des moines, Faith and Values, healthcare, humor, Iowa, life, mental health, obesity, Pop Culture

Juicy details of surgery gone exactly as planned

My friend Mimi pulled her SUV up to the emergency room doors at Iowa Lutheran Hospital early Friday morning.

The first thought I had: “My mother died here.”

That was as grim as my thoughts got on the day that I had arthroscopic knee surgery to fix a torn meniscus in my left knee.

The procedure was practically without risk. I fretted in the weeks leading up to the surgery. My mind explored every possible disaster scenario.

But, in the end, I just let the process play out.

I took a picture of a children’s surgery bed that looks like a Jeep and posted it to Instagram. I suppose I was too big for it, which I was, but I wished I could have gone to the operating room in such a slick ride.

We arrived at 5:30 a.m. The time passed quickly in a barrage of questions, paper signings, and explanations to the procedure.

I tried to pay attention to the details, but the only clear thought I kept in my head is that I just wanted this to be done so I could go back home and watch Johnny Carson reruns on PlutoTV.

My IV included Ringer’s lactate.

This thrilled me. As a boy, I watched “Emergency!” — the Jack Webb TV series about the early Los Angeles County Fire Department paramedic program.

Dr. Brackett constantly ordered Ringer’s lactate for the patients whom paramedics Johnny Gage and Roy DeSoto brought to the fictional Rampart General Hospital.

I had a plastic doctor kit as a boy and I would give shots of Ringer’s lactate to my late father when I played “Emergency!,” complete with my red firefighter’s helmet with the official Rescue 51 sticker.

No matter how old I get, I never seem to let go of the heroes I met through the fuzzy images on the box in the living room or the four-color panels in the pulped pages of comic books.

The anesthesiologist visited to explain his role in the procedure. I was tempted to make an “Ugly John” joke from “M*A*S*H,” but I decided not to because that’s a deep cut even for people old enough to have watched “M*A*S*H,” which this doctor clearly was not.

The surgeon came in. We shook hands.

And then we were off to operating room, No. 10, I believe. I stepped off the cot and got onto the cold, metal operating table. The anesthesiologist asked me to scoot back about a foot. I did. I leaned back onto a pillow. I wondered how long it would take for me to fall asleep.

The next thing I remember is seeing my friend Karen Powell in post-op. Her husband Ric Powell taught and coached baseball when I was a student at East. We were good and close friends. I chatted with Karen about her children and grandchildren.

I met Mimi in my recovery room. The surgeon told her I had two tears of my meniscus, which accounted for the acute pain I’d felt since the joint broke bad in late June. He cut out the damaged portion and cleaned up the remaining tissue.

The news of two tears made me feel better. I am not a person who listens to his body well. I always believe I’m making too much out of something, that the pain is just temporary or not really a problem. So many people donated money, food, and time to make the surgery possible; I felt like the injury needed to fit the charity — it damn well better have been seriously painful.

And it was.

Rest assured, all you beautiful people who helped me: You got your money’s worth.

That, of course, isn’t something anyone asked of me. That’s just one of those terrible self-deprecating thoughts I have — that I don’t deserve the love people show me. That’s a work in progress, but I’m learning.

In recovery, my nurse worried about my blood-oxygen levels. I explained that one of the side effects of obesity is a condition where my belly fat pushes up against the bottom of my diaphragm, preventing me from drawing full, deep breaths.

The nurse adjusted the angle of the cot and my blood-oxygen rose to the appropriate level.

Soon, I pulled on my Incredible Hulk T-shirt and gray shorts. The nurse helped me with my shoes. I noticed the bandages wrapping my leg from above the knee to the ankle.

My foot was orange. This alarmed me, but the nurse said the doctor painted on a disinfectant as part of the surgery. It would wash off when I showered in about three days.

They wheeled me out to the front door and Mimi whisked me to the pharmacy to pick up my medication.

Parents 2.0 came over in the early afternoon.

Mom 2.0 took my laundry home. Dad 2.0 emptied the humidifier collection tray and washed my dishes. I felt decent for having been unconscious on an operating table with a doctor cutting ripped cartilage out of my leg only a few hours earlier.

Soon, I snuggled into bed with Grumpy Bear. Lorde’s excellent new album, “Solar Power,” played on my speakers as I drifted away.

The last few days have been tougher than the surgery day.

Anesthetic makes your body sore. I felt like I had fought 12 rounds with the Hulk. My body was sore all over and even sitting up required effort.

Kind people brought me food. My good friend Tyler Teske and his wife, Sarah, donated three meals and some snacks. My friend and colleague, Sara Sleyster, brought some beef burgers. And my friend Sarah Huffman, a bartender at Jethro’s, brought me some boneless wings and applesauce.

