Life-Threatening

Tim Gilmer“He had pressure sores in the past where he’d continue to do work and he’d recovered from them, so we were all pretty stunned … because we had always known him to bounce back from them.”

— Tricia Brooks, on Christopher Reeve’s sudden passing in October 2004.

April 2, 2012: I wasn’t prepared for what a team of wound care nurses said to me today. Like so many of us, I had grown used to working and living a busy life despite unwelcome intrusions from pressure sores. The team had seen me as recently as last December, and the wound on my right foot had made good progress. I figured I could finish the healing process on my own. What I didn’t count on was the other wound, the smaller wound that opened and turned against me in an instant.

I know pressure sores. I had my first flap surgery in 1966, less than a year from rehab. A second flap surgery seven years after that. Another eight or nine sores that healed up on their own since then, all on my butt. But when I try to count the times I’ve had open sores on my feet, I lose track. I have only two problem areas there, one on the protruding ankle bone of each foot. But as soon as they heal, they are vulnerable again, exposed, just waiting to be scratched, scraped or bruised. Or maybe the skin gets too dry and a crack opens. Or a classic pressure sore — slow, insidious —develops clandestinely over time.

In all, I’ve had 30 or 40 sores total. In time, they all healed, so I just kept on doing what I’ve always done — being as busy as I want, sitting up as long as I want, going to the doctor as little as I want.

Once, in 1986, I got trapped by my carelessness. A sore on my ankle got badly infected, a raging cellulitis ravaged my right leg, and I ended up in the hospital flat on my back with a 104-degree temp and multiple white jackets threatening me with amputation, or at least a major skin graft. I managed to escape with neither and recovered at home in my waterbed with the constant devotion of my wife for a month.

Why am I giving you this sordid history?

Because today the wound care nurses looked at my left leg this time — and listened to my story of how it seemed to explode overnight. Now it resembled a giant inflated Oscar Weiner sausage with weeping blisters.  Chorus-like, they insisted: Go home and go to bed. Now. Elevate your leg, stay there until there is no trace of sores or swelling. Don’t work. Don’t play. This is life-threatening!

And I wondered. Did Christopher Reeve think himself invincible? Had I?

Far too many of us, after healing a few sores, try to go on living active lives with an open wound, as if healing will happen automatically. But who among us can predict when a common sore will turn deadly?

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