A Fresh Look at Illness and Death

Micrograph showing that the papillae in papill...

Micrograph showing that the papillae in papillary thyroid carcinoma are composed of cuboidal cells. H&E stain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Considering how pervasive illness and death is in our lifetimes, it still usually comes as surprise when you hear about it.

When I learned my voiceover compatriot Lynne had thyroid cancer, I gasped aloud.  When her note explained she had thyroid surgery, my eyes bulged in shock.  Now writing in her blog, Prognosis Positive, even Lynne explained that some 27 million Americans have some sort of thyroid issue.  When you think of 27 million people having a thyroid issue, it stands to reason that a someone you know would likely have a thyroid problem, even thyroid cancer.  But logical theory always seems to shock when the practical reality becomes a living, breathing person you know who has an icky disease.  The news was especially tender to me since I am one of those 27 million people with a thyroid condition (hypothyroidism) as are two of my siblings (hyperthyroidism).

And then I heard about the death of cousin Marv.  Marvin was 75 and still his death was sudden and to many of the us relatives, unexpected.  Seventy-five is a respectable and (by today’s standards) a somewhat young age to push up daisies.  Just as the news of Lynne’s thyroid cancer shocked me, so did the news of Marv’s death.

At Marv’s wake in Wisconsin, relatives and friends packed the funeral home, with an hour or more wait in line to pay respects.  Amid illness and death, everyone looked vital and healthy.  Chatter of relatives and friends filled the room, catching up, checking in, learning what was new and interesting in everyone’s lives.

“How is your book coming along?” cousin Joanne asked me when we found time to have a chat.  A little like molasses, it slowly moved forward. Of all my relatives, Joanne is among the most interesting.  Single at 50, she adopted her first daughter.  At 60, she adopted her second.  As she career as a nursing professor waned, she hung out her shingle as a solo practitioner in healing touch.  “Have you looked at the chakras affected by your accident?” she inquired.

Leave it to Joanne, in her late 70s, to remind me to look at the metaphysical issues behind illness and death.  There is always a voice to illness and even death, if you care to look deep enough.  I took her suggestion to heart and took a look at the chakras, once again.  When someone reminds you to look again, maybe it’s a voice you should hear again.

Thyroid is a 5th chakra issue.  The leg relates to the 1st, or root, chakra.  This from www.chakrahealing.com:

Fifth Chakra/Throat
Resting at the back of your throat, the throat chakra is more than just the words you speak. It is the mouthpiece by which you communicate your truths. Energy from the fifth chakra is rightly associated with a pure blue color – representing the ‘true blue’ essence of your soul. When you express your thoughts, beliefs, and opinions to others, you are sharing this essence through your energy. Appropriately, the Sanskrit word for this chakra center is vishuddha, meaning “pure place.”  All forms of human expression – including body language, spoken words, writing, dance, music, or art – profess certain truths inherent to our existence.  As we find ourselves progressing through life, we must learn to effectively communicate our ideas without bringing harm to others; simultaneously we need to be able to obtain what we want using our own words. It can be difficult to achieve a balance between speaking up and being quiet.

A person with a closed Throat Chakra might feel as though they ‘don’t speak the language’ – that is, they aren’t able to use their words to share their thoughts with others. This inhibition might stem from fear; past experiences of ridicule or embarrassment can cause some to choose to remain quiet. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some people who experience fifth chakra imbalances talk incessantly, where their fear lies in hearing silence. People that resort to lying to hide their true intentions, or to avoid hurting others also deny the energy of their Throat Chakra. Fifth chakra deficiencies can also contribute to physical ailments including bronchitis, ear infections, hearing problems, laryngitis, mouth ulcers, and tonsillitis.

1st Chakra/Root Chakra

The Root Chakra  is a flowing spring of energy which connects us to the earth and to each other. As the first of the human body’s seven energy centers it is the source of the low-frequency waves that drive our most basic survival needs, including our primal urges. In ancient Sanskrit, this place is referred to as muladhara, the foundation. It is the scarlet red Root Chakra energy emanating from the base of the spine that accounts for not only our connection to the physical aspects of our being, but also our sense of comfort, security, and belonging within the world. Beginning at birth, we are faced with situations that challenge our very existence. In these instances it is energy from the Root Chakra that feeds into the adrenal gland above the kidneys and activates our instinctual “fight-or-flight” response.

Given this role in our well-being, it is not surprising that a blocked Root Chakra center can result in difficulties meeting or moving beyond essential needs. Recurring financial struggles, weight and food issues, deep-rooted family problems, and an inability to create long-term happiness or stability are all manifestations of a deficient Root Chakra center. Blockages can also be observable as variety of physical ailments, including chronic fatigue syndrome, Epstein Barr virus, colitis, Crohn’s disease, or cancer.

