Yes, there had been trouble afoot for many a year – since 1997, give or take, when shoes that had never ever given me trouble before one day caused me unimaginable pain for the first time. I had been standing for hours, and when I got into the nearly empty train to go home, I took the shoes off to get some relief. When it came time to put them back on, my feet fought me like she-devils. That was the beginning of my neuromas, one of which I finally had excised last week. (Headline courtesy of Judy Berkowitz, who kindly gave me the back page of her Daily News for this good cause.)
When I looked into foot surgery on medical websites, all told me to beware the dreaded Stump Neuroma – excise one and several grow back in its place, like the Hydra in Greek mythology. It is no exaggeration to say that my neuromas occasionally caused me to nearly faint with pain (if I wore the wrong shoes), made me feel nauseous and feverish, put huge dents in my habitual walkabouts, and made it impossible for me to do aerobic exercise. Several years ago I had cryosurgery on both feet. That did away with the ‘electrical shocks’ that many people experience, the nausea and feverishness, but I still had to wear the world’s ugliest shoes and still suffered varying degrees of pain. Here are my feet just before surgery. The separation between the third and fourth toes can be an indication that a neuroma is forcing them out of alignment.
Finally, seeing myself expanding like the universe, and wanting to get back to my previous exercise routine, I consulted my podiatrist, Dr. Rossman, who assured me that in the hundreds of neuroma surgeries he’d done, he’d never had a patient experience stump neuromas. So I bit the bullet, and Wednesday of last week had outpatient surgery on the left (worse) foot. I was told to take two full weeks off before going back to work.
Here’s how I looked right after my surgery. (The yellow cast is the hospital lighting, not jaundice.)
Here’s how Jean looked right after my surgery. Where's the justice in that? (Jean says: I labeled my photograph "Angel of Mercy" before sending it to Valerie.)
The twin thing we wrote about two weeks ago seems entirely implausible here. I ASSURE you, I would NEVER have chosen a hat like that, nor would I have chosen any of the other things the hospital stylists picked out for me. (Golly, you should have seen the weird little panties. I kept them, but I just can’t bring myself to photograph them for you.) Jean had the right idea, as you can see. That's what I would have worn on the operating table if they had permitted it.
And here’s how my left foot looked right after surgery. My mother would flip if she could see me lying in bed with a shoe on. (Jean says: It really was quite hilarious. As soon as they let me into the recovery room and I got to talk to Valerie and see that she was OK, I whipped out my camera and started taking pictures of Valerie in her lovely hair net, of her IV, of her foot, and basically of anything that moved. The nurses were quite lovely and amazingly tolerant of both of us.)
God bless Jean, who was my designated driver, so to speak. The hospital insisted I have one, and Jean ever so kindly volunteered to be it, even though she had a conference call that morning. I told Jean both before and afterward that I really appreciated her doing that for me, but it’s nice to put it in print, too. The picture you saw of the skylight last week was what Jean got to see in the waiting room (on what was named the Victor Borge Floor, although it was neither particularly musical nor particularly amusing) while she took her call. The lighting in my operating room wasn’t nearly as beguiling, but I only had to look at it for about a minute. (Jean says: I have reconsidered. Rather than just be an angel of mercy, I'd like to be promoted to sainthood. I aspire to being the patron saint of fashion victims. All of those faithful in Uggs and designer label pastel hoodie track suits highlighting their cellulite and VPLs - visible panty lines - who are stuck in fashion limbo need all the help they can get to pass through those pearly gates.)
Who knows why we want some of the things we want, but I wanted to see my neuroma following its removal, and I have to thank Dr. Rossman for kindly obliging me in that. They woke me while I was still on the operating table to show it to me in a little glass bottle. Really I would have liked to take it home (not sure WHY, but it is MINE, after all), or, failing that, to photograph it (ditto), but hospital rules being what they are (everything must be biopsied), I was happy to be obliged to the extent I was. And I was impressed that I was that easy to awaken. The neuroma was small, round and white. I would say it was scallion or marble sized. Since I can’t show you the neuroma, above are two scallions. They seem happier than my neuroma must have been. Imagine having something like that inside your foot for more than ten years! (Scallions from Play with Your Food, thenibble.com)
(Jean says: Valerie should have kept her neuroma. That way, if and when she ever got to be a saint, it could have been her verified relic. Then, when the final day comes and she's placed in a glass coffin in some far off catacomb, it could be placed in a tiny glass coffin on top of her coffin in a place of honor.)
