fresh face, decomposing bodies

The week of my one-year jaw surgery anniversary, let’s be done with this face transformation saga. Here’s my face, 11 months after my bilateral sagittal split osteotomy. (I’m on the right, for anyone who reads this but doesn’t know me personally.)

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So, I’m fixed. The face has healed with minimal post-surgical irritation, and I’ve now gotten the hardware removed from the elbow I broke last December, so that’s that.

Onto the next adventure: cadavers. I recently started studying crime scene investigation, with the hopes of either working in death investigation or questioned document analysis. If I go into the latter my MA in linguistics isn’t useless after all, right? Right??

One of the classes I’m taking is aptly called Death Investigation, and my professor gave us the opportunity to view an autopsy. This is something I’ve always wanted to do, but when I pictured it I imagined being behind glass in a student observation bay or something, watching from afar and avoiding all the SMELLS.

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So came the day of the autopsy, and I was geeked. I wavered over what to wear, opting for my coveted hospital scrubs (that I still wear to take care of children nightly; little do they know there was DEAD PERSON BLOOD on them and that my washing machine is not all that effective).

I was told to enter through the garage off the back parking lot, which right off the bat sounds sketch. It was a funeral home that looked more like a warehouse. I texted my professor, and he sent a technician lackey out to retrieve me. I walked through the garage, opened a door, and there was a 300-lb woman, completely flayed open, neck skin inside-out and covering her face, 18 inches from me. The smell was like rotting refrigerated meat. It doesn’t matter how cold you make it in there, that smell does not come out of your nostrils for hours.

I scooted past the fatflap-covered head and quickly donned a flimsy plastic apron and shoe coverings while whispering to the previously-mentioned technician, because apparently my professor, the one performing the autopsy, is rather picky and crabby and could not be disturbed. He didn’t say a word to me the two hours I was there. I was still getting used to the smell and to staring at the body. Her arm was hanging off the table looking like a regular arm, but all of her internal organs were sliding all over the table and her legs had been haphazardly sewn up with twine post-mortem after her long bones were harvested.

My knees got weak, which greatly disappointed me, and I told myself that I would not sit down under any circumstances, unlike the other student from my class who did immediately after walking into the room, then made the excuse that it was just because “her feet were tired.”

There was another doctor working on the body, who I assume was some sort of protege/medical resident or something. He was a few years older than me, and I liked imagining him as a semi-scary tattoo artist before he started cutting bodies up for a living. He had two full sleeves and wore a black butcher’s apron, as seen in Hostel. I pulled on a mask to prevent myself from inhaling any bone bits as I watched him bone saw this woman’s skull, pry it off with a crowbar, and remove her brain with a few flicks of the scalpel. He then pulled her face forward with a snapping noise, letting it rest against her neck, and cut the brain into slices. It cut like butter. He, unlike my professor, didn’t wear any arm coverings or a mask, so his arms were covered in blood and body bits. Then he partially sewed up his barn door cut and started vaping. The smoke smelled like watermelon and was a welcome relief from the stench of rotting meat, though they didn’t go particularly well together.

The next body rolled out had succumbed to cancer and couldn’t have weighed more than 80 pounds. Her head was stuck awkwardly to the left due to rigor mortis, eyes open, staring at me with milky, flat corneas. The same medical resident/body butcher broke the rigor mortis with a snap and started making the Y-incision. The only difference with this body was that it wasn’t fresh; a greenish-blue tinge covered her entire abdomen, and when that was opened up, the meager fat was iridescent green. The smell that came out of that cut made one of the employees reel back and take a little walk around the room, stating she was “freaking out.” She went to wipe off her shoes from the last autopsy, when she had gotten blood on them and could now feel it in her socks. They removed two extremely large tumors from this tiny woman’s body, which were then photographed in great detail, and that was the end of that.

