Lum: It’s a long way to Denver
December 12, 2015
I had forgotten how long a drive it is to Denver, probably because I haven't made that trip in 15 years or more and because the beta blockers I'm taking keep me on the edge of a coma.
My daughter Skye drove me down, my daughter Hillery met us at the hotel in Cherry Creek, and the next morning we all went to National Jewish Health to speak with Dr. Michael Schwartz about getting my throat cut.
The throat-cutting is a transtrachael procedure invented in the 1980s by thoracic surgeon Henry Heimlich, better known for inventing or discovering the Heimlich maneuver. Further, according to Wikipedia, Henry married the daughter of ballroom dancer Arthur Murray and — trivia tidbit — is the uncle of the boy who played Potsie on the TV show "Happy Days."
Henry's idea was that instead of oxygen patients having to deal with cannulas — those bridles with prongs up the nostrils and tubing going over the ears — an easier and more effective way would be to cut a tiny hole in the patient's trachea and drop a plastic tube down it, blowing oxygen directly into the lungs.
Since I have been on supplemental oxygen for 16 years, I've gotten used to the cannulas (the best ones are at SoftHose.com), but now that I'm needing more oxygen, I have a lot more trouble with dried-up sinuses, a clogged soft palate and — for a couple of nasty months — copious nosebleeds.
Getting rid of the cannula impedimenta would be great, but for me the most important benefit of the procedure is that I will (probably, hopefully, maybe) not need nearly as much oxygen as I am currently using (6 liters per minute).
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We all liked Schwartz, who said we should probably wait until after the holidays, implying that otherwise we could do it then and there. He said that a Dr. McDonald could do the surgery and that he, Schwartz, would look into closer alternatives for after-care so we wouldn't have to keep driving to Denver and back.
It was all pretty fast — good thing my kids were there to remember, interpret and translate. Wait a minute — what happened to all the medical records I had handed over without (duh) making any copies? Not to worry; they would mail them back. Did I have that new pneumonia shot? Zap — there was the nurse rubbing alcohol onto my arm.
I was in a wheelchair, which always makes me feel more infirm than I am, and went up a floor for a breathing test, where I met Curtis, a young man who'd had a transtracheal procedure last week.
"People have reported that after three weeks, they're really glad they did it," I said.
"I was glad after three days," he said.
Not that there are no downsides. I find it hard to imagine a straw the size of those on the little juice boxes just hanging in my throat. It is not a tracheotomy, and I won't talk like those people in the anti-smoking ads, but there will be a thing hanging in my throat, and I can't imagine how that would feel.
And I own a lot of portable oxygen equipment that I won't be able to use, and of course those are all the lightest, while the ones I can use are the heaviest.
The "procedure" involves knocking me out, takes about 45 minutes and requires an overnight stay in the hospital, with follow-ups over the next few days and then every few weeks. I have to learn how to clean the thing (I put on a cannula when messing with the tracheal tube) and have to be diligent, especially in the weeks when it is closing up.
Despite all the literature and YouTubes saying how weensie the hole is, Curtis looked as if he had been in a barroom brawl on the receiving end of a broken bottle.
One thing that makes me nervous is that the procedure really has never "caught on," even though it has been around for over 30 years. This is because there isn't any money in it for anybody. It actually means less money for the oxygen providers, so people aren't getting trained in it and patients don't know about it. None of the local medical people had even heard of it.
I'm not thrilled about being a pioneer, but if worse comes to worst, it is easily reversible. I'm thinking of having it done after the first of the year.
Su Lum is a longtime local who regrets that removal of her turkey wattle is not part of the process. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.