November 21, 2003. The morning of surgery on Justin’s left foot had arrived, the calendar says we left at 5:30 am. This was to be the same surgery as the right foot, take a chunk out of Justin’s left hip, rebuild the outside of the foot, open the other side and remove parts of the diseased joint, put in a plate, more screws, sew it up and wait. I remember Justin having an intense wave of anxiety roll over him waiting to go into the operating room, the IV had not been a clean start, the anesthesiologist had popped in, looked at it, muttered, and said she would fix it, no problem. I can relate to that wave of anxiety, it hit me as I waited to go in for my second foot surgery, and mine was not even near the complicated surgery that Justin was facing. He laid his head on me. I willed my heart to beat slow, wishing I could make this all go away. The bond of heartbeat between mother and child, our children are the only ones who know what our heart sounds like from the inside. The anesthesiologist came to drip something in his line, I remember her joking with him that if she started to look twenty years younger, it was working. He laughed, at ease again, she looked at us and promised to take care of him. Doug stayed with him again, Justin had a rough go of it this time, a lot of pain that would not let up.
We had Thanksgiving at home that year, Justin came out to the table for a few minutes
and we snapped a quick picture. You can see the pain in his eyes. I remember it as a wonderful day though, quiet, peaceful. Justin lived on the couch for years it seems, it was just easier to get in and out of and kept him close to everyone.
Justin started physical therapy the end of December and something was just not right. We made frequent trips to the surgeon and Justin was getting rebound migraines from the pain meds. Justin’s back was also curving and the enforced stillness was weakening his muscles even further. We worked with a personal trainer at the gym to try and strengthen his back muscles to relieve the pain he was in was in from his spine.
April was a difficult month, the left foot did not heal correctly. Not the surgeon’s fault, the deformity in the left foot was larger than the right, his post-op foot was misshapen and painful. Dr. Guyton told us that he would clear his schedule and get Justin in as soon as possible for a second surgery on the left foot. A sub-talar fusion, would require two four inch screws through Justin’s heel to fuse the joint, he would also need more bone to graft. His hips could not be harvested again, so the doc took a chunk out of his shin to rebuild part of the left foot. At this point we were racing the clock, Justin was adamant about not missing another year of college, the fusion would take a minimum of 12 weeks to fuse. Justin had 14 weeks before the 2004 fall semester started. May 14th Justin goes in for the sub-talar fusion. Another stay in the hospital, another huge bandage from his toes to his knee.
Three days later Ryan and I were at the vets with our older cat and there were kittens, adorable homeless kittens. Ryan looks at them, looks at me and says “Justin would love a
kitten, it would help him feel better.” I thought of that boy all cut up and pale, told Ryan to pick one out. Took me calling Doug twice at work to tell him what I had done. But the moment of spilling that kitten into Justin’s lap was priceless.
No physical therapy this time, the bone needed to fuse, so be still and wait. July 28th, Justin can try walking without the protective boot. Foot looks good, so different than eight months ago. August 11th, Justin goes back to Union Memorial, he is supposed to leave August 29th for Franciscan to start his sophomore year and he hasn’t been cleared by his surgeon yet. Doc clears him, tells him to take both his boot and his crutches back to school with him. Doug and I looked at each other, for as gentle as Justin was, he had an iron will, not stubborn, but strong, determined.
We got Justin’s room assignment later that week. The college had put him in Bonaventure Hall. Bonaventure is at the bottom of the winding hill up to the main campus. The grizzly bear momma in me came out, so ready to call the school, they knew of his surgery and really, the bottom of the hill? Justin was like no worries, I will be fine, you don’t have to call. We took Justin back to school and got him moved in, made sure his boot and crutches were with him, not that he ever used them. He was smiling, happy to be back at Franciscan.
The fusion healed nicely, foot was stiff and still painful, but was far more stable. We scheduled a fourth surgery for December 21st, 2004. The surgeon was going to remove the four inch screws from his left foot and remove a cyst which had grown over one of the scars on his right foot. Yeah, both feet operated on at the same time. This time we were at a surgical center in Hunt Valley, a more relaxed setting.
My heart took a picture that day which I will never forget, Justin walking into the operating room, smiling and laughing with Dr. Guyton. I was and still am amazed at his courage. After surgery a nurse handed me a sealed, sterile bag with Justin’s screws in it, I shuddered to see what had been in his foot. Justin couldn’t believe I was keeping them. I can’t hardly believe what I so flippantly told him, I said that they were first class relics, no way I was tossing them. Warped Catholic humor, I know. Justin shook his head and laughed, saying something about how only a Catholic mother would even think to say something about relics.
That was a hard Christmas that year, again we were so busy, and it was the second Christmas in a row that Justin was recovering from surgery. I remember it being Christmas eve and not having even lights on the tree and being so tired I couldn’t see straight. Doug and Ryan played music for two Masses that Christmas eve. I felt so guilty, still do, about not having the tree done. Justin loved the Christmas tree, he loved the lights, the ornaments, the way the cats would play with the ornaments. I think I may have eventually gotten the lights on the tree sometime that night. I fretted about him, he had to keep both feet elevated, I couldn’t figure out how he could manage going back to school and walking the hill up to the main campus in just three weeks.
When Doug and I went to Franciscan this summer for a conference, one of the things we wanted to do was to walk the hill from Bonaventure to the main campus. It is almost a half mile one way with an incline of 117 feet. I don’t even know how the boy stood to get a shoe on, much less walk with a backpack up and down the hill. But he did. He had a great spring semester, changed his major and stayed at school all summer taking classes. The calendar is dotted with trips to Union Memorial, the left foot was doing very well. Fusing the sub-talar limited the range of motion, and there would be arthritis, it already showed on the x-ray, but it was less painful and his foot looked good, the deformity gone. The surgeon did share that there were certain things that Justin probably should not do again, karate, running, extended bouts of walking, strenuous hiking where terrain would be uneven. They also talked about the possibility of fusing the right foot in the future. Justin now could compare the difference between the feet, and said that he wished the right foot was fused also, the surgeon agreed that it would be a good option. But not yet, Justin said he would deal with the near constant pain in his right foot, he didn’t want to take any more time away from school. He had made new friends and had re-connected with old friends, he thrived at Franciscan. I believe those years at college were his happiest.
There were two more surgeries ahead of him, but for the next eighteen months, Justin immersed himself in his major of computer science and life at Franciscan. He went to school for two summers, trying to make up for the year missed and the change in majors. We missed him and worried that he never took a break, he would come home so thin and worn out. He was so determined, he never gave up.