcher and wheeled back to my room. My legs, especially the right, supported by a thick grey orthosis, are heavy and limp. Wiggle your big toe, I recall The Bride from Kill Bill, and as the sleepy nerves in my legs awaken, I begin to wish I hadn’t tried to wiggle anything. My mother is there, waiting for me. She helps the nurse get me comfortable in bed. I am quiet, bracing myself for the inevitable onset of pain I’d been warned about. My next painkiller injection is not due for another three hours, and, staring at the clock on the wall in front of me, I can’t believe how slowly the hands move.
‘Are you…?’ my mother tries to ask but doesn’t finish.
‘Am I ok?’ I help her out. ‘I guess so. It’s just that they told me I’d be screaming in pain for the next two days and nights, so I’m a little apprehensive.’ Speaking through gritted teeth, I tell her about the surgery. Soon, it hurts too much to carry on with the story, and I fall silent.
‘Do you want anything?’ she inquires quietly, staring at my face, which I would not want to see at that moment.
‘Yes, fetch me that book, please.’ When my mother hands me the book I carry everywhere with me, Geshe Thupten Jinpa’s Essential Mind Training, I leaf through it nervously until I find my favorite piece of writing in the world – a Buddhist verse called The Wheel of Sharp Weapons.
Before I begin, my mother moves her chair closer to the bed and asks that I read aloud.
Seriously? Now? I almost bark at her, exasperated, but manage to swallow the words and try to look past the wall of my simple physical suffering at hers; I am instantly ashamed of my lack of compassion. If it helps my mother to hear what I know will help me to recite, then, why should I not make the effort? So I start reading – in a low, turbulent voice, weighing every word meticulously so that my tense throat doesn’t burst with a growl instead. This is a struggle, and I am relieved when at 8 pm a nurse knocks on the door to tell my mother that it is time to leave the clinic for the night.
And the night is hell. It feels like my right leg is a log in a bonfire that wouldn’t go out: the thing is unbearably heavy, bursting into fireworks of pain at the smallest of moves. I get my last painkiller injection into the hip at around midnight. It is advised that I try to sleep. As if! By 3 am I find myself fashioning a little something to bite on out of the clinic’s brochure – because I really don’t want to moan or scream, and even less – to cry. Sinking my teeth into the layers of thick paper, I close my eyes for a minute and welcome the pain. A stark contrast to the numbness of anesthesia, it reminds me that this body I may love or abhor, is very intimately mine; that this will be over, and I may be able to do what I love again; it makes me want to get up and do everything I still fear doing. When the pain is gone, it means some vital link is severed. So, maybe, let it hurt.
At about 5 am, feverish and exhausted, I fall asleep. At 8 my operating surgeon’s assistant wakes me up and takes me for a knee effusion. We chat while he juices my knee like a ripe grapefruit. Then, he cleans the sutures, and I manage to catch a glimpse of my scars. They are horrible – not as much in their ugly appearance as in what they stand for and what memories they evoke.
An hour later I leave the hospital with mom and dad. Together we must look like the family we could have been. He drives us himself – as carefully and patiently as if I were marked ‘fragile’, like a thing of value. One of my father’s larger assistants (I’m no feather, I’m afraid) carries me up the stairs to the fifth floor.
‘You’re so cheerful, Miss L… Does it not hurt?’ he asks with a knowing grin. I recall that he’d had the same operation a few years ago.
‘It’s just the drugs. Won’t be so cheerful when they wear off…’
‘How bad was it right after the surgery?’
‘I had to bite on a piece of cardboard not to scream. How was it for you, do you remember?’
‘Oh, yes, I do – I screamed, you know, a little,’ and we are both laughing.
There’s a wheelchair by my bedside, and a nurse will be coming later to give me more painkiller injections. I have just been carried – carried – by someone to the fifth floor. Ironic, indeed! It will take at least six months before I can start thinking about climbing again; full recovery takes a year. I cover my face with my palms and feel how much the past few months since Everest have aged me; in a few days I will be 27. Time really does fly, I say to myself, opening my laptop and shaking off the grim thoughts. What greets me on the screen is the same photo I’d shown my doctor before the operation. It had never looked more alluring.
‘Mom,’ I call, and she rushes in, wide-eyed and worried. Suddenly, I am not 26 going on 40 but 5 years old at the most.
‘I don’t want any more syringes anywhere near me, so, please call and cancel the nurse’s visit. Oh, and I’m going to try to climb this in nine months from now. Just so you know.’
‘But… This is outrageous! On two legs, let alone on one-and-a-half,’ she begins, but pauses as I smile at her, and at the pain, swelling again in my right leg, and at the picture, blue, and white, and impossible, on the screen. ‘Which is why you’re the one for the job,’ she sighs.