At first, I truly felt mildly traumatized by what I had experienced. The sense memory was so vivid. I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to experience that again. It seemed so messy, unorganized, and the potential for contamination seemed inevitable. I could go the rest of my life without smelling that again. But now that some time has passed and I’ve had some time to process, I’m not so sure I wouldn’t want to do that again, or at least work around that in some capacity. There’s nothing better for the curious than to solve a mystery, which is what death investigation is all about.

So here I am, 31, starting my 20th year of school. Despite my eye-opening autopsy experience, classes have been fulfilling. I’m learning how to do all kinds of testing and microscoping and analyzing. I get to make lab friends with teenagers. I get to watch Forensic Files and get class credit for it. I get to learn how to commit murder and get away with it.

Kidding…

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the year of broken bones

I’m now five months post-jaw surgery. The entire healing process, everything from surgery on, was so different than I imagined. This surgery loomed in my head for years before I actually had it, and I worried it smooth. I had the time to worry about every little aspect of it–what if I can’t breathe when I wake up? What if I puke? What if I can never feel my face again? What if I have an adverse reaction to anesthesia? What if my pain meds make me nauseated? What if I don’t like my face? What if I still have pain? What if it causes new pain? What if I’m somehow awake during surgery? How can I possibly live on a liquid diet, when I don’t have any weight to lose?

To everyone, anyone reading this who may have this surgery in the future, I hope it’s a consolation to know that my experience wasn’t NEARLY as bad as I worried it would be. I lost about 8 pounds during my liquid diet period, which lasted about five-ish weeks. I cheated a little at the end. I did get tired of drinking all my food, but after a while it just became a monotonous reality. Food just won’t be enjoyed for a while. It will merely be tolerated. Which is livable. I didn’t blend up anything nasty, like hamburgers or chicken or eggs. I drank chocolate Ensures and fancy Bolthouse and Naked drinks for the first few weeks. The rest of the time I had the energy to blend my own smoothies. I especially liked this raspberry one I would make.

Recipe, if you’re interested:

-frozen raspberries

-tsp. espresso

-plain Greek yogurt

-almond milk

-scoop of chocolate whey protein

-vanilla extract

-2 tbsp. honey

I’d mix what seemed like right amounts of everything and blend it up. I think this was a recipe I modified from a booklet a fellow jaw surgery survivor sent me. It got me through my last two weeks of a liquid diet, because it didn’t taste like chalk.

I experienced none of my fears after surgery. No puking, no nausea, no choking. Granted, just having lower jaw surgery totally helped in the breathing category. My pain was very manageable throughout. My pain was managed so well that I had time to get annoyed over the splint I had to wear for the first three weeks. It was embarrassing to speak in public, since it made me really lispy.

Now, 5 months later, I have no pain in my jaw. My teeth are aligned, and I get my braces off next week. (I’ll do another post then to show video of me before and after everything.) I’m really looking forward to looking my age again. I can eat anything I ate before. I avoid certain foods still, like hard, raw veggies or gumballs or whatever because I still have braces, but that is what dictates my restrictions, not my jaw’s ability or lack thereof.

The only thing that’s still a work-in-progress is my numbness, which I knew to expect, but it’s still a bummer. The right half of my lower lip and chin is still 90% numb. I just started getting baby feelings in that area a few weeks ago, which was a huge relief. Feeling a tiny bit is infinitely better than feeling nothing. I still eat with a mirror at home so I can be sure I don’t have food on my face. I’m hoping my numbness will continue to dissipate as more months pass.

Now, onto my latest woe. In December I regrettable climbed up a building wall like Spiderman, fell off of it, and landed on back, with my left elbow underneath me. My arm looked kind of funky and hurt like hell, but I’ve fallen off the monkey bars and stuff when I was younger and hurt my elbow similarly, only to have it feeling better within a few days, so I went to bed. The next day the pain was so stabbing when I moved it that I felt nauseated, ┬áso I went to the emergency room and found out I had broken clean through my olecranon, the upper portion of my ulna. So basically, my elbow. It hadn’t shattered, but I needed surgery that I had to wait a week for. That week was not fun.

