Friday, April 29, 2011

The Surgery

I feel I was chosen by God for this, to endure a magnificent feat and spread His word along the way! [Matthew 22:14 - For many are called, but few are chosen.]

As I move forward from what I believed to be the most critical of the all the phases of treatments I try to embrace and welcome the current series of chemotherapy infusions that I am receiving with open arms. The critical phase that I am referring is, of course, the surgery. Do you ever find yourself playing mind games in an attempt to alter reality or try to envision an upcoming event to be so horrible that when the moment actually presents itself, it doesn’t seem all that bad? Well that is exactly what I did preparing for my trip to Ann Arbor for my own personal dissection. I had every emotion you could imagine blustering through my head like a whirlwind. The anxiety, the uncertainty, and the fear continued to grow exponentially leading up to the morning of December 10th and started taking control of my thoughts, and essentially my days. I was fortunate enough to find that inner peace and temporary sense of tranquility as I awoke that Friday morning. I thought I was mentally prepared for all that was about to happen, but the truth is, I wasn’t--not even close. Maybe it was just because I hadn’t really slept in weeks and it was 5:30 in the morning, but all the events leading up to the moment that the anesthesiologist made me go sleepy seemed so surreal as if I was having an out-of-body experience. My last memory before being sent off to dreamland was the operating room itself. Not because it was the last thing I saw, but because of how enormous it was. There were so many lights, computers, life support machines, and people for that matter. Here I was lying on a table with nothing more than the equivalent of a large paper towel covering me, about to have a major surgery and there is a room full of people carrying on about their business like it was no big deal at all. I know they do this several times a day, so in a strange way their demeanor helped calm my nerves.

The anesthesia is injected, Errick is off in space somewhere, and the surgeons begin slicing. I don’t feel bad for being underprepared and for not knowing exactly how things were going to go. As it turns out, the doctors discovered quite a surprise themselves once they had me filleted open like the fresh catch of the day at some seafood restaurant. The cancer was worse than anticipated and was affecting many other structures than those originally determined to be in danger. 15 hours later and well into the wee hours of the morning when it was all said and done, they left me with just a third of my pancreas, a sliver of liver (actually about half), no more gall bladder, bye-bye rectum, they confiscated eleven lymph nodes, and let’s not forget that huge chunk of my abdominal wall that was removed and redirected as an internal patch. The surgeons were all amazing and I was returned to my family breathing and with a heartbeat. As you may have expected, that result was not a guarantee. Based on the amount of innards that they removed, you may think the remaining organs would be bouncing around like a bunch of bees in a mason jar, but you would be wrong. I couldn’t believe how tight my entire abdomen was after surgery. And as a parting gift from the OR, I received a nice dinner plate sized bed sore on my lower back just above my rump.

I don’t remember saying this; however, I’m told my very first words when I returned from la-la land were “Hudson, I woke up!”

My amazing and loving wife’s first comment to me was, “You went in my husband, and came out my hero!”

The anticipated 7-10 days of hospital recovery was grossly underestimated and my dreams of spending Christmas at home with my family did not happen. A few days after surgery, the recovery took a turn for the worse. Just for a bit of imagery, picture a football. The laces of the ball would represent the stapled-shut incision that begins at my sternum and runs vertically down a few inches below my belly button, while the smooth leather part would represent the rest of my torso. Now try imagining what would happen if you started pumping air into the already inflated ball and didn’t stop. The football would start to split in half at the laces until you could see the inside of the ball. Well as unpleasant as that sounds, that is exactly what was happening to my abdomen. Due to the excessive internal fluid production and the fact that my bowels were completely frozen and expanding with every bite of food or sip of water, my stomach was literally ripping apart at the seams. Needless to say, this wasn’t a good thing so I was whisked away for my second visit to the OR. All the internal stitches and initial patch-work was comprised due to the fluid so they had to re-do and double up on the pigskin (the patch material) and had to add a significant number of additional stitches to hopefully keep my insides from trying to escape again. In an attempt to prevent a replay, they inserted five JP drains into various areas of my abdomen. On one end of the JP drain, the part that remains inside the abdominal cavity was a long flat rectangular rubbery piece with a bunch of holes in it to draw the fluid, while the other end, which remains outside the body, is a large suction bulb about the size of a softball. Both ends are attached together by rubber tubing approximately the diameter of a standard pencil. Now I have about a thousand IVs, a ton of heart monitor wires, an epidural in my spine, and a maze of fish tank tubing flowing out of me that are anchored down by bulbs full of juice. Not a pretty picture.

With the exception of what I have been told and a few memories I wish not to remember, the majority of my first three weeks in the hospital is a complete blur to me. That’s right, I said first three weeks. There would be yet another 10 fun filled days, making my total vacation 31 days in total. There were definitely some big victories including two bits of great news while I was taking up residence at U of M. I had been so scared that this disease was genetic and that I could have passed this on to my beautiful son, so we decided to have some genetic testing done. The test results proved that my cancer had seemingly no genetic components and that Hudson shouldn’t have an increased risk of being diagnosed with this horrible disease later in life. What a huge relief! Unfortunately, he will still have to get routine testing starting 10 years before my diagnosis, so Happy 21st Hudson, have a beer and a colonoscopy! Additionally the pathology report showed that the surgeons were able to accomplish their goals and that negative margins were achieved.

Each passing day seemed to be different from the one before. My emotions and energy levels were up and down. With each step forward, there seemed to be a step back. This was very discouraging for me. I was so exhausted all the time and I was unable to get any quality sleep. The doctors experimented with a few different things in an attempt to help me get some rest, but they were unsuccessful for the most part. I must have had a bad reaction to the meds one night because I woke up believing I was a blue alien living on a spoon. I honestly thought that after all I had been through, my body just wasn’t strong enough to carry on and I was going to die. That was a really strange morning.