So, I must ask:  Have you ever lost your voice or felt you weren’t grounded?

If we keep looking at the cause of “dis-ease” maybe then we won’t be so surprised by it.

 

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Finding Maggie and So Much More

Maggie Ready for Work

When I called Dian Page at the Green Bay Press Gazette a couple of weeks ago, my hope was to connect the memories in my mind.  For so many years, I have had pictures of my little self at the time of my burn accident but I’ve never been sure if these are real or “created” memories.  It can be-devil anyone to wonder about these things — did this really happen to me or have I made it up?  In my case, I need only look at the scars on my leg to know it did indeed happen.  But how and why do I remember (or think I remember) certain pieces of the experience.

That was my motivation for searching for Maggie, the Nurse.  I had no idea what I would find.  I was ready for anything.

Except perhaps for the fact that I found Maggie and a great deal more.

I didn’t set out to find someone’s Nana, someone’s mother, someone’s son, someone’s sister, someone’s friend.  And yet all these people found me and there was a quite a story to tell.

Maggie Glaser Conard was a pediatrics nurse at St. Vincent Hospital in Green Bay for some 30 years until her retirement in 1987.  She did not recover from the massive stroke she suffered in 1988 and died at just 60.  “I just wanted to let tell you that your vivid description of her (Maggie) brought her back to life for me.  She was exactly as you described in everyday life; not just in work.  She was crazy about her grandchildren and she made each and every one of us feel the way you felt.  I thank you for this.  You have made my night, my week, my year,” Maggie’s granddaughter Jessi Guenther wrote me from Seattle, Washington.  Something amazing was happening.

Maggie Conard Memory CardIt continued when I spoke to Maggie’s sister, Shirley Warpinski, a retired nurse who still lives in Green Bay.  “Maggie had a gift.  Everybody loved her.  She was happy-go-lucky and always optimistic.  She was just the sweetest person,” Shirley said, telling me that Maggie was valedictorian of her high school in Luxemburg.  “Whenever she had free time at the hospital, she would go playroom and be with the children.  And oh, did she love to read.  She read to the children all time.”

There is was.  During my three-month hospitalization, I learned to read and at 3 years old, became something of a freaky genius for that day and age.  It came back to me now that Maggie had been the one by my bedside, reading to me, teaching me the letters, encouraging me on during those long days when I was confined to a crib, secured with netting so I couldn’t get out and harm my recovery.  Whether it was 15 surgeries or 20, I knew my treatment was painful and grueling.

“Yes, I remember those nets.  We had to cover the cribs for safety reasons,” shared retired Green Bay nurse Carol Mangin, who worked with Maggie for a “long, long time” at St. Vincent’s.  We talked about my third-degree burns.  “Burns are so painful.  You were lucky yours were third-degree because the nerve endings died and it would not have been as painful as first- or second-degree burns.”

“My mother cared for people for the better part of her working life,” her son Ted Conard told me.  “Caring was in our gene pool I guess since I went into that field and others in our family did too.”  After 35 years of working at Green Bay’s Curative Workshop, Ted recently retired and still lives in Green Bay.  After my discharge from St. Vincent’s, I attended therapy at the Curative Workshop for many long months, regaining flexibility in both my legs after months of inactivity and re-learning how to walk.  “You probably worked with Gloria, a therapist there,” Ted said.  “She was there forever.”

Suddenly, my memories were expanding, connecting.  They were real.

“My mom Maggie had crazy love for children.  She would come home and talk about her patients especially the ones she became close to and I’m sure she talked about you.  She would have grown really attached and her heart would have been breaking for what you were going through,” Maggie’s daughter Julie said.  “She would have thought of you like you were one of her children.”

“Maggie would be so pleased to know that you are pursuing this,” retired Green Bay nurse Mary Thomas explained when I spoke with her.  “As nurses, you touch people’s lives and then they go their own ways.  To know that you remembered, that she touched you and it meant something to you, well, that means something to all of us.”

My sister Susie, a nurse herself and professor of nursing at UWGB elaborated on that thought.  “Nurses do so many things but the human caring is what makes the difference.  This nurse cared for you, she transformed a difficult experience for a child.  In her caring for you, you were no longer alone in that room.”

Once again, what I set out to find wasn’t at all what was there.  Instead I found something deeper and richer.  Yes, I found Maggie and the memories the beautiful memories she gave me.  But now I understand the life she brought to so many people — her patients, her colleagues and friends, and her family.