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During surgery, my sexy orthopedic surgeon put some metal in my elbow. He described it as “a plate and some screws”. I was in so much pain and just wanted my arm back to it’s straight self that I went under not really knowing much more than that. I was anticipating some bruising, and a like two-inch incision. When I uncovered my arm again a few days after surgery, it looked like this:

arm

Absolutely horrifying. I felt like a zombie. Every shower was a terrifying new time of discovery. I’ve only every seen a dead body on Forensic Files look so rotted. When my physical therapist told me I had 30 staples in my arm I about passed out. So much for a two-inch incision.

I had really limited range of motion and everything hurt. I flew home for Christmas two days after surgery. I knocked myself out on two oxycodone and a dramamine. I physically couldn’t put my luggage in the overhead bin, so I kept it cramped by my feet. This was my introduction into the world of what it’s like to live without an arm. Thank God I’m right-handed.

For six weeks, things I did with one arm:

-wash my hair

-wash my body

-put on lotion

-type (became easier faster than other things)

-cook

-get dressed

-do my job etc. etc.

It’s now been seven weeks since surgery. This healing process has been incredibly painful, way worse than jaw surgery. I still can’t straighten my arm fully or bend it fully. I can feel the three milimeter-thick plate in my arm with my finger. I can’t rest my elbow on a table or desk. I can’t prop myself up to read a book. My elbow gets very tight when it’s cold. Bumping it or getting bumped into is enough to make my eyes water. Here is my most recent x-ray, taken a few days ago:

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The first x-ray is older, from when I still had staples in. The second is new. I had no idea exactly how much metal was in my arm, or in what formation. Now that I can see all those criss-crossed screws in the tip of my elbow, it’s little wonder it’s so sensitive. My sexy surgeon told me most people elect to remove the metal after six month to a year of healing. Despite my incredibly high health insurance deductible, I might just have to bite the bullet and get that shit taken out, because it’s such a literal pain.

So, 2016 was a year of broken bones, pain, patience (and impatience), and recovery. I’m hoping 2017 doesn’t follow suit.

picture progression: from braces to jaw surgery

I guess I should take a step back here and share some pictures of the journey my mouth has been on in the last year.

My dental fiasco didn’t start last October, actually. It started when I was 11 and I was told I needed braces. I got an expander (and then another) at 13 and braces on at 14. I got them off the summer before I turned 17, open bite and all. I made the terrible decision at 26 to stop wearing my retainers and see what happened and BAD THINGS HAPPENED. I jammed my top retainer back on, but it was never to fit very well again. The bottom was a lost cause. So that’s where these pictures are starting out, from day 1 of getting braces for the second time on October 21st, 2015, until right before the mandibular osteotomy/genioplasty in September of 2016.

Day 1, October 21st, 2015

These pictures are in time-order. I would take pictures every time I had an orthodontist appointment (every 4-12 weeks). In these four pictures I had bite turbos on my back molars in order to allow my cross bite to be corrected with elastics. This was not a good time for talking or eating.

Bite turbos out, yay! Things are coming together. These were my last four appointments before surgery, and with the Damon system of braces (which I have) your wires get thicker and thicker which each appointment, so my mouth was getting its shit together fast. During the time the last two pictures were taken was the first time I could touch my front top teeth to my front bottom teeth in 16 years. That really was a special moment and a huge relief.

My previous couple posts depict the uglier side of recovery, so here’s one taken on day 16 post-surgery to shine a little ray of hope into all this metal and misery. I can only mean mug right now and pretend like I’m trying to be sexy because of this goddamn occlusal splint, bane of my being, torturer of my soul. I get it taken out in two hours, giddy-up!