One doctor described my situation like this: my body was literally acting as if it was running a marathon everyday and that my nutrition and protein needs were outrageous and hard to fulfill. It seemed as if they were trying to force feed me food and protein supplements because that is something that I desperately needed. I was labeled as extremely malnourished. My body was essentially eating itself to keep up. During my stay, I had lost nearly 50 pounds. I was receiving a significant amount of intravenous nutrition, but those bags had such a high amount of glucose in them they were causing my blood sugar to sky rocket leaving me extremely dizzy and lightheaded requiring multiple insulin shots daily. Thankfully that resolved once the nutrition IVs were discontinued and fears of being permanently diabetic from the pancreas dissection were calmed.

A few days after Christmas the decision to remove some of the JP drains and my catheter was made. I was so excited because I believed that this was a huge step and that I could be released to go home to ring in the New Year with my loved ones very soon. One of the problems with having a catheter in for as long as I did is the likelihood of getting a lazy bladder. Well just as expected, my bladder had gone into hibernation. This meant that all the little muscles used to urinate weren’t functioning correctly so I could not empty my bladder when using the restroom; however, a significant amount of fluid came gushing out of me during one of my attempts. Where was this coming from? Well let me tell you. There was still a tremendous amount of fluid being produced and my abdomen was at maximum capacity creating a ton of internal pressure, so when I stood up to use the facilities, the fluid I noticed dripping into the toilet was all that excess juice being squeezed out of me. Every place there was an opening in the skin, there was fluid draining out. My stomach was like a big water balloon that had several holes poked into it. Clearly this wasn’t supposed to be happening so yet another trip to the OR was required for the third time. The fluid compromised the internal patching after the first surgery, hence the second surgery, so we were extremely concerned that could be happening again. Fortunately there wasn’t any real damage this time and they were able to insert another drain and suck out the fluid to rectify the problem.

The epidural I first received for my initial surgery didn’t seem to provide much relief, so it was removed and oral meds were tried. Well the experiment with the oral meds seemed to be a bust, so as a last resort, they placed a second epidural which actually seemed to work great. A day or two after that third surgery, it was time to remove the new epidural and switch back to oral pain meds. There were two major problems with this. One, the narcotics created constipation which was extremely painful given the fact that my digestive track and bowels had just been carved up. Two, they weren’t working. The doctors initially thought the dosages just weren’t right so they increased those, but as a result it was binding me up more and more. After a day or two of popping pain meds like tic tacs without any relief, I decided to play doctor for a few minutes and concluded that the constipation pain was worse than the surgical pain so I stopped taking the narcotics cold turkey. Looking back on the situation I shouldn’t have taken matters into my own hands and I should have tapered down on the drugs rather than stopping abruptly. In the following days after my executive decision, I started feeling really weird and the walls seemed to be closing in on me. I was going bananas and didn’t know why. It turns out that I was actually having drug withdrawals. It seemed as if I was losing my mind and the only thing that was going to help was time.

I can’t imagine what my wife was thinking and feeling as she saw me dealing with all these challenges, but I do know how amazing she was. The truth of matter is, I was really unpleasant and downright mean to her on several occasions. My actions and words were unintentional, but the pain and frustrations were pouring out of me. Regardless of why I was lashing out at times, she stood by my side the entire time and supported me unconditionally. I can’t thank her enough for loving me so deeply. Additionally, we had several of our closest friends and family members put their lives on hold to be by our side and keep us company. I feel so truly blessed. Trying to quantify just how appreciative I am is next to impossible.

In happy moments PRAISE GOD
In difficult moments SEEK GOD
In quiet moments WORSHIP GOD
In painful moments TRUST GOD
In every moment THANK GOD


  1. You're my hero, too, Errick. It takes a lot of courage, a lot of patience, and a lot of fight to get through everything you've endured. Honestly, it's one test in life I hope I never have to take, but if I do, or if I know someone else who does, I hope that I can demonstrate half of the strength you've shown in this battle. I'm glad you're still here pal. Thanks for fighting!

  2. WOW! We saw this all from your wife's side as you went through it, but she proctected you in what she said I knew that it was bad, I just didn't realize how bad. We are still praying for you enjoy the time now with your family. They obviously love you very much!

  3. Errick -You don't know me but I am a friend of Jane Swainston's who has been following your journey from the beginning. You have been in my prayers everyday! You truly should consider becoming a writer for you give Mitch Album a run for his money with your eloquence, humor and insight. Your challenges have been met with such bravery and an amazing ability to never, ever, ever quit! (This would go along with your loyalty to the Florida Gators....) Seriously, your legacy that you give each of us, whether we know you or not, is that we have such untapped power within each of us. You have shown us what can be accomplished when we work through our fears, don't let them stop us and meet them head on, as you have done! You ARE an amazing person! Thank you and God bless you and your family.

  4. You did a terrific job on this entry and are a very good writer. There was just enough "surgery" and then plenty of what is the most important...the heart and soul of you, which is what has really drawn so many to you. Your heart, your strength, belief, soul and love and dedication to family and friends makes you such an extroardinary person and one to be envied and revered. I believe you were chosen and for good reason. God's Blessing you AMLU

  5. Errick -
    It's hard to put into words some of the thoughts that run through my mind as I read about your struggle, but more than anything your strength and perseverance is so inspiring. I haven't been a praying man in a long time, but when I heard about what you were going through and having a son around the same age I do, really put things into perspective for me. I prayed for you and continue to pray for you to be able to achieve full health and enjoy your son and wife, free of worry and pain.

  6. You reflect God. I pray the reflection sustains you on your journey.