I wrote this for the “Facts & Arguments” page of the Globe & Mail. Their submission guidelines say that an editor will get in touch within a month, should they wish to publish a piece. It’s been over a month and I’ve heard nothing—so I figured I’d foist it upon the Internet myself.
I was living in Mexico when I first heard about necrotizing fasciitis. It was December 1994. My boyfriend and I were at the tiny Canadian consulate in Oaxaca City, poring over the long, flimsy, purple-inked sheets that were the Globe and Mail’s foreign edition incarnation at the time. We’d been in Oaxaca for months, and were pleasingly tanned but surprisingly homesick.
“Lucien Bouchard Loses Leg,” was one of the headlines on that particular afternoon. “Wow,” we said to each other after we’d read the article, “that’s horrible.”
I promptly forgot about necrotizing fasciitis.
Fast forward to 2011, and a different boyfriend. One glum, slushy day in February, he had a biopsy done on a strange lesion that had been lurking on his right calf, slowly taking on the tinge and shape of a ring nebula. The biopsy was at 9 a.m. He emailed me throughout the day: His leg was hurting a lot—but this was probably normal, right? Just a side effect of the procedure.
By midnight he was really, really sick. I got him to the hospital at 7 a.m. (He had emerged from his fever-and-pain stupor just long enough to help me improvise a sling with a couple of pairs of pants.) At 9, 24 hours after the biopsy, he was on a bed in the emergency area with an IV of antibiotics in him. At 1 p.m., an intern told us he wouldn’t be going home, since he was obviously very ill and no one knew exactly what was wrong. At 4:15 he was taken up to a room. He sat up in bed and said he sort of felt like some chocolate chip cookies. (“No,” said the nurse, emphatically.) At 5:30 his blood pressure plummeted and 25 (or so it seemed) medical professionals arrived and milled around his bed, yelling into his face and pumping him with oxygen. He was in and out of consciousness after that. Two surgeons told us that his x-rays didn’t show anything out of the ordinary and declared that he had cellulitis and would be fine on his current course of antibiotics.
He didn’t seem fine at all.
At 9 p.m., a third surgeon dropped by. “He’s way too sick,” she said to me, in the kind of voice that makes you feel both terrified and secure. “I’ve paged our plastics specialist. Surgery’s the only way we’ll be able to tell what’s happening.”
He went into the OR at 11 p.m. and came out at 1:30 a.m. The surgeon spoke to me, before I went up to recovery.
“It was necrotizing fasciitis. We saved the leg. A few hours more and he would have died.”
He had a second surgery; he had a vast, open-to-the-muscle wound, which was horrifying but also looked intriguingly like a striped bass; when he went home he had a vacuum attached to the wound and wonderful homecare nurses who attended to it. Everyone, from hospital workers to homecare nurses to us, kept saying the same words: He could have died.
He had physio. He had a successful skin graft. He got back to running nine miles every few days. He traveled to Poland, Germany, France and Australia; he won a major writing award; we got married. We related the “nearly died” story every time someone asked to hear it (which was often), and the words came easily.
He and I are both professional novelists, which might partly explain this ease with words—but it’s not just that. Anyone who’s told a compelling personal story (“the time I spun out on the highway”, “the day I got fired”, “that summer I knocked my sister’s front teeth out with a swing”) knows that this story assumes more familiarity and sameness with every telling. And so it was that the “flesh-eating saga” took on the attributes of myth—words smoothly spoken, not deeply felt.
And anyway, he and I had coped—by all accounts, including our own—remarkably well.
“Fetch me some chocolate pudding!” he would call from the bedroom, during those first few months of recovery. “I nearly died!”
I would call back, “No! I saved your life!” (I actually did get him the pudding, every time—and there were several.)
In late January, 2012, a Mississauga woman died of necrotizing fasciitis. There were articles in the papers and interviews with doctors on the radio. One day, the articles said, she was fine; the next day she had surgery; three days later she was dead.
I read the words, and I looked at a photo of her, smiling into the camera with her daughter beside her—and all of a sudden I felt dizzy and tearful and breathless.
Delayed reaction, perhaps? Post-traumatic stress, sort of? Empathy and compassion, fundamentally?
“Something startles me when I thought I was safest.” No doubt I’m taking Walt Whitman’s words way out of context—but maybe that’s okay. Words and life; context and experience. Together they’re all so prickly, easy, unexpected, wonderful, sad.
I was getting lunches ready for my kids when I heard one of those radio interviews about necrotizing fasciitis. I had to stop and go into the bedroom, where my husband was. “Are you listening to this?” I asked. “Yes,” he answered, from deep beneath the covers. We didn’t say anything else. I crawled in beside him, where it was warm.