…35 years ago…and that’s why I have to go in for an operation this week.
There’s blood everywhere, bright red on the hard, flat, cold surface, but I don’t notice it because my only thought is to stand up as best I can, turn around and make it back to the bench without falling a second time.
And so began – and ended – this Canadian’s ice hockey career at 17. I’d always loved playing street hockey, played it for hours and hours after school and weekends like any kid growing up in Canada, squeezing in an extra 20 minutes’ floor hockey over high school lunch break. But it never gets cold long enough on Canada’s southwest coast to freeze the local lakes thick enough to skate on, and our town didn’t have an ice arena, so I never learned how to skate until I was about 30 and moved to Quebec.
But the fact I didn’t know how to skate didn’t bother Kenny, who convinced me to borrow some skates and hockey gear and go down with him and a bunch of other guys one night for their weekly pick-up game in North Vancouver.
“You can ski like crazy, man, so you can skate for sure!” he said, and I was dumb enough to believe him. I fell to the ice within 10 seconds of stepping off the bench during the warm-up, and watched the rest of them play the rest of the night as I made sure the bleeding stopped.
The bruising spread across my face and stayed there like disappearing berry stain for three weeks, but after that, I never gave it much thought. As anyone who’s really active in- or outdoors will tell you, you take cuts and bruises as part of the game, and this I figured was in that category.
“What’s a deviated septum?” I ask him.
He angles a mirror around so I can look up my nose at the blockage up one nostril, asking if I’ve ever been whacked on the head or had trouble breathing.
“Well, sure,” I tell him. “But I never really thought about it that much.”
I knew I should get it fixed, but took another four years to get around to it.
By some dumb luck I managed to land an Austrian Ear, Nose and Throat specialist who’d emigrated to Vancouver after the war.
Once we agreed to go ahead with it and the first x-rays were done he explained in detail how my nose would look once the operation was completed and I could breathe easier again.
But he never once told me HOW he’d go about straightening it, so it was only a couple of weeks later while lying on the operating table that I learned just what it meant to re-straighten a broken nose.
Because after he’d squeezed at least three needles up there to make sure the entire area was frozen so well I’d never feel a thing, he started to go to work on my face.
If you’re queasy about such things, you can click away now.
As he inserted his scalpel and started digging away I felt nothing, but he made a scraping sound through the skull to my ears I’ll never forget. I know all this because I was also dumb enough to let him convince me to have it done under local, not general anaesthetic.
I really wish I’d never been awake to see this, but what saved me was Demerol, a wonderful, legal drug when introduced directly into your veins makes you feel in an instant like you’re floating in mid-air.
“What are you going to do with that?” I ask him.
“You von’t feel a sing,” he says, “but if you vant, you can haff some more Demerol to relax you some more.”
The extra Demerol boost felt like what I’ve heard a heroin rush feels like.
After he was sure I wasn’t going to object anymore, he aimed the chisel up my nose, raised up the silver hammer, and started hammering. He hammered and hammered and hammered and all I could think of was, they can do what they want with me, I could be trussed up and hung by the ankles from the theater lights and I wouldn’t care, just let it be over.
When he’d finished re-arranging my nose, he packed it with cotton and I was wheeled out to recover. Three weeks later, I still had a bit of bruising, but at least I could breathe easier once the cotton packing was removed.
It’s now been 25 years, and I thought I’d never have to think of it again, but somehow, it’s crooked again. Or maybe the operation wasn’t all that successful, or maybe the falls and hits playing sports since then injured it again and I once again didn’t care.
But I’ve been to three ENT specialists over the past two years in Hamburg, trying to get help for another problem: phantom smells. It started about two years ago with a powerful smell of metal all the time. Copper, mostly. That went away, but now it’s other stuff. I smell soap, burned wood mixed with soap, weird chemicals wafting through my head. It comes and goes in five-day cycles. They’ve given me an MRI and ruled out brain tumour, but I’m slowly coming to realise this is like tinnitus for the nose. Like hearing sounds in your head that aren’t there, the nose smells things that aren’t there either.
But at every visit to ask about the smell thing, the new ENT took one look up my nose and said I should look at getting it fixed. I’d tell the story I’ve just told you, and they all looked horrified and said that things have improved in the ENT branch since 1988, that fixing a nose is not so brutal anymore, and in any case, they’d give me a general whatever they had to do.
But I wasn’t going for it.
Then I visited a fourth specialist who said there’s still a problem, but such a drastic measure as re-straightening the septum isn’t necessary. What he is going to do this week is clear out the scarring left over from the first operation, and perform a minor procedure to widen the passages so I can breathe easier. I did a test a month ago at the clinic that showed I’m just not getting enough air.
I don’t usually yammer on about my operations, but since this is only the second one I’ve ever had if you don’t count the routine tonsil yank-out they did when I was 8, it’s a big deal for me.
I just hope one day I can play some hockey again.
This winter in Canada, for sure.