Wednesday, October 23, 2013

COLUMN: Robo-Dad

I've always told people that my dad's a superhero. Now he's finally got the equipment to prove it.

Some of the more eagle-eyed among you may have noticed last week that my usual half-page of narcissism was missing from your Monday paper. Instead, sitting next to that decade-old photo of my somber face was a notice that I was on vacation.

I'd like to tell you I was somewhere super cool. Maybe I finally got to take that long-overdue trip to England. Maybe I was driving up the eastern seaboard, checking out lighthouses amid fall foliage. Perhaps I was with a special someone and whisked her off on a romantic getaway. No such luck.

Instead, I was "on vacation" in a surgical waiting room in Peoria. Not exactly tops on Zagat's list of recommended getaways.

Don't worry, everything's fine in Clan Brown. In fact, things are better than fine -- my father is now the proud new owner of a titanium shoulder. And we're not talking about a little rotator cuff or something. Nope, he had a full-on Total Shoulder Arthroplasty. Or, in layman's terms, I'm pretty sure my dad is now at least 8% Robo-Cop.

My father has always been the most active human being I've ever known, so when he started complaining about his shoulder, it was a bummer. His inhuman tolerance for pain has always been legendary in my family -- I've been there when he's come down from his workshop with a gushing wound asking for a Band-Aid and some Bactine while my mom and I look on in horror. By the time he actually got around to seeing a doctor about his shoulder, the damage was already done. Osteoarthritis had wasted his joint away, and the pain he felt was from bone-on-bone contact. The operation was a necessity if he wanted to remain active.

I didn't want my folks to go it alone, so last week, I drove down to sit with my mom while Dad went under the knife. Now, as God is my witness, I swear to you that on one fateful aimless drive, I somehow managed to take backroads and get from the outskirts of Moline to the outskirts of Peoria in forty minutes. I was already running late, so I figured I'd try to replicate the trick. No dice. When you're out driving amok on rural country lanes with no destination or worry, it's the most relaxing thing in the world. But when you're doing it to beat the clock, it becomes a nightmare of speed limits, frustration, and phantom deer behind every curve.

By the time I made it to the hospital, I was prepped for the icy "you're-late" glare of my mom. Instead, I didn't miss a thing. Not only was the surgeon running behind, but the actual event was dragging on much longer than anticipated. Growing up in Galesburg, I was used to a laid-back hospital waiting room where friendly nurses give you updates and pastries aplenty. These days, and in a much larger city, a surgical waiting room feels more like a busy airport terminal, as large unsympathetic video screens list each patient's surgical arrival and departure (and hopefully it's the GOOD kind of departure.)

Meanwhile, every family is given a pager that vibrates to let you know that your loved one is in recovery -- or possibly that your table is ready at the Olive Garden. Sadly, when our pager finally buzzed and we were led into a room to meet with the surgeon, there was a disappointing lack of never-ending salad and breadsticks.

For what it's worth, the surgeon was a really good guy. He explained that once they got in there, they found Dad's shoulder to be in even worse shape than they'd thought. The extended time in the O.R. owed to removing bone spurs and having to reshape his worn-out shoulder socket -- but in the end, it was a success.

"Do you guys have any questions?" he asked.

"Now that my dad is partially made of metal," I inquired, "will he be required by either law or moral imperative to fight crime and/or thwart evil-doers?"

The surgeon didn't miss a step.

"Not for the first two weeks," he said with a smile. "After that, maybe some light thwarting."

Our biggest worry was how Dad would handle coming out of anaesthesia. He's had a couple of operations before, and it's never been pretty. A few years ago, a routine back surgery led to a full day of projectile vomiting combined with a lengthy soliloquy about sentient smoke detectors taking over the world. This time, we were ready for the chaos. Instead, we entered my dad's room to find him alert, joking, and already asking for food.

The nurses had told us they'd be coming in routinely to perform "neuro checks" - you know, "who are you," "where are you," that sort of thing. By the time they came in to do the first check, my dad was busy telling me the difference between igneous and sedimentary rocks.

"Umm," the nurse said, overhearing. "Neuro check all good. Is he a geologist or something?"

"Nope," I replied. "He's just awesome."

As you'd expect, Dad's shoulder was in a sling, but no sling I'd ever seen before. It was basically an armrest that immobilized the shoulder via a bizarre series of straps and buckles that criss-crossed his entire torso multiple times. The entire contraption looked less like a sling and more like something Lady Gaga would wear to the Grammys. It looked freakish, but it was also obvious that it wasn't on right.

Instead of resting on the immobilizer, Dad's arm was rolling off to the side. We summoned a braintrust of nurses to readjust the thing, but it became clear that none of them had ever worked on this particular beast before. I was reassured when one of the nurses went over to a computer and confidently started researching the problem... until I glanced at the screen and saw that she was simply Googling the word "sling." Umm, really?

The internet's a wonderful and magical resource of facts. You know, facts like our President is a Socialist Muslim, Bigfoot is real, Tupac is alive, and Nigerian princes want to give each of us $3.2 million dollars on a semi-regular basis. Am I wrong for at least wanting her to go directly to

Eventually, though, it all got sorted out. The nurses were super nice, the sling got adjusted, and Dad was as comfortable as anyone in his predicament could be. Better yet, the estimated 3-5 day hospital stay turned into ONE, as he was discharged the next morning. The only down side was that due to some prostate problems (likely from a thankless career spent aboard vibrating trains,) narcotics were out of the question. Basically they ripped the poor guy open, tore out his shoulder, replaced it with metal, and sent him home with a wing, a prayer, and some Tylenol. But as my dad himself said, it's better to be in pain at home than cooped up in a hospital bed.

The doctors are convinced that after a few months of physical therapy, my dad should be back to 100%. I, for one, can sleep easier. He might not be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound quite yet, but he's the only superhero I'll ever need.

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