Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The View from my Deck

At the risk of boring you with tedious repetition, I just had to throw up this photo of the view from my deck yesterday afternoon. It is similar to the photo on Monday’s post, though that view was taken from the mouth of the river. This one does a bit more to convey the incredible vastness, though it still falls short of reality. The two volcanoes, Mt. Redoubt and Mt. Illiamna, seem much larger and closer in the actual view and dominate the scenery far more dramatically than these photos suggest. And that sense of wide-openness that falls away with the curve of the earth? Nothing captures that. The huge bald eagles soaring through it show up only as specks on the photos.

Lest anyone miss the obvious here, let me just say yes, I am totally enthralled with this view. It is mesmerizing. I can gaze at it for hours. Preferably without window glass between it and me, but at yesterday morning’s frosty five degrees below zero, I was glad to appreciate the view from inside. By afternoon the temperature had risen to twenty above, and with no wind blowing it was quite pleasant to sit in the sun on the south-facing side of the house and gaze into the endless distance.

I am now four weeks out from hip replacement surgery for idiopathic avascular necrosis. Overall, my recovery is proceeding quite well. I am off crutches and getting around much more easily, though always mindful of hip precautions: don’t flex the hip more than 90 degrees, don’t cross the body’s midline with that foot, don’t internally rotate that hip (point the toe in). I go to physical therapy twice a week and do exercises at home to regain strength in the leg and increase range of motion. It is slow going, but there is steady progress.

The pre-op I went through prior to the hip replacement included an MRI of the hip. Eighteen months ago I had plain x-rays of that hip which were normal; by this past July, x-rays showed essentially no joint left (which validated the excruciating pain I was in, but otherwise was not reassuring). My surgeon, Dr. L. (dubbed “the turtle” by Jody for his slow and measured approach), wanted the MRI to distinguish between incredibly rapid progression of arthritis and avascular necrosis. It indicated the latter.

It also revealed an incidental finding of an ill-defined mass in my abdomen. The MRI was followed by abdominal and pelvic CT scan, with and without contrast. The mass remained ill-defined, though appeared to be located in the retroperitoneal area (behind the abdominal cavity, not inside it) and appeared to be cystic (fluid-filled). Both are strongly encouraging that the mass is not malignant. But it does need to come out.

Dr. L called in a general surgeon he thinks highly of, Dr. M. Dr. M reviewed the studies and came and spoke with me while I was admitted for the hip. He said if he had any suspicion of malignancy, he would wait no more than two weeks from the hip surgery before taking me back to the OR. As it was, he was comfortable waiting six to eight weeks.

So as the hip heals, I’m preparing for the next hurdle. Tomorrow I drive up to Anchorage for ultrasound-guided needle biopsy of the mass. I’m not queasy, but I don’t look forward to that procedure. Hopefully the full surgical removal will follow shortly after that. Then another four weeks of recovery, and I hope to be back to work by early January.

And for those of you who are wondering in just what direction Tundra Medicine Dreams may be going now that I no longer live on the tundra, I have to tell you that I wonder the same thing. Today it sounds as though TMD is becoming a patient blog, though that is not my intention and I promise to keep this part short. I’ve become so erratic about posting that I felt some explanation was due.


Monday, November 17, 2008

A Beautiful Place

It really is beautiful here in Kenai, both the area in general and the spot where our house is located. I can’t imagine a more restful and healing view to gaze at while recovering from surgery than this lovely image of mountains and sky. Sometimes the clouds obscure all of it, but when they clear, Oh! They take your breath away. I can watch for hours as the light shifts on the face of the mountains while the sun moves in a low arc across the southern sky.

October and, so far, November, have proceeded as they were planned. Jody and I managed (thanks mostly to Jody) to finish up in Bethel on schedule. We even had time to squeeze in a steam bath at Henry’s on our last night there. The last bunch of packing and mailing happened, gifts were distributed to friends, utilities and services terminated, everything taken care of.

We showed up at Alaska Airlines for our one-way trip to Anchorage with a large and motley assortment of belongings which Jody had creatively packed in three 33-gallon Rubbermaid trashcans with the lids strapped and duck-taped on, and a burn barrel made from the tub of an old washing machine and packed with tools and stuff. We had regular suitcases too, but the trashcans and burn barrel were an outstanding element there in the Alaska terminal. We handed them up for weighing and checking in, and the gate agents never raised an eyebrow.

“What??” Jody said to them. “We don’t even get a smile for this? We’re packed in trashcans and a burn barrel, for goodness’ sake!”

The agent just shrugged and said “Hey, this is Bethel. We’ve pretty much seen it all around here.”

My friend Joan, who was there to see us off, took a photo to commemorate the trashcan departure.

Leaving Bethel for the last time was very bittersweet. I know I will be back, so it was not really the last time, but it was the last time I would leave as a Bethel resident. When Jody and I landed there the week before, it already felt different. For the first time ever, it did not feel like coming home. Watching the town grow small as the plane lifted off felt like a door closing, the end of an era.

Ten years. I grew and changed a lot in that time. I went from the emotional wasteland of an ill-fated, never-should-have-happened, emotionally abusive relationship to the lush garden of the soul-mated love that I share with Dutch. I was married for the first and only time in my life, right there in Bethel. I became a writer, something I’ve worked toward my whole life, but never managed to accomplish. I created this blog, which is something I am proud of. In the two-plus years of its existence, I have written essays on a wide variety of subjects concerning bush medicine and Yupik culture. Even in the last six weeks, when I have not written a single word, the blog continues to capture seven to eight hundred hits per week, just from people searching the internet for subjects related to things I’ve written about. That is truly satisfying to me.

I will go back to Bethel to work and to visit dear friends there, but it won’t be the same as living there. I won’t be a member of the club anymore. Bethelites have an esprit d’ corp that comes from surviving the isolating location and harsh winter weather. If you only come to visit, it doesn’t include you.

But I will look forward to those visits, because Bethel will always be special to me. In its own way, it is also a beautiful place. Bethel forever changed my life, in ways which were all good. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Photos by The Tundra PA.
1. The Alaska Range at sunset, from the mouth of the Kenai River
2. Mt. Redoubt, from my deck.
3. Mt. Illiamna, from my deck.