Of Pain

Physical Pain is something that we all experience at one time or another, but there is a big difference between the “paper cut” and being seriously injured. Once you are forced to experience deep core pain, not only will you never forget it, but you then have the chance to understand on a far deeper level, how to empathize with life itself – be that as a human or animal, as to the intense suffering of living in constant pain and what that causes the mind in one to endure… and while I highly recommend steering clear of all violence and to avoid any such experience, sometimes you are simply in the wrong place, at the wrong time…

One day in my mid 20’s, I was blissfully floating on a lake in a canoe, when I looked up to see a ski boat coming in fast, heading straight for me. It was high noon and I stood up to clearly see that there was no one at the helm (the driver was bent down, looking for something on the floor while the craft barreled on ahead). I jumped away as best I could, but my clothes kept me buoyant and the boat drove over top of me. The propeller smashed through my left arm and nicked my ear as it passed by my face… it was gone as fast as it appeared, and it was all over in a few short seconds… but then came the roaring pain, like a massive crescendo…

I remember sinking to the bottom of the lake on my back in slow motion, while looking up at all the red water lit up by the bright noon sun, and trying to decide if I was in fact, dead… but then in the next instant, saying to myself; “no, no, no, not yet”, and immediately started kicking up to the surface with my arm flapping at my side. When I saw my arm in the light for the first time, it was entirely carved open through both bones – everything was cut except one chunk of muscle that kept my hand attached… People surrounded me, and “shock” replaced an increasing, overwhelming sense of cold pain… everything was suddenly and completely out of my control…

During the ambulance ride to an emergency center, people kept asking me questions that were drowned out by the pain while I shook from the cold water. Within seconds of our arrival someone wrapped me in soft heated blankets, while another strapped a mask to my face and said “breath deep”… was like crashing into a warm cloud. 100 to 0, in 5.5 seconds.

I was air-lifted to Toronto General Hospital in a helicopter, and laid out on a stainless steel metal table, where two people examined my arm in detail, and I could somehow sense through their masks that they were excited… they left the room for a short while and came back with Dr. Peter Brooks, the chief surgeon. He went over my arm a second time in further detail whereupon we locked eyes and he began;

PB: What do you do for a living ?
SG: I play piano.
PB: <pause>  Ok, but what do you really do for a living ?
SG: That’s it; I play piano in bars as a single, keyboards in bands and sometimes guest on records… I write music.
PB: Really ?
SG: Yeah
PB: <sigh>

The three surgically masked men went away again for a while and eventually came back;

PB: Ok, here’s the deal… you have bits of seaweed, some paint chips, and whatever else lodged in that arm of yours, and it is likely that you will soon develop gangrene, so the proper procedure right now is to snip the last bit you have left and sew it up, but there is just one thing left in your favor; your motor nerve is completely intact. It is within a millimeter of being nicked or cut in several places, but incredibly, it’s actually all in one piece from end to end, so, I’ll make you a straight deal; I’ll try to clean you up and put you back together, but if there is any sign of gangrene along the way, then we snip it – right then and there, and there will be NO drama… none… are we agreed ?
SG: <no pause> Agreed.
PB: Ok then, here we go…

What followed was a long deliberate climb to recovery; a new stage of surgical procedure every few weeks for months. At one point in the procedure, they decided to carve fresh bone from my left hip to graft it in along with the metal screws and rods holding the bones of my arm in place… waking up to the roar of the combined pain of now two cuts to the bone is truly impossible to describe.

It was the sleepless nights that were the hardest to get through… but there was one specific nurse on those night shifts – my personal guardian angel, who would somehow always know to appear in the doorway just as the drugs were wearing off, when the ever present pain was roaring it’s way back up again; she would calmly peel me off the ceiling with a no nonsense, matter of fact manner. There wasn’t much of any conversation in my state… yet we were a team on a daily climb. Nurses are god…

After months on this endurance course, one day the doctors informed me that as the process had taken longer than expected, it was now clear (to them) that I was addicted to the morphine and effective immediately I was to go “cold turkey” until I was “clean”. I had no previous experience with addiction or recovery, but there was this one night during the detox; when at the height of my withdrawal, when the pain came roaring back, the sheets were soaked with cold sweat and the acrid smell of morphine was oozing from every pore of my skin, my nurse appeared next to my bed and spoke to me over the noise; “now you really know the true meaning of pain, and you should try to never forget this day, so that you can better understand the pain of others…”

I did not forget… no, I have never forgotten; I recognize it every day in the news, and it hurts.

It took over three years of daily exercises and physiotherapy to be able to turn my arm down without more pain, but still not enough to address the piano keyboard again… my one and only singular goal in those years… my bones were fused together and the metal “clicked” when ever I moved my arm… I even set off metal detectors at the airports. One day I spontaneously decided to go downtown with no clear plan, to walk the halls of Toronto General Hospital and somehow talk with my surgeon; Dr. Peter Brooks…

When I found him he didn’t recognize me at first, but as soon as he did, he immediately moved to examine my arm as only a surgeon can do; marveling at how the long scar had healed over the years… he noted the “clicking” and agreed that I couldn’t turn my hand enough to address a keyboard because of it. I surprised myself when I asked him if he would take all the metal out again…

PB: Really ? Do you realize the risk you would be taking ? It might go completely wrong.
SG: When I get older, won’t all the metal and the screws make my bones more brittle – more susceptible to breaking as they decalcify ?
PB: Yes, that is probably true… <pause> well then, do you remember our original agreement ?; if it all goes bad, there will be NO drama… none… are we agreed ?
SG: <no pause> Agreed.
PB: Ok then, I will schedule it…

Surgical Hardware and Arm Bracelets

Even more pain; and today, while the scar is still obvious, this heavy metal is what enabled my arm to heal again.  ->

On one level, this story is about physical pain… but it is equally about incredibly wonderful and intelligent medical care. I still play my piano and type a keyboard with ten fingers most every day of the week, thanks to the exceptional people at the Toronto General Hospital, and thanks to the friends who supported me in that challenging period of time – you know who you are, and I thank you dearly… I was a young self absorbed musician that had no money to pay for what continues to be an awesome medical gift… I am grateful to have had the pure luck of being in the right place, at a good time… oh, Canada; thanks, eh !