I spent some time in the recovery room, where I received a nice adjustable black cane with a foam handle, and instructions on how to use it. Dr. Rossman predicted that I would be able to walk enough to get me home before the anesthetic wore off, and then I was to stay off my feet, with my foot raised and iced (thirty minutes on, thirty minutes off), for the next two days. No getting out of bed except to eat or use the bathroom. (Jean says: Valerie was amazingly lucid and mobile for just having had surgery. As soon as she'd slowly changed out of her hospital finery, we stopped in the 4th floor lobby long enough for me to get a picture of Victor Borge's photograph and memorial plaque. We got a taxi in no time and were soon at Valerie's place.)
I prepared for the two day enforced bed rest by getting lots of take out menus and keeping what for me is an unusual amount of cash in the house. Every morning I ordered a breakfast, lunch and protein drink from my local deli; every evening I ordered a nice dinner from one of the many local eateries. The problem with that, of course, is that one does develop quite a collection of boxes, a part of which you can see in this recyclable sculpture.
I had also thought to lay in a hilarious little girly ice bag (left). My ice maker is on the fritz, but it worked sufficiently to fill the bag when I needed it. Actually, I began to feel I could use ice on the bottom of my foot as well as on the top, so when my neighbor Mac called (bless him!) to see if I needed anything, I asked him to bring me the old favorite: two bags of frozen peas. The bags are generous in size, and the peas shape perfectly around the foot. (See left, all the comforts of home: peas, bedside phone, bedside take-out menu, and W magazine [this latter thoughfully provided by Jean]. Also at the suggestion of Dr. Rossman, I'm wearing pants with a very wide leg to accomodate the bulky foot bandages. These gray cords by Oska are 23" around at the hem. Geez - that could be somebody's waistline. Once it could have been mine! Jean ferreted them out a few weeks ago on a trip we took to Oska's Soho retail store. Twenty-five dollars, and I've just about lived in them for the past week.)
But back to peas: I’d do thirty minutes of peas, then put them back in the freezer, then for the next thirty minute round I applied the little ice bag. After a few days, I could smell the peas through the bag, so I threw them away, but by that time I no longer needed to ice my foot. Mac was also kind enough to keep me in fresh fruit. Many of my neighbors offered help, and friends came to visit, which was so lovely of everyone.
(Jean says: The frozen peas trick was my idea. They work so much better than other frozen vegetables because their round shape helps them curve around and mold to whatever body part, like a foot, a knee, an elbow, to chill it down. They even work as a cold compress for a bad headache.) (Valerie says: OOPS! Yes, I should have credited Jean with that. Must have been the pain killers I was taking!)
At Dr. Rossman’s suggestion, I also bought my prescription for pills to deal with pain and inflammation beforehand, so they were ready for me when I needed them. It turned out I hardly needed them at all.
I’m guessing a lot of people don’t realize what their immediate post-surgical limitations are. I learned very early that I didn’t have a clue. At one point, I was trying to put on my undies as I always do – one foot at a time, standing. With my foot highly bandaged, I began to lose my balance, and knew I was going to fall. The split second choice I had to make was: do I fall on my bandaged foot, or something else?
Like a mother with a baby, I chose to protect the weakest point, and wound up falling backward onto my window sill. I came crashing down on my elbow and my back. Happily, I’m not in much pain at all, but I’m mighty colorful. These photos were taken early on, and later my elbow progressed to Technicolor. I have a palpable dent in my arm where I hit the window sill, and a bump on either side of the dent. So take my advice: following foot surgery, put your undies on while sitting, not standing.
When my forty-eight hours were up, I went to see Dr. Rossman, who changed my bandages, and told me to keep the new bandages for the next ten days. Like a good New Yorker, I complained about my blue bootie, and asked if I couldn’t have a black one. I could, and free of charge! We discussed showering, and when I didn’t like the fuss of Saran-wrapping my leg, Dr. Rossman said I could purchase an over-the-knee plastic boot with a flexible rubber opening. The boot, however, cost $30. I guess it was not considered part of the surgery.
