Hands up anyone who remembers the 1970s TV series that popularised the term ‘bionic’? Lee Majors played Steve Austin, an astronaut who had life-saving surgery after an accident. The surgery was enhanced by machine parts which gave him superhuman strength and speed – as the Six Million Dollar Man, he became a force battling evil for the good of mankind, as various superheroes have done before him.
I think I can appropriately call myself bionic (though not superhuman) now that I have two replacement hips; my new left hip is but a scant three weeks old and it is settling in well. After I had my first hip replacement, my right, in 2015, I wrote:
“I began to consider whether there were parallels between my surgery and the grief path, which sounds rather indiscriminate, but it is a favourite game of mine to play ‘match up’. Measuring other events against loss and grief can often offer a new perspective for processing them. Breaking it down to the simplest level, both the loss of James and my hip replacement mean that something has been taken away from me, to be replaced by something else. In the case of my hip, a part of my self has been taken out and discarded as no longer functional. It has been exchanged for something new and shiny that works properly”.
I welcomed in my new hip joints. I greet them each morning with gratitude. I prayed them in both times, thankful that my body is sensible enough not to reject the new materials of metal/ceramic/plastic. The X rays show the new joints looking alien and shiny against the less radio-opaque bone and tissue and I am grateful for the skill of the surgeon and his team for the accurate placement of these implants. The weirdness of spinal anaesthetic and the sedation gradually fade in my memory along with the feeling of surrendering control to the Anaesthetist, who dictated when I slept and when I woke for that brief period in theatre. Surgery contracts time; I remember being taken back to the ward and exclaiming that it was dark outside – several hours had passed since I was wheeled off to theatre that afternoon, but it felt like minutes.
The truth is that successful joint replacement gives you back a quality of life which you welcome and appreciate; it is miraculous surgery in its way because it removes the pain with which you were living on a 24/7 basis. Postoperative pain and discomfort is temporary and it is healing pain – you know that it will improve day on day until it disappears.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the pain of grief. The person-shaped hole of loss can never be filled or replaced with something new and shiny. The best that you can achieve is to grow a carapace around the hole which shields your body, mind and spirit from further pain. The method for this is to surround yourself with as much positivity and resilience as you can muster, create new memories, and use whatever tools you have at your disposal to dispel the darkness of loss.
In 2015 my grief carapace was a decade old. With another three years to add to it the strength of the shell around the hole is subtly changed. In fact, I felt guilty when I was in hospital this time because for those few days, I hardly thought about James, or anyone else for that matter. My focus was almost entirely on how I felt, how I was coping with the pain, discomfort and indignities of the early post operative phase. Grief often makes you turn inwards but on this occasion it was an ego driven introspection.
When I came home I picked up my usual habits of referencing James on a daily basis. These can be described as regularly thinking such things as, “James would have enjoyed this”, or “James would have laughed at that”. It was only then I realised that I hadn’t included him in my thoughts and I needed to redress that. Guilt is part of grief’s territory; as time passes and you remember less often, you feel guilty for the less remembering – it’s one of those no-win situations!
The optimism of having new joints and the ability to once again plan walking comfortably over longer distances and hilly terrain gives me hope for feeling stronger and that spreads across the board. Naturally, strength helps you when you are coping with grief and loss. When you are feeling strong, you can move mountains. When you are feeling weak and disabled by pain and discomfort you cannot process things or move forward in any aspect of your life.
I can trust my new hips. I couldn’t trust the old ones. And now I can trust the passage of time to assuage the lowest points in the process of grieving.
Today, I am more than the sum of my parts. I guess I am a different person because I contain artificial replacement components. Hips are nothing! – I can’t imagine how people feel when they receive a life-saving vital organ, it must be incredible.
How fortunate we are in the western world! Today, the words from the introduction to the Six Million Dollar Man, “We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better than he was. Better, stronger, faster” are true in many cases.
I am grateful to the NHS for the opportunity to have had my surgery under the care of a skilled and caring team in the Nuffield Hospital in Taunton, following a relatively short wait. I would encourage others in the UK to look at the NHS website and check out the e-referral service. Some CCGs offer earlier appointments and surgery for certain conditions, if the waiting list for surgery exceeds the government target of 18 weeks from initial referral.