Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The spleen and other medical mysteries

The early 80's were a rough time for me medically.

I had two very strange issues. I'm a walking episode of ABC News "Medical Mysteries".

I played alot of everything back then. Softball, basketball, raquetball, tennis, golf.

I developed a sharp pain in my right heel. Real sharp. As in finally had to go to the doctor about it after a couple of years complaining.

The orthopedic guy felt it and said he was pretty sure it was a bone spur. A calcium deposit on the back of my heel from overstretching tendons. Sounded right to me. And also pretty cool. Like a real athlete with a real athlete's injury.

Then the xrays came in.

"When the hell did you put this in your foot?", asked Dr. Bones.

He showed me the xray. At the back of my right heel was about a 2 inch piece of metal.

"I have no idea. What is that?", I asked in amazement.

"I don't know, but we can dig it out and your heel pain will go away."

"But how and when did it get there?"

"You probably stepped on it as a kid. It went into the bottom of your foot and has been working its way out of you. And it is now telling you it wants out thru your heel."

In a few days, I went in for outpatient surgery and they took it out.

I remember a couple of things.

One, it hurt way more than he said it would when the drugs wore off. I called the doctor for more and he said to suck it up. I should have called Michael Jackson's doctor.

Two, the doctor handed me what he took out of my foot. It was either a hairpin or a large sewing needle. A friend of mine in the trinkets and trash business put it in Lucite and made it into a paperweight. It still is a great conversation starter.

A few weeks of shuffling around in one street shoe and one house shoe and it was good as new. Back to the games.

Played softball at least twice a week.

Had a company co-ed game on a Wednesday night. Nothing memorable happened.

The next morning I woke up with, well, a tummy ache. I went to work but went home about noon. The pain continued so I called the doctor.

"There is a stomach flu going around. Drink lots of fluids, lie down, and you should feel better in the morning", Dr. Predictable said.

Except I couldn't lie down. When I did, the pain got so sharp I couldn't breathe.

This was some bad stomach bug. That's what the doctor said, so that's what it must be.

I finally fell asleep sitting up with my head resting on the dining room table.

My wife found me the next morning and said, "Something's wrong. You're whiter than normal, and that's not good."

So to Dr. Predictable we went. He could tell I was in real pain. He thought it was appendicitis. But my white blood cell count was normal.

After a few hours of scratching his head, he sent me across the street to Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta to emergency.

The head of surgery came and poked my belly for a while. I was feeling good now.

"Mr. Burks, we don't know what's wrong with you. We just know that something is wrong with you. We're gonna open you up and figure it out", he said.

As much pain as I was in, those were welcome words. "Please, just make it stop."

A day or so later, I woke up in a hospital room. Tubes running in and out of me in odd places. Very dazed and confused. Very uncomfortable.

Thru the haze, I could see my family around me.

About then, the surgeon walked in.

"Sorry we had to take out your spleen, Mr. Burks. But you were lucky. Another 6 hours and you would have bled to death."

The shock of his words made me sit up. Which was a real bad idea. I had staples holding my gut together along a foot long incision.

"My spleen?"

"Oh, I didn't realize no one had talked to you yet."

I immediately began to imagine the rest of my life. No solid food. A bag hanging off my belt loop. No more active life.

"Don't worry. The spleen doesn't really do anything. You will go back to your normal life and never miss it. Oh, while we were in there, we took out your appendix too. Another needless organ. You'll be good as new in a few weeks."

What a relief.

"But Mr. Burks, a spleen just doesn't rupture like that. It takes a collision of some sort to cause that. Like falling off a motorcycle or a hard hit in a football game. What do you think caused it?"

I had no clue. Must have been some freak injury playing softball. Got swipe tagged going into second I suspected and it just caught me in the wrong place.

Being in a much better mood, I asked if I could get the spleen so I could put it in Lucite. Oh, what a beaut that would be on my desk.

Request denied.

So I just brag about my hysterectomy and show off my scar nowadays.

Little toes. Appendix. Spleens. Why do we have these unnecessary things? Are they the best evidence we have or some form of evolution?

Sure enough, in about 6 weeks, I was back to normal. Playing softball and the other things that make life good.

So I haven't worried about it since.

Until Sunday. The New York Times runs a front page article "Finally, The Spleen Gets Some Respect".

"Scientists have discovered that the spleen, long consigned to the B-list of abdominal organs and known as much for its metaphoric as its physiological value, plays a more important role in the body’s defense system than anyone suspected."

Oh, great. Next they will be reporting that the appendix is what keeps your hair from turning grey.

And by the way, years later it was determined that I didn't rupture my spleen with a swipe tag. At the aforementioned softball game, I was demonstrating for the co-eds the proper way to spit. One of them took exception and elbowed me in the gut.

Geez, the humiliation of it all.

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