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Moving in pieces, with and without morphine

As readers of my blog know, I moved to a new flat just after Easter. Unfortunately, on that Monday afternoon, just after we finished hauling most of the furniture (the heavy stuff at least) over to the new place, I slipped as I was leaping off the transporter vehicle, lost an argument against gravity and hit the asphalt more or less horizontally after a 1.5 metre fall.

I landed on both wrists and my left knee, and while my consciousness never left, reality sort of blurred away, as I rolled over on the ground and waves of pain began rippling through my body. People started assembling around me and the adrenaline faded away, then I realised that this move of mine was not going to end as smoothly as it had begun. My body refused to bend my left wrist and knee and I knew I was injured, but it did not hurt so much for me to conclude anything serious. I remembered the ice packs in my freezer and had my cousin fetch them, then let two colleagues carry me to bed to regain my bearing, but the pain got worse and I started to accept that I would have to go to the hospital.

Still optimistic ("it's just a contusion, it's just a sprain"), I crawled from my cousins car to the wheel chair, into the hospital and onto a bed to await the verdict. Still thinking about returning home tomorrow, I spent hours on the bed, being pushed between the x-ray, casting, and diagnostic rooms until finally I was told of my fate: multiple fractures of my left knee cap, broken ulna and radius on my left arm with splinters in the joints, and a fractured metacarpal bone on the right — my pinky's tendon was supposed to snap, but it proved too strong and rather caused the part of the bone to which it was attached to rip off.

They deciced to perform surgery on the two left limbs but to leave the metacarpal bone alone because of the complexity of the fracture and the proximity of all my hand's and fingers' nerves. Because everything was swollen like a balloon ready to burst, I had to wait three days for the surgery with casts and a splint on my leg.

The surgery was scheduled for Thursday morning and even though I was actually looking forward to it all (especially the administration of the anesthetic), I was simply too tired in the early morning hours, and the Dormicum tablet they fed me did the rest: I was asleep when we entered the surgery room and woke up at noon with new casts and a morphine injection pumping a comparatively large dose of the drug into my veins every eight minutes — apparently, my body was going through a lot of pain during the surgery, so the "pain management service" (in German, they're just called "Schmerzdienst" — "pain service", actually) opted to pump it up. Here's what I looked liked shortly after the surgery:

madduck post-surgery

Meanwhile, Gian-marco, my future flat mate, had spent the day packing up everything that was left in my old flat, where I had left an utter mess. A colleague of mine was to sublet the place starting that Saturday, so there were roughly 48 hours left to empty and clean it, and to hand it over. There are more pleasant things in heaven and earth than to have someone else empty your flat for you.

Morphine is a really crazy drug. Most people think of it as fuzzy and often joke about taking it if only they could get their hands on it. Having made the experience, I'd rather not take it again unless I have to. Watching television turned out to be impossible, even the weather report went too fast for me. Visitors appeared sort of blurry, I would often not follow the things they said, and it was definitely impossible to entertain thoughts for prolonged periods of time, or to engage in any sort of productive thinking. Organising a cleaning lady for my old flat and giving instructions to my cousin, who would hand over the flat took all my energy…

On Friday, I was to have an important business meeting with three people, so I organised a room in the hospital and asked the nurses to put me on optional morphine so I could be a bit more present during the meeting. As a consequence, I could press a button once every ten minutes for a dose of morphine, and with this new level of control, I began to reduce the drug amount in my blood gradually.

The meeting did not take place in the end but I came to regret my choice to reduce the morphine at around midnight, when the pain in my knee became unbearable. I kept pressing the button for more morphine like a madman, but the device would only deliver a new shot every 10 minutes. The nurse was not authorised to change that and instead gave me other pain and sleep medication, but not even the combination of morphine, Tramal (an opiod), Novalgin, Mefenacid, and Paracetamol could dampen the level of pain, and so I spent almost three hours in real agony, biting the pillow with tears running down my cheeks, until finally the medication won, I became indifferent (thanks to Temesta) and drifted off into sleep.

After breakfast the next morning, the morphine applicator suddenly had a fit, started beeping, and pumped more drug into my body than it should have. It took me about 20 minutes or maybe an hour (who knows…) to put my brain together, realise what had happened, and come up with a way to lift my finger to the button to call the nurse. Despite the horrible night, I told them to remove the morphine because I'd rather stand the pain than have my brain mushed like that, plus there are always plain morphine injections delivered by humans instead of machines.

In fact, the next night I could feel the pain approaching and since it's easier to suppress pain than it is to remove it, I asked for a sleeping pill and a morphine injection. The injection did three things: first, it hurt so much that my knee immediately became pain-free while nerve central was occupied trying to figure out what the heck had just happened in my right thigh. Second, it did not take three minutes to kick in, and it kicked in so strongly that I just barely realised that my head was suboptimally positioned on the pillow and the lights still on, but failed to do anything about it. I did not wake once until breakfast. And third, I am glad to know that morphine does actually (still) work. Pain is complex, fascinating, useful, sometimes even pleasurable to some, but when you know the cause and you'd rather make it stop, it's comforting to know that there are ways — the previous night had instilled some doubt in me.

From then it was all downhill and I left the hospital after eleven days on Thursday, got by without pain medication the same day and off the sleeping pills the next night. Two days later I was already racing around town in my wheel chair:

madduck racing in a wheel chair

By now I can actually walk again, albeit slowly, and even though I still cannot lift heavy stuff or get my hands wet, my hands are a lot better; on 21 May, the casts shall be removed and I'll be able to bend my knee again, but it may take up to a year to return to sports, such as running, to which I had just become addicted. In fact, I can comfortably claim that I had just reached an acceptable level of fitness just before the injury. Tough luck.

My mother has come to Zurich twice already to help unpack and with her invaluable help, as well as the help of Gian-marco and several others, we are actually almost done moving in. Ironically, it's actually quite annoying to sit and watch others do your work; I would have helped as well, had the roles been inverted, and yet I am still greatly indebted. Human relations tend to be funny like that.

Let me end with two points: first, Zurich's university hospital probably ranks among the best hospitals in the world, and that makes Zurich even more attractive to me (even though I certainly don't plan my next hospital stay). I felt very comfortable throughout my stay, had the impression of being in very capable hands, and had most of my countless questions answered. In addition, the hospital is very nicely surrounded by a park and could not be more central, which makes it easier for visitors.

And that brings me to my final thought: thanks to everyone who stopped by or called in to make my stay a lot more pleasant. I spent eleven days in the hospital and I got bored and annoyed for the first time on Wednesday, the day before my release. Most of the credit for those ten days of lack of boredom goes to everyone who supported me. It did help that I had Internet access via a convenient 2€/day GPRS flatrate (even though I could not really type), but it became crystal clear to me that visiting someone in the hospital, whether you're close to the patient or not, is one of the most beautiful gifts you can give. In the past I have neglected this opportunity occasionally; now I would want to make a special effort (even though I hope there won't be any need).

And I would not be a geek if I did not end this post with a reference to Debian: I know of a case when one of our developers ended up in hospital and two others (or was it more?) drove hours to visit and check in on him/her. Now even more than before can I say that I am proud to be a member of a project in which such things happen.

PS: this post took me about 4 hours to compose. Sucks to be typing one-handed.