I asked the doctor if I could walk from his office to the nearest Staples, two blocks away, and he allowed that (but from Staples I was to take a taxi). At Staples I bought a package of white one inch round mailing seals. When I got home, I stuck them all over my black cane and new black bootie. Not that I didn’t like them pure black, but I wanted to customize them, and give them a sense of humor. Stickers (in polka dot shape) seemed like the easiest way.
The stickers come 600 to a pack, so I’m set not only for this surgery, but the next one (the neuroma in the right foot) as well. Here I am in dotty splendor.
(Jean says: People stop Valerie on the street and ask her where she bought her cane and where she got her surgical boot, not realizing she had customized the over the counter models. Her polka dotted durable medical equipment and bootie are a big hit. One woman told us today that she had just seen an NBC news interview with Joan Rivers talking about how fashion designers are now producing high fashion hospital clothing and velcro plastic casts. As always, that Valerie is way ahead of the curve!)
I tried showering with the plastic boot the same day. It works, but you don’t want to leave anything to chance, so I was advised to try to keep that leg up. I stood on the one leg, and balanced the other on the lip of the bathtub.
I feel like I’m getting a little Captain in me, to quote the commercial, every time I shower now.
(Jean says: I am definitely more risk averse than Valerie. Falls are the number one cause of adult injuries in the U.S. When I had my foot surgery, I invested in a plastic shower stool that I passed on to the next friend having surgery. It was sort of the shower stall equivalent of the Traveling Pants. I must mention that this is more easily said than done. The fact that Valerie's tub is walled off by sliding glass partitions does limit her options.)
I (back to Valerie) would also like to take a moment to recommend that anyone looking for a stock pick should invest in surgical supplies. At $30 for a simple plastic boot, there’s got to be an enormous profit margin in it. Things like these never go on sale, and I’ll bet most people throw them away after surgery, not wanting the reminder, never thinking there’ll be another similar surgery, and not expecting anyone else will want to borrow it. So they don’t get recycled, the way blue jeans would.
(Jean says: Valerie has pierced the corporate veil. Durable medical equipment, prosthetics, orthotics and supplies are a multi-million dollar a year industry. Less durable (aka disposable) medical equipment is even more lucrative. When Valerie was discharged from the hospital, she was given two plastic ice bags which could be activated by shaking and twisting. The problem is, after two hours, they permanently lose their chill and are designed to be thrown away. How many tons of junk will it take before somebody notices the mountains of disposable wastage adding to our landfills? Arrrrgh.)
The stocking was hung in the bathroom with care, in hopes that... [fill in the rhyme according to your own taste]
The hardest part of staying at home was dealing with my free time. I had the foresight to sign up for Netflix, thinking I'd watch movies till the cows came home, but when I discovered I couldn’t just press a button and watch whatever I wanted on a Netflix channel, I lost interest. One game I played with the TV was channel surfing, and taking bets with myself as to how many times I could hit the channel button and come up with a straight flush (pun unintended, but welcome) of commercials. I got a lot of good runs on that one, but after a while it wasn’t very challenging anymore.
(Jean says: Sometimes, the programming planets do align. Life imitates art. The day I set aside for spring cleaning and moving my winter wardrobe into storage to make room for summer attire, A&E sponsored a "Hoarders" marathon. Can you spell i-r-o-n-y? From 8 AM to 11 PM, back-to-back stories of fellow hoarders driven to the brink of outside intervention helped keep me focused on my task of winnowing down the motherlode. As my husband would say, it's like trying to bail the ocean with a pail!)
Another game was how many reality shows I could spot in any given time slot. They were phenomenal in number, but not at all phenomenal in content, except for their phenomenal inanity quotient. Didn’t Bruce Springsteen write a song called something like ‘1000 channels and nothing on’, maybe fifteen years ago? What would he call that song if he wrote it today? And wouldn’t it be really easy to fix that by allowing viewers an a la carte menu? Me, I would ask for Turner Classic Movies, Independent Film Channel, Ovation, Bravo, PBS, and maybe a few others like Spyke and SiFi. That’s seven. Let’s make it a round 20, because I know there are some good channels I’ve accidentally omitted. But if everybody had the right to cherry pick their favorite 20 channels, and drop (that is, not pay for) the rest, you can bet that TV would find a way to get interesting again. Why doesn’t someone look into that?
