Letter: Denise Troxell

September 17, 1999

I still have more to say about being in intensive care. Refusing to die.

I was lucky to have taken Human Anatomy with Professor Robertson at HJC in 1987. I was never prouder of an A. I fainted in his Lab once after walking up the hill in the snow before I knew my heart was bad again. He was, and I'm sure still is, a wonderfully energetic and demanding teacher. The nursing students and I really struggled, but we gained a wonderful sense of the intricacy of the body.

Ten years later I couldn't remember too many specifics, but I still had a general picture of how things worked. With each of my health problems, I'd tried to learn more. As a patient, and I cannot emphasize this enough, if you can picture what is happening in your body and understand the process, it feels like you are still in charge. And you are, more than you think.


If you just give up and wallow in your suffering, it can suffocate you like a big down comforter. If you avoid learning, it leaves your body with nothing to hang on to, no model in your brain as to how it should heal.

I began to spend a great deal of energy visualizing my white blood cells swimming away from my lungs so they wouldn't attack them. I would say to them, "Go take care of our legs and arms guys. If you kill our new lungs, we're dead."

Because my kidneys failed, every couple of days a huge blood-washing machine was wheeled into my room where a hemodialysis nurse would connect it to large tubes on the side of my neck. For four hours it would whir and spin my blood clean and remove excess fluid from my body. It never hurt, but it was boring.

I learned that kidney machines were invented in the '40s because kidneys often failed for a few days after many major surgeries. People were dying for lack of temporary help. In my case, the failure lasted for almost two months. One of the nephrologists, or kidney doctors, had given up on them and was urging me to get a permanent port surgically inserted under the skin of my forearm, but my dad and I were adamant that my kidneys would recover.

Enter Dr. Fraley, another nephrologist, who in my early delirium days had reminded me of Frankenstein, because he walked in slowly, stiffly looked down at me, took my hand and asked me, very formally in a deep voice, "How are you today, Mrs. Troxell?"

He wore a tie covered with trains one day and I told him about my dad's train obsession. It turned out he had been the president of the Lionel Train Club and had collaborated on several books about the famous model trains. One day he presented me with a beautiful autographed copy, which Dad nabbed immediately. I have it and treasure it, but mostly I treasure Dr. Fraley because he believed with me that my kidneys could recover.

You make special friends in the hospital. Each patient's heart reaches out and sometimes the people you like the best like you back. Dr. Fraley was and is such a friend. I kiss him every time I see him.

I also became diabetic because my pancreas was failing. This meant endless finger sticks and insulin shots, which along with the constant heparin shots to keep my blood from clotting, made ugly dark rainbows of bruises on my arms, belly and thighs. Imagining shots in the abdomen had always induced terror in me, but they really weren't that bad.

And I was alive.

There I lay, believing every day that if I could just take it for a few more days, I would get better and be able to go upstairs to the 7th floor where the regular recovering lung transplant patients were. I believed that for 28 days until it finally happened.

A few days before I graduated out of ICU to go upstairs, a tracheotomy was performed. A tube was inserted through my neck just above the collarbone to my windpipe because I still needed help breathing. I was very apprehensive about it, believing it would be painful. It really wasn't, and miracle of miracles, I could eat, drink and talk again. I had fantasized about drinking a cool glass of water for weeks, and my first hoarse words made me smile through my tears.

Upstairs, I was very weak and couldn't walk without help. Much of my hair had fallen out. I was down to just over 100 pounds. and as I looked down at my legs and arms they reminded me of my mother's just before she died of cancer. I had never been thin in my life and it was amazing to be so light, like a wispy skeleton. I called myself Chicken Bones.

The bad thing about having no padding anywhere is you hurt easily. Dr. McCurry would always check my leg for edema or swelling by pressing his finger into my shin to see if it left a dent. That hurt and one day I almost kicked him, yelling, "Ouch! I've had it! Cut that out! Can't you see my leg is just a bone?" The whole team started laughing and from then on he let me do the pressing.

It's good to tell doctors when something hurts. Sometimes it can be helped.

On the evening of the Fourth of July, in my quiet regular room with no loud machines, I snuggled in bed watching as PBS presented Boston's celebration along the Charles River with the Boston Pops and Roberta Flack. I cried through the whole performance. I couldn't even hum along but I was in the music. Music can heal. It can carry a person away from a hospital bed.

It can make you feel blessed to be alive. Like human touch and humor, good music should be a given therapy for all patients.

Denise Troxell is Sharpsburg resident who underwent a double-lung transplant two years ago.

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