Her granddaughter Jessi told me about her brother’s reaction to this unfolding story and she included it on her blog as well:

“The first thing that came to mind…is how loved ones have a way of letting us know that they’re still there, they never left to begin with.  What an awesome gift”  ~Nathan Kofler

There’s also a comment from “Carrie” following Jessi’s blog post that makes a great deal of sense to me:

“…..We have named those, God-incidences because its too perfect just to be a coincidence…..” Carrie

These “God-incidences”/coincidences have brought me this far and at every turn of this journey I’ve found something immensely beautiful.  For anyone who has gone through a fire of any kind, be it physical or psychological, we know we would never want to go through it again.  And still there are great lessons and great love to be found.  “It meant the world to me and my family to know that Maggie was loved by so many people,” her daughter Julie told me.  “What a legacy she has left.”

A legacy indeed.

Thank you Maggie Conard.  You have left behind an incredible legacy of healing and helping for so many of us.  I am grateful to be a part of it.

Chance Encounters

May is a uniquely busy month for parents with school-age children.  As the school year ends, there are celebrations galore – from the athletic banquet to the spring concert, the father-daughter dance, the girl scout bridging ceremony and the end of the basketball travel team league.  At a certain point, any sane adult simply starts going through the motions.  My mental state was precisely there as I joined the line cascading around the corner for entry to the Spring Show, the annual song-fest where each of eight grades and kindergarten sings a couple of numbers.

Directly behind me in line stood R and her daughter M, the teenage girl burned in a home accident just weeks before.  Thick white burn tape provided a necklace around her neck and her arm was tightly bandaged in the same special tape.  Before I knew it, I had re-introduced myself to R and told them I too was burned as a child.  As I said it, I like itching myself.  It seemed to come from my stomach, which turned itself slightly at the thought.  As we talked, M shared, “I itch all the time.  It’s constant.”  I remembered the feeling well.  Insatiable itching that seemed to crawl inside with no good way to relieve it.  M also said that her burns were second degree, which immediately relieved me and I told her how well she would heal.  It’s the 3rd degree burns that leave the nasty scars — 2nd degree can heal with nary a reminder.

When they asked what happened to me, I told them about my burn accident, then gently rolled up my pant leg to show them a little of the scars.  “Yours seems so much worse than mine,” M said and I immediately felt bad that she focused on my injury when hers was so recent and raw, itching as it healed.  Her mother R looked and me, her eyes brimming with wet and said, “See M, look at Anne.  She’s successful and pretty.  We can make it through this.  It didn’t stop her.”

Like me, M didn’t like it when people stared at her.  We talked about “to tell” or not to tell strategies, to make eye contact or not to.  M seemed remarkably mature for a teenager.  She had a presence.

“M, it may not feel like it right now, but your burns are a gift.  Look how they help you teach other people.”  I believed it as I said it.  It would not have been the gift I’d chosen for myself, but I always felt right with it.

The line began to disperse as we entered the school gym for the Spring Show.  R hugged me tightly whispering, “thank you” as they wandered off to their places.

As the 4th graders began “Getting to Know You,” from the Lion King, I wondered:  How much more difficult are these burns for a parent? R was there when M’s leaned over the gas stove and her scarf caught fire.  She choked up as she told me about it.  They are replacing the stove with a smooth-topped electric model.  I understand.

Swim Suit Secrets

Magic Kingdom Fireworks

Image by d4rr3ll via Flickr

Renee and I had taken our daughters to the Magic Kingdom and after two action-packed days at the Disney Parks, we chose Sunday to lounge by the pool while the girls swam.  She knows my story well and so my scars were nothing new even in bathing suit format.  But hers, well, she had never told me about them and the plot thickened.

Renee was 12 and boiling water to make hot dogs.  Somewhere in the transfer to the counter, hot dogs still boiling away, she jiggled the pot.  Hot oily water gushed on to her thigh.  Renee watched as the boiling water seared her skin, sealing her tights to her upper leg.   The times being the times, Renee tried to self treat second-degree burns.  “More than anything else, I remember the pain.  I had to peel the fabric of the tights off my leg,” she said.  Over time, the skin on her thigh turned an unsightly black.  Horrified she peeled it back time and time again.  It took a year to heal.  She used home remedies to speed the healing because her family didn’t take her to the hospital for treatment.

Now, the scars on her thigh healed to a faded pattern of reddish blotches. Renee needed to point them out to me.   I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed.

As we lay by the pool, I couldn’t get Renee’s story out of my mind.  It consumed me for hours.  Was it better to remember the searing pain so vividly as she did?  Was it worse to remember peeling blackened skin from your leg?  Was it more common than not that families in the 70s didn’t rush to hospitals for home accidents?

