In short, I was told I had cancer, then I didn't, then I might, wait, no…
“The radiologist took a look at your CT scan, we need you to come in tomorrow to talk about the results. I know you’re very active in the ocean, we’re going to need to talk about your future…”
My wife woke me up in the middle of the night and told me she was taking me to the emergency room. I’d been fine went we went to bed, sometime around three am I started running a fever, and my left ear had sprouted a growth the size of a racquetball. I wrote it off as a bad case of swimmer’s ear and tried to go back to sleep. But there’s not much more persuasive than a concerned spouse. I was in the car and on my way to Wahiawa General 10 minutes later.
The ER doctor agreed with my opinion. It was a very bad case of swimmer’s ear. Just use the drops, it’ll be better in a few weeks.
I’ve had ear problems my entire life. It’s just something I’d learned to deal with. Wipe the filthy crust from your ear, put in the drops, wait for improvement, go back in the water. Repeat as needed. You get used to things, and by now, in my mid-thirties, ear pain and pus leakage is just part of doing business. I mean, what are you going to do? Stay dry? Play golf? Kill yourself?
This time things didn’t improve. The growth got bigger, and the resulting pressure became excruciating. It was pretty obvious something was seriously wrong.
Hawaii doesn’t have the best medical care in the world. We do have great health insurance (if you work more than 20 hours a week your employer is required to provide it), but being isolated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean means that you deal with a lack of options, some being terribly lazy doctors, others being overbooked and unable to see you in a timely manner. This causes problems when you’re dealing with something terrifying, painful, and unusual.
I’ll spare you the details. They’re more or less boring to an outsider, though to me they were white knuckle inducing. In short, I was told I had cancer, then I didn’t, then I might, wait, no, definitely not cancer. And that fucking sucks.
A CT-scan later they figured out that I had a skin abscess. A quick outpatient procedure drained, literally, a pint of pus from my head. Bandaged me up and sent me home.
My wife had recently been offered an awesome job on Kauai, but it started in three weeks. We couldn’t wait to leave the packed hustle and bustle of Oahu for the Garden Isle, so I put any concerns about the hole in my head that was slowly weeping a foul smelling pus.
After two weeks on Kauai things still hadn’t improved. The moment our health insurance went into effect I made an appointment with a local ENT to see what was up.
It wasn’t good. I was finally fortunate to be seen by a diligent, intelligent, MD, and the first thing he did was start cutting into me to relief the abscess.
“This isn’t good, Rory. I’m seeing a lot of granulated tissue, and I should have hit your skull, but I haven’t.”
Okay, well, I don’t really know what that means. I gave him a copy of my CT and went home to wait for his call.
Which is how I found myself sitting in front of a computer screen flanked by doctors as a radiologist walked me through some panic inducing news. I had a cholesteatoma on my left ear drum. It’s a type of tumour/cyst caused by repeated ear infections and ruptured ear drums. I’ve had hundreds of ear infections in my life, and have perforated both ear drums multiple times, so that wasn’t especially surprising news.
What was surprising, and not in a fun oh-you-shouldn’t-have type way, was the life-threatening infection it had caused in my mastoid (the honeycomb skull bone behind your ear). The doctor told me that it had most likely been there for a decade or more, and had been slowly dissolving my skull the entire time. What I’d though were ear infections had been pus leaking from the bone infection through a hole that it had eaten into my ear canal. Furthermore, it had destroyed the bone between the infection and my brain until there was only a wafer thin bit left between me and meningitis.
“You’ve been diving with this?”
“Well, yeah. I’ve been trying to get to two hundred feet.”
“You’re very lucky, Rory. The pressure should have pushed the infection into your brain and killed you a long time ago.”
So, okay, I should be dead, but I’m not. Let’s move forward, what next?
I needed surgery, urgently. It was a miracle I was still standing, the infection could spread to my brain at any moment, and, boom, lights out. Best case scenario, I survive and spend the next year learning to walk and talk again while my wife wipes my ass and I pray for death.
Funnily enough, I could handle that. I mean, sure, shit’s scary, but the problem had been identified, it was fixable. Surgery is never fun, but what are you going to do?
But that wasn’t all. They walked me through what would need to be done: shaving infected bone, removing the cholesteatoma- and the consequences of the surgery, hearing loss (no big deal) and…
I’d most likely never be able to surf or free dive or even put my head underwater ever again.
What the fuck is that madness? I can’t go in the water? Why not?
The surgery would leave me with almost no bone left in my skull in the area and the hole from my ear canal into the void would leave me at risk of life threatening infections for the rest of my life.
How the fuck am I supposed to deal with that news?
To be clear, I like to think that I’m a very good surfer. But, by no stretch of the imagination am I naturally talented. I’m a big guy and I don’t have great balance. Any ability I have is the result of decades of trying my hardest, of constantly struggling while watching other people surf better while putting in half the effort. I’ve put everything I have into this fucking sport, I don’t know how to do anything else. Every pursuit I enjoy involves being in the water. Without that stuff I don’t know what to do with myself.
In a split-second I’d just lost my entire identity. Everything I enjoy, everything I’d ever worked towards, gone. I managed to keep it together in the doctor’s office, then broke down sobbing in the parking lot.
I scared the shit out of some poor lady. She turned a corner to find a 6’2″, 220 lb guy curled in a ball between some bushes bawling his eyes out. A pretty embarrassing moment, especially since this is a small island, and I know I’ll run into her again one day.
It’s hard dealing with this type of news. I was hesitant to share it with too many people, and the few I did lapsed into your standard, “Everything is going to be okay” platitudes. Which is hard to deal with. Because, I mean, I know they mean well, but shit isn’t going to be okay.
Who am I now? How the fuck do I live without the things that make life worth living? I focused so much on this stuff without them I’m a worthless waste of space.
In a sick way I started hoping I’d die. I’m not suicidal, but having the lights turned out seemed so much better than facing an existence where I was totally rudderless. My dreams, my goals, my future were all dead, not much point in keeping my diseased hunk of flesh I call a body ambulatory.
Thank heavens for good health insurance. Three days later I was on a plane to LA, to a specialist at the House Ear Clinic, to the one person who could save my life and let me return to a normal existence, if anyone could. The nature of the infection meant I got bumped to the front of the operating list and after few pre-op appointments and a physical I was doped up, strapped to an operating table, and cut on, bone reconstructed by modern medical magic.
And so here I am. Stone deaf in my left ear, missing part of my sense of taste (a strange side effect, but one I’ve been reassured will improve with time) and looking forward to a time in two months or so when I’ve been told I’ll be able to return to the ocean and all the things love.
But I just can’t escape how close I came to losing everything. The idea that it could still be taken away, that something could go wrong, either now or in the future, lurks there in the background all the time. I need to expand my horizons, to stop being a one-dimensional person who focuses everything they have on one tiny aspect of life. But I just don’t know what to do.
How the fuck do other people live?