Wednesday afternoon Canberra time I walked into the consultation room of my orthopedic surgeon’s office and sat down on the elevated, paper-covered examination bed. Through the window behind me, Telstra Tower stood on tree-covered hills in the distance, looking like an omen from some futuristic society. I swung my legs slowly, looking left and right at my doctor’s diplomas, medical books, and family photos. In a few minutes, I expected him to walk through the door and tell me the prior day’s MRI results, followed by the date for amputation of my toe.
Two years of osteomyelitis (bone infection), and I had completely accepted that my toe was dead and gone. I went through extensive and costly medical treatment over the past six months as my orders took me across DC, California, and Canberra, just for the chance to save my foot. I knew the odds were not on my side after how long I’d left it in Tashkent.
And now I had to figure out what narrative I was going to tell myself about how I’d ended up here. The problem started with my inability to use the immunosuppressant medication I needed in Uzbekistan, an area considered by State MED to be tuberculosis-endemic. So I had gone without, and tried to white-knuckle it through the subsequent inflammation and joint destruction and what began as a skin infection but in a matter of months went to the bone.
So because I chose not to take the offer to medically curtail out of Tashkent and end my tour early, was I the survivor, the dedicated public servant who saw her hardship tour through? Was I the badass that refused medical evacuation and avoided the potential that MED wouldn’t clear me to return to post just so my husband, who derived his in-country diplomatic status from me, could keep working there? Or did I fail to make decisions in my own best interest, to create some boundaries with work, and to seek medical help despite the difficulty it would have posed for a short-staffed consular section? Did I just suck it up and cope in the face of pain like I always do, not realizing a chronic infection had become acute, and that my capacity to bear it should not have superseded the pursuit of a timely resolution? The answer is somewhere in all of that. I was not leaving Tashkent, period, for a million reasons. But as my dad has told me many times over the years, “You only get one spacesuit.”
I sighed, staring at the wall with an almost preternaturally heightened sense of awareness.
The doctor knocked twice quickly and walked in holding the report. He held it up and waved it at me, and in the same breath as hello, he asked me, “Have you seen this?”
I told him that I had checked the portal, and that the images were there but not the report. He handed it to me and said with his wonderful Australian accent, “There’s no more infection. You’ve gone and beat it.”
I scanned the paragraphs of text, dumbfounded. No further evidence of osteomyelitis present. I think I said things like, “I can’t believe it,” and “I’ll be damned.” He told me he’d had to read it a few times to believe it himself, and that he’d thought 10:1 the report would have indicated serious ongoing infection. With 97% accuracy, and 42 images to boot, you can take it to the bank: I beat this infection. I’m going to keep my toe.
So I have to stay on antibiotics through January, and in mid-December I’ll also have a toe-straightening surgery to prevent scraping and infection recurrence, but things are looking up. I’m even cleared to have my spinal surgery as soon as it can be scheduled, likely for after New Year’s.
I played chicken with a life-threatening infection, and I won. But I won’t do it again.
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men showed up, much much later, and found that in fact, they could put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
Oh, lucky me.