There were other people who helped me not named Sarah or Sara, but I couldn’t resist the idea that two Sarahs and a Sara were part of the team that nursed me back to health.

The biggest surprise of recovery so far has been the thing that last thing to return to normal is your bowels.

I took more stool softeners and milk of magnesia than pain medicine, but No. 2 finally arrived with some consternation at 11:13 a.m., Monday.

I recognize such disclosures are indelicate, but, come on, everybody poops. There’s a children’s book about it.

So, here we are, a week out from the beginning of my last semester of classes before student teaching.

I can stand and walk short distances without my cane. There are still bouts of pain in the knee. The bandages are off. Showers are on.

And the great adventure lurches forward.

Daniel P. Finney wrote for newspapers for 27 years before being laid off in 2020. He teaches middle school English now. He writes columns and podcasts for, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating $10 a month to help him cover the expenses of this site.
Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311.

des moines, Faith and Values, healthcare, Iowa, life, mental health

Getting through surgery with Grumpy Bear

Problems occur in the space between emotional reaction and intellectual understanding.

I understand that the surgery I’m having on my knee sometime after 5:30 a.m., Friday, is a low-risk procedure.

The surgeon used the phrase “almost no risk.”

People who’ve had the surgery, including Dad 2.0, reported a relatively easy recovery and great improvement in their mobility.

I know this.

I do.

But that does not change the fact that I’m scared.

I had dental surgery to remove wisdom teeth when I was 18. That’s the only time I was ever under general anesthesia.

The hospital asked me about a living will.

Again, I know that’s just standard protocol.

Yet, the thought of it feeds the part of my brain that runs on grim thoughts.

I don’t believe I’m going to die on the table for arthroscopic knee surgery to remove part of a torn meniscus.

Still, I am afraid.

I’m embarrassed by that fear.

A friend of mine underwent breast cancer surgery earlier this week.

The daughter of a friend is having her second major surgery on a hip that’s caused her great pain for a long time.

They’re people who face much greater risks and recovery times than I do.

I feel like I should man up and quit being a baby.

Nonetheless, I am scared.

I think that’s OK.

That’s natural.

The late children’s television host Fred Rodgers said, “Anything that is human is mentionable. Anything that is mentionable is manageable.”

So, let’s manage this.

Why am I scared?

I could die.

That’s true, but the risks are so low as to be statistically insignificant. I know that. I trust my doctors.

What else?

I’m worried it will hurt.

Well, it will. Arthroscopic surgery is still surgery. There are incisions, albeit small ones. There will be swelling and some pain.

The doctor will prescribe some medication to get me over the hump.

Also, I’m already in pain. Since I tore the meniscus in late June, I’ve been largely immobile and fighting constant pain with over-the-counter medications.

To prepare for the surgery, I had to stop taking my prescription anti-inflammatory medication. I still had pain on the medication.

I figured I wouldn’t notice it when I stopped taking it. I noticed.

Both my knees are swollen. My movement is extremely limited.

If the surgery improves nothing, which is unlikely, at least I will get the relief of being able to take my previous painkiller.

I am scared because I worry my recovery will be slow, especially because of my obesity, which could cause me problems in graduate school, delay student teaching, and bring my whole delicate plan to become a teacher down to ruin.

OK, that’s just borrowing trouble from the ether.

Let’s just have the surgery, take the nine days I have after surgery to recover, and then assess what needs to be done.

Drake University helps people who have accessibility issues. We’ll figure something out.

I am scared because this is new and new things are scary.

That’s it. That’s the big thing.

I’m a little scared before every new class or new job.

I have a friend that helped me with these kinds of problems for many years when I was boy.

His name was the Pink Panther.

He was a stuffed animal. He was my constant companion, along with my baby blanket. I still have both.

Old Pink is retired. His tail is flat from me dragging him behind me to Saturday morning cartoons. The fabric on his head is split and his foam is exposed.

He’s fragile, as I’ve learned things that are 46 years old are. Pink is retired. He sits atop my couch with Kermit the Frog.

I know Old Pink would help me get through my fears about surgery. He’d sleep right there under my arm.

But I am not a little boy anymore and I wouldn’t want to damage him.

So, I bought a new friend, a teddy bear.

He’s a Care Bear. I liked Care Bears as a boy, but I never had one.

I vacillated between Good Luck Bear and Grumpy Bear.

I chose Grumpy Bear. He’s light blue with a storm cloud on his belly.

Good Luck Bear was green with a four-leaf clover on his belly. He’s a fine bear, but good luck is just not my ethos.

Grumpy Bear has given me a lot of comfort in the days ahead of the surgery.