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Green bruises and all.

jaw surgery–before

In two days I will have a Mandibular Bilateral Sagittal Split Osteotomy and Genioplasty Advancement. In other words, jaw surgery. When I originally found out I would need this surgery three years ago, the orthodontist thought I would also have to have my top jaw surgically corrected and possibly segmented into three pieces to widen my bite. Thank God my orthodontist here is a miracle-worker and has resolved my open bite and cross bite without surgical intervention. So the problems I have left are my lower jaw and chin.

HOW: The surgeon will make two diagonal cuts through my jaw on both sides in order to pull it forward 12 millimeters and screw it in place. That may not sound like a lot, but it is when you’re dealing with facial proportions and jaw placement. Secondly, he’ll cut through the tip of my chin and move that forward too, screwing it in place to give my face better proportion after the movement of my lower jaw.

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The places marked in red will be cut and moved.

WHY: I’ve addressed this in previous posts, but I’ve had a cross bite, open bite, and significant overbite since puberty (for about 17 years now). I had two expanders and braces as a high schooler, but none of my bite issues were corrected. At first, just the open bite bothered me, but I was pain-free. As time passed, I started having increased muscle tension and discomfort, especially on the left side of my jaw and down my neck. I also chew farther back on my teeth than I should, meaning my molars are wearing down faster than they should. My open bite and overbite also affect how I speak, giving me a little lisp and making me thrust my jaw forward to enunciate, which is exhausting, especially when I’m teaching linguistics, when accuracy and being able to talk at length is vital.

I’m adding some before pictures to show some of the issues I’ve mentioned and to be able to compare them to after (assuming I make it).

Left to right: the day I got braces for the second time, teeth 10 months later right before surgery, profile from both sides before surgery

Did I mention I’m extremely nervous? Current list of worries:

  1. Being aware but paralyzed during surgery
  2. Throwing up after just getting my jaw broken
  3. Getting a blood clot
  4. Having to wear a splint in my mouth when I go back to work and not being able to talk
  5. Not having my jaw rubberbanded or wired shut, so my freshly-detached jaw is just flying free
  6. Waking up with an incredibly swollen, different face than I went to sleep with
  7. Having to swallow medication immediately after surgery (not a pill swallower to begin with)
  8. falling into a deep depression
  9. crying immediately after surgery and having difficulty breathing

Obviously some of these fears are more justified than others, but in my anxiety-ridden mind, they’re all equally devastating prospects. I picked up a journal I’ve dubbed my jaw journal, and on the front it says “It’s Gonna Be Okay” with inspirational quotes sprinkled throughout the pages. I thought this would be a good, uplifting exercise, focusing on positivity, but I just don’t think I’m cut out for it. Most quotes have my cross-outs or scribbles on them, like “fuck optimists” or “bullshit,” then my own version of uplifting quotes written in place of the originals. For instance,”If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant.” Seeing as I live in Phoenix, I obviously don’t agree with that pithy sentiment. I replaced it with, “It’s the same sort of cold comfort when we look up into a clear sky and see that we are mere specks in the enormous universe. Our actions here on earth contribute, no doubt, to the evolution of civilization, but in such a minor and minuscule way that there is freedom in knowing that what you do doesn’t really matter, can’t matter, in the scheme of things.” That’s from Enchanted Islands by Allison Amend, which you should read, by the way.

So I guess, in a way, my journal idea is working, just not the way this journal intended. I’ve been brainstorming ways to wrap my mind around this, deal with the fear and pain, and with not eating food for six weeks. I think good books, journaling, sunshine, and watching good shows will go a long way. Everyone says watching comedies improves your mood, but I’ve found that watching the most fucked-up things I can find (stories about kidnappings, murders, the deep web, torture, craniofacial surgery way more severe than mine, stalkers etc.) helps me put things in perspective and take my mind off my comparatively-petty problems. Whatever works, right?

So, with my fridge stocked with liquids and my credit card charged with any and all things from Target I thought might make this process more comfortable, away we go.