After I was allowed to spend less time in bed, I busied myself with projects like reading my collection of vintage (March and April) newspapers, editing and organizing my photo collection (digital and pre-digital), doing some mending, finding appropriate places for the damnable papers that accumulate in one’s life and on one’s table, and cleaning out my filing cabinet. I have needed most of the two weeks to make any headway at all, and the pity of it is that only I can see the difference. If I’d painted my apartment, everyone would oooh and aahhh. But I’ve done something far more challenging, and no one will have any idea. (Who's going to go into my stationery drawer and say "My goodness, I've never seen such well organized stationery!"?) [Above, a desk so messy, I had to have two. And that's not counting the FOUR large shopping bags of newspapers, newspaper clippings and magazines I plowed through. All that remains now is one small but intransigent shopping bag.]
After less than two weeks, I'm already tiring of the bootie, since the shoe height differential forces me into a limp and probably exacerbates my mild scoliosis; and the bandages prevent me from taking a long muscle-soothing bath. But the hardest thing for me to adjust to has been walking with the cane. I won’t need it much longer, so I have no complaints, but it affects everything. I walk more slowly, I navigate less easily and without grace. As a New Yorker, I think of jaywalking as my birthright, but with a cane you do so at your own peril. A pedestrian has rights at the corner and in the crosswalk during green light. If you finish crossing the street after the light changes, cars can see you and cut you some slack. But if you step off the curb in the middle of the street, you can’t take that courtesy for granted. This afternoon (Sunday), with no traffic, I jaywalked to my heart’s content (here, jaywalking between two choice cars – a vintage baby blue Comet and a fire engine red Chevy truck built like a giant toy), but on my few weekday forays out I’ve hewed to the straight and narrow (just like a tourist!).
(Jean says: The first lesson I learned when I moved to New York in 1974 is that life on the streets is like pinball - when you are off the curb, you are "in play"! There is an aggressive subset of Big Apple drivers who actually speed up when they see someone start to cross the street more than half a block away.
The blue automobile in the photos is actually a 1964 Mercury Comet Caliente in primo condition with a rose etched into the glass wind wings. People born before the 1970's probably do not even know what those little windows are - small rectangular windows partitioned at the fore of the front seat windows which, when cracked, directed air across the inside of the window. They prevented fogging and increased air circulation. From the outside of the car, they resembled tiny wings.
This particular vehicle, owned by Jodi Head's boyfriend Robie, is the East Village's unofficial harbinger of spring. When the weather warms up, it appears on the block, instantly cheering up the place. Thanks to Robie's loving ministrations, the shine on the paint and chrome is positively blinding. While we were taking pictures, he was hard at work polishing the white wall tires. His left elbow is visible on the left side of the car hood!)
At long last Valerie continues with her cane spiel: To be fair, the plus side of the cane has been that people have offered me their seats on the bus. Our friend Judy Berkowitz, who just last week was delivered from her cane after a three month stint with it, said the same about consistently being offered a seat. So hats off to New Yorkers. I haven't yet had to ask for a seat, and was really touched when people were so accommodating of their own free will.
(Jean says: The universe is in balance as long as the courtesy of NYC's bus riders offsets the hostility of its more predatory automobile drivers. I was on crutches for six weeks in 2006 post-total foot reconstruction. I distinctly remember twice being nearly mowed down by drivers who slowed up after passing me just to hoot and holler. Grand Theft Auto ain't just a video game.)
This posting could just as easily be entitled INJURIES: THE PROLOGUE. Sometime in the coming weeks, we hope to bring you the stories of my indomitable octogenarian Auntie Anne, who broke an elbow defending her purse from a would-be mugger this past Mother’s Day (he was caught, and confessed), and my artist friend Lynn, a woman of a certain age, who recently broke fingers on both hands in a fall. Injuries are a challenge at any age, but the older we get, the more resourceful we have to be. And we are!