Maybe it’s silly for a middle-aged man to hug a teddy bear at night because he’s scared to have surgery.

I don’t think so.

Lots of people my age own pets. I’m allergic to the protein in the saliva of most animals. Contact with the protein gives me hives, swells my eyes shut,

It’s OK to be scared.

It’s natural, especially with new things.

And if I decide I need a teddy bear to help soothe my jangled nerves, then that’s OK, too.

If all goes well, I’ll be back at my apartment, Grumpy Bear at my side, watching Carson reruns, and focused on a new day — one without fear or pain.

Daniel P. Finney wrote for newspapers for 27 years before being laid off in 2020. He teaches middle school English now. He writes columns and podcasts for, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating $10 a month to help him cover the expenses of this site.
Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311.

des moines, healthcare, life, mental health, obesity, Unemployment

I’m too fat for an MRI at the zoo

Phone rings. The physician’s assistant from my orthopedic doctor is on the line.

Bad news.

Because of my weight (I’m morbidly obese), there’s not an MRI machine in town I can fit into.

“We even tried the zoo,” he said.

I’ll repeat that for people who think I made it up: They even tried the zoo.

You know the zoo, where there are elephants and rhinos and whatnot.

I’m too fat to get an MRI there.

They also tried Iowa State University’s famed veterinary clinic.

Nope. Not set up for humans. Legal reasons. Yada, yada, yada.

The physician’s assistant remained optimistic. Calls were out to Iowa City and locations out of state.

Unquestionably, this was the lowest moment of my life.

The torn meniscus in my left knee throbs constantly and makes the simplist of movements a challenge.

I’m to start my last semester of classes at Drake University before student teaching in the fall, earning my master’s degree and becoming a teacher.

I need to be able to walk to class, even with the assistive devices and a temporary handicapped parking pass.

I felt my mind slip toward a spiral. The pain in my knee ebbs and flows between a dull throb and the feeling someone is taking a rusty razor blade across my nerve endings.

How was I supposed to get to class this fall? Forget about student teaching.

Some friends kindly suggested disability. But what about the student loan debt?

What about my plan to do something positive with my life?

My despair had little time to overtake my mind.

The phone rang again. It was another guy from the orthopedic doctor’s office. My knee brace had come in.

Well, that’s something.

I went down to pick it up.

The guy strapped it on and showed me how to do it on my own. I stood up. It felt much stronger. The pain was still there, but it was reduced due to the brace’s compression.

With my cane, I could manage.

School was back on.

Survival was possible.

I could lose weight and get on one of the MRI machines and get the surgery later.

It would be hard. Damn hard. But what isn’t these days?

I drove out to the weight loss clinic in Clive. My nutritionist had moved back to Omaha, but the people were kind enough to let me come in to get a weight.

I got the number. I choose not to share it. I’m not ashamed of it.

I don’t want to talk about my weight like it’s a baseball statistic.

I don’t want its change, up or down, to be the thrust of my story. I am more than that number, whatever it is. I did that once, very publicly, and it ended in mixed results.

The last time I submitted to a weight was May 2020. The number I got Wednesday was the same. The clinician who helped me said I could safely shave off three or four pounds because I was wearing my clunky shoes and knee brace.

This was better news than I expected. There was a very good chance I weigh as many as 20 or 30 pounds more than I did in May 2020.

I began tracking my daily calorie intake May 12. Since then, I’ve cut calories by 34%. I also changed the quality of food I eat — more veggies and fruits, better cuts of meat, more home cooking.

Things are going in the right direction.

I stopped by the comic shop to pick up my latest funny books and got home exhausted, sore, and ready to rest.

I was proud of myself. Not too long ago, the challenges presented by this day and the back-and-forth between extremes would have inspired suicidal thinking. I would have started mapping out my overdose, my jump into the river, or hanging.

Instead, I called my therapist, but not in an emergency call. I wanted to talk through the disability option. He knows about such things.

To be clear, I don’t want to go on disability.

I want to finish school and become a teacher.

Persevere. Keep moving forward.

But the Cub Scouts taught us to always be prepared, so I checked out some facts.

I resigned myself to limping along with my cane and brace until I could lose enough weight to get into the MRI machine.

The phone rang again. It was the physician’s assistant. They found a surgeon at the clinic who was willing to do the surgery without an MRI.

I meet with the surgeon Tuesday.

That’s a lot of stuff for one day. A hell of a lot.

Sometimes the ride is filled with so many potholes and detours I think the car is going to come apart before I reach the destination.

But if I’m moving forward, I’m still headed in the right direction.

Daniel P. Finney writes columns for, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification.
Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311.