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Olympic Surgery

The summer Olympics kindles an unpleasant anniversary.  I was in hospital recovering from a failed bronchopleural fistula surgery complicated by pulmonary embolism, further complicated by pneumonia, and then aspirational pneumonia. After surgical mayhem and ensuing coma, I settled into a nil per os or NPO recovery from a uncooperative epiglottis.  July, August, and early September of 2004 were clearly the worst days of my life.  The only joy was watching Katie Couric’s daytime TV Olympic broadcast from Athens.  Two weeks of Olympic distraction amid repetitive admissions to the ICU as my doctors, nurses, and respiratory technicians struggled to keep me alive.

I don’t have specific memories of the games or any athlete.  I can only recall the TV setting for Couric’s broadcast -- a shoreline location framed by Greek coastal mountains in the background and the deepest blue ocean I’ve ever seen.  I’d wait for her show to come on and the camera to pan along breathtaking vistas while smelling coffee and food deliveries.  I longed for so many things in that time. The smell of hospital-grade coffee was so tantalizing, it almost undid me.  Till I met the hospital speech pathologist.  She delivered the undoing.

Lung cancer patients learn a lot about hospitals.  Doctors, excepting surgeons and anesthesiologists, do very little hands on patient care.  This is the realm of nurses and medical technicians.  But, who treated my lazy epiglottis -- a speech pathologist.  A young woman, as I can recall, small in stature but with the confidence and swagger of an army SERGEANT MAJOR.

For those not acquainted with a sergeant major, it is best you not cultivate a relationship.  They make the army THE ARMY.  They are not nice, friendly, kind or cuddly.  They are confident, demanding, curt, and irascible, in the extreme!  My speech pathologist was the hospital’s SERGEANT MAJOR.  She chewed out my surgeon for slipping me a cough drop.  “Can’t you read the NPO sign”, she barked in a voice that made doc jump out of his skin.  The ENT doc who scoped my defective epiglottis deconflicted his visits to stay out of her range.  

She was the only one in the major medical center who knew anything about treating a uncooperative epiglottis?  And, like army sergeants major, she was a taskmaster.  Indeed talking (screaming) was the therapy.  She wrote out weird, difficult, nearly unpronounceable guttural sounds that I had to recite despite the discomfort of a nose-to-stomach feeding tube. She appeared 4 times-per-day to drill me, then often 2 or more surprise visits to ensure I was properly bellowing. This guttural workout, combined swallowed-thickened-liquid observed by a timid radiologist manning a fluoroscope in the presence of the sergeant major, lasted nearly a month.  But it worked.

The 2016 Olympics are in Rio, but the games take me back to Athens and my speech pathologist sergeant major.  Thank you Sergeant Major!

Stay the course.



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