17 July, 2012

Missing Extremities

Sprinkled throughout my various posts are references to a rather remarkable medical history. Those references are sometimes quite specific but are just as likely to be vague. I am not the least bit reluctant to share that history, but when doing so, I hope there is something for my readers to learn. Other than learning a bit about me, I'm not sure there is a life lesson for you today.

In Minority Report I described my left arm and hand as hanging "limp without movement, without sensation, without even kinesthetic awareness of existence." This is no exaggeration, but neither is it the result of a stroke, the belief of most who notice. At Christmas of 1969, I was diagnosed with Stage II Hodgkin's Disease and in January and February of 1970 underwent radiation therapy.

A year later I had a swollen lymph node surgically removed only to find the disease had rebounded. That was followed with more radiation therapy in the fall of 1971. I also had more radiation therapy in the spring of 1972, the fall of 1972, and the spring of 1973 as I chased that damned illness around my body. I never had chemotherapy.

That's a lot of radiation, and most of it was delivered to my upper left quadrant, especially the left axilla. Although I have been disease free since 1973 (yay), in the early 1980s I began to notice some weakness in my left arm. All that radiation had scarred the nerves of my left brachial plexus, and additional scar tissue was slowly accreting. It became a vicious circle. As I lost sensation, I would do less with my left arm and hand which in turn accelerated the loss of muscle - so I could do less and less. Today my left arm isn't good for much other than filling in my sleeve and rather poorly maintaining my sense of symmetry.

I had already achieved at the highest levels in my profession before this disability became very noticeable. I never encountered the barriers and discrimination others often do, but as the atrophy has become more obvious, others are today more likely to offer assistance, usually awkwardly, and almost always assume I have had a stroke.

People, however, are funny about what they say or do. When I have off-handedly commented that no one touches my left hand - literally or by reference, those close to me have reminded me that I do. I usually agree but then add I don't really notice when my right hand reaches to help my left complete what it cannot. For example, if I want to reposition my left hand from wherever gravity has held it, I must pick it up with my right and move it. Such motions have become automatic and unconscious.

It is as if my hand is missing, and I no longer miss it. It doesn't exist for me. If I awaken during the night, I must feel around with my right to find my left. Is it uninjured? Is it under the covers? Is it on top of the covers? Did the dog take it?

I am left at this point to wonder if I actually do touch my hand. Really. Normally when we touch ourselves, there are two points of sensation. When I touch my left arm or hand, there is only one - that of my right hand. So can one ever touch that which seems no to exist? It's probably a question I should try to answer someday, but it's not a simple question. Some days, I am not even certain exactly what the question is.