Much as I have tried, I have yet to find anyone who can tell me the blow-by-blow details of my accident.  I don’t remember the pain of the majority of the surgeries, only the one I had when I was 18.  I don’t remember blackened skin but surely it was there.  My burns were third degree, a notch up from Renee’s.  It amazed me to see how her burns had healed, how they were all but hidden.

It seems to me that everyone has at least one vivid childhood story.  An accident.  An incident.  A hurt that may not have yet healed.

It feels good to hear someone else’s story, in this case a poolside secret, a swim suit story.  Do you have a secret to share?

Be Careful What You Wish For

What's your wish?

It is frustrating to be on a search mission for old medical records.  I’ve doggedly looked for various records from several doctors in a variety of nooks and crannies.  But when a nondescript manilla envelope with a return address of “Green Bay Plastic Surgical Associates” arrived in my Chicago mailbox I was too terrified to open it.  It sat there on my desk, seeming to taunt me with its nonchalant ability to so easily ruffle my feathers. 

 But a day of reckoning had to arrive and I gingerly opened the package, pulling out 25 or so pages of photocopied medical records from my plastic surgeon for 20 years, Dr. Harold Hoops. If memory served me correctly, I went to Dr. Hoops after my original surgeon Dr. Thomas E. Lynn died several years after my accident.  While I still have not been able to find Dr. Lynn’s original records, I quickly discovered that I had in my hands Dr. Hoops intake records and nearly 20 years of notes on my case.

There in his chicken-scratch of a doctor’s scribble were his notes on the history of my case: 

Medical Records : Chicken-scratch of doctor's scribble

Post-traumatic burn scars of the right leg and buttock; burned at home, age 2, at home stepped on lighted burner, stove, pant leg caught fire; initial care by Drs. Lynn and von Heimburg; St. Vincent Hospital, 3 months.

With just these few couple notes, I had confirmation of the stories I’d heard my whole life.  I kept flipping through the pages and then I saw it — four photos of my own leg, front and back, taken at Dr. Hoops’ office when I was nine years old.  It was hard to believe but I’d never seen a photo of my own leg like this.  I gasped in shock at the sight of it.  Then, turned the page and put the packet back in the manilla envelope.  I needed more time before I would be ready to look again.

“The Records…..Have Likely Been Destroyed….”

“I’m sorry I don’t have any personal recollection of the burn incident details although I do recall that there was such an incident,” Dr. Kaftan wrote to me the other day, in answer to my query.  Not only had my mother listed Dr. Kaftan, a pediatrician in Green Bay who is now retired, in my baby book as part of the team when I was burned but we’d known the Kaftan family as long as I could remember.  It was my Aunt Janet who recently encouraged me to call or write Dr. Kaftan — she had done the advance work for me and chatted with him about my contacting him.  I was excited to do so not only because the thought that he would have some recollections loomed large but because he was now the last remaining member of my team of doctors.  Drs. Lynn, von Heimburg and Hoops have all since passed away. 

“I am sure you are correct that the records of the Webster Clinic doctors have likely been destroyed……although I would be glad to inquire if you would like me to,” he helpfully offered. 

Ah yes, paper records.   An email that you or I send today lives on ad infinitum in cyberspace.  Paper medical records from before the 1980s are subject to records retention policies and typically destroyed on a schedule or shortly after a doctor retires.  Oddly, in our technology oriented world, they tend not to be converted into electronic records, the belief being that no one is interested in them any more. 

Medical records policies aside, I have to say this new information just sucks.  Dead ends and I do not get along.  When news of this ilk comes my way, I want to yell out, “Hey, I was seriously burned.  I’m not making this up.  I have scars to prove it.  Why don’t you people remember anything about it because I sure do!”  But that is how this particular ball bounces.   I will make yet another effort to contact the Clinic/s and see if anything remains.  Beyond that, there are a couple of people still on my list to interview about their recollections.  After that, my story moves ahead. 

Regular readers of this blog will recall that I eventually received my resolution on all this.  It’s that resolution that lead me to explore the accident and early records.  Whatever I find or don’t find from days gone by will be what it will be.  It would just be nice to have a complete picture though the reality is that all our stories are somewhat imperfect.

Everyone Has Setbacks

No matter how hard you try to avoid it, adversity finds it way into everyone’s life — with varying degrees of nastiness and of course, opportunity. That’s why I find Roger Ebert‘s story so inspirational. Thyroid and salivary cancer destroyed his ability to speak and still, he found a way awaken his voice.  It is courageous to let life transform us. Read this story from CBS Newshttp://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/01/02/sunday/main7205367.shtml