Brush with mortality

This is my column today. I am still at home trying to hasten the recovery.

I was wheeled in promptly at 8 a.m., the appointed hour. Getting to the assigned operating room (I think it is officially called a theater, but let’s not complicate things here) involved a quick, unintended, but definitely anxiety-inducing tour of the other operating rooms along the way, which, to my utter surprise, didn’t have closed doors. So theoretically, if I were so inclined, I could have walked in on any of the ongoing surgical procedures and engaged the doctors and nurses on a spirited debate on the ethical implications of the so-called God complex among surgeons.

I really didn’t know what I expected, but whatever it was, I guess it’s irrelevant in the Philippine setting. Watching too many episodes of “ER” and “Grey’s Anatomy” has warped my sense of reality. I probably expected an environment that was more antiseptic for self-preservation reasons. I am not saying the operating rooms were not sterile. I was probably breathing anti-bacterial agents as I lay on that narrow bed (it was so narrow, I had to make a mental effort to rearrange my internal organs and the excess poundage that threatened to spill over). All I am saying is that I felt it wasn’t sterile enough for my own comfort. But then again, patients are a picky lot particularly since it is their lives that are laid on the operating table.

Let me digress a bit here and explain what I was doing inside the surgical rooms of the Makati Medical Center last week. I underwent two surgical procedures that required general anesthesia. That meant they had to put me to sleep while they tinkered with my anatomy, in this particular case, my skull. I had a mastoidectomy and a tympanoplasty. The two procedures are connected. The former involved cleaning up an infection in my mastoid (the bone behind the ear) that proved stubbornly resistant to antibiotics (what can I say, even microbacterial organisms imbibe the personality of their hosts). The latter involved repairing a perforated eardrum caused by the infection.

If you are squeamish and can’t stand any discussion involving blood, body parts, and pain, lots and lots of pain, please do not read further. However, if you are squeamish but prone to ear infection that, like me, you tend to ignore until the pain becomes unbearable, you might want to reconsider.

I am told that ear infections are actually a common problem in this country. I’ve had ear infections for as long as I can remember and yes, mostly from overuse of those blasted cotton buds (which are unnecessary, doctors say; earwax need not be removed manually as the body has a natural way of expelling them from the ears). From hereon, I shall make it my personal mission to expose the pernicious effects of using cotton buds on the ears. Repeat after me, please: Cotton buds are dangerous to one’s ears.

So here is what happened to me. I was experiencing my annual bout with colds last October. I had the whole works—clogged nose, headaches, watery eyes, stuffed ears, hoarse throat. Unfortunately, I had to fly to Leyte for the wedding of my youngest brother. Flying is bad news to those with a bad case of colds: The altitude—exposes your eardrums to unbearable pressure. That particular flight was hell. I felt unbearable pain in both my ears. I actually entertained thoughts of hijacking the plane and forcing it to land anywhere, or at least forcing the crew to put me on a parachute and drop me off anywhere just to relive the pressure from my ears.

The cabin crew tried to help with this and that technique, all of which proved futile. One bad advice probably made the situation worse. I was told to pinch my nose and force air out of my ears, which of course, on hindsight, only added more pressure to my eardrums and channeled the infection from my nose and throat to my ears.

But the pain disappeared when we landed so, of course, I forgot about it. I went swimming, exposed myself to direct sunlight for extended periods of time, and in general aggravated the infection. To give credit where it is due, I did consult a doctor before flying back to Manila. He prescribed a nasal spray that cost an arm and a leg, and some pain-killers.

Halfway through the flight, I felt a sensation in my right ear, heard a tiny sound, and then felt some liquid dripping out of my right ear. To cut a long story short, my right eardrum was shattered somewhere around the vicinity of the Mayon Volcano while flying back to Manila. But since it wasn’t as painful as the one I experienced a few days earlier, I ignored it.

Two weeks after, the pain started and the tiny sound grew into a persistent buzz. That’s when I went to see ear specialists. Yes, plural. I went to five specialists in a span of three months. They all suspected that my eardrum was perforated and promptly prescribed anti-biotics. But the pain would not go away and my ear was beginning to resemble an endless reservoir of liquid.

Finally, a visit to a sixth doctor produced a more definitive diagnosis and a clearer prognosis.
After two more rounds of antibiotics and other forms of treatment, my doctor and I decided on surgery. The reasons were more compelling. I was beginning to have dizzy spells and starting to have visions believing that a 12-0 win for Team Unity was possible (just kidding about the latter, but that’s how serious it was). A CT scan revealed that the infection was in my mastoid bone. At the same time, the pain in my ear was getting more and more intense. The options were getting more and more limited. Either I pickle my liver with the few remaining antibiotics that I have not tried yet (I was already on second generation antibiotics) or undergo surgery.

Sometime during the heat of the election, hearing on my right ear was down to 20 percent and going fast. I could have lived with just my left ear to perform auditory functions, after all, as some bloggers have pointed out to me, a number of famous people apparently suffer from the same condition. They even have a term for it, monoaural hearing. The likes of Halle Berry have been mentioned. But then again, I was informed that my eardrum can be repaired surgically so we opted to do that as well.

Unfortunately, the procedure required some drilling on my skull to expose the mastoid bone, thus the need for general anesthesia. A number of risks were also present such as a facial nerve getting accidentally severed, or well, my heart just deciding to stop beating right there on the table. But I am not sure I would have relished the idea of being conscious of the medical procedure the whole time anyway, so being put to sleep was a much better option.
What we did not adequately prepare for was the amount of time it would take to do both surgical procedures. My surgeon initially estimated that the whole thing would last four hours.

They started at 8:15 a.m. They finally wheeled me into the recovery room at… hold your breath, 4:30 p.m. It took them more than eight hours to do both procedures.
But I am home now and writing about the whole experience despite strict orders from my doctor not to engage in anything strenuous to stop the endless bleeding in my ear. If I want to, I can now make pompous statements about my brush with my own mortality, but maybe another time.

In the meantime, I want to say thank you to my ENT doctor/surgeon Maria Theresa Marta Lagos who have shown great fortitude and competence in dealing with a patient as impossibly stubborn, opinionated, and cranky as I was. Anyone out there who needs an ENT specialist should check her out. She holds clinic at Suite 1409 of the Medical Plaza Makati (right next to the Makati Medical Center).


jo-i said…
a speedy recovery to you, bong. God bless.
Dear Bong, hope you are feeling better. Call me if you ever need a gastroenterologist in the future.
Anonymous said…
I had the same operation when I was 9 years old.

I hope you recover some hearing in the affected side.
Anonymous said…
Hope you've fully recovered. Anyways, don't think much about the election results and what's in store for us Pinoys as a result of this election. At least not just yet, it'll slow down your recovery. Hahaha!
Godspeed! -MommyJo
vic said…
You are damn right that cotton buds and especially hairpins are the ears Number One enemy, both. And ear infection is prevalent in our country, and I believe it is in the water of our rivers and beaches which seeps into our eardrums during our summers dips. My right ear had a bad infection during my childhood that I lost more than half of my hearing but I refused to have it fixed (even when it's completely at no personal cost here) cuz my left one is still 100% and it does not bother me at all. My doc advice me to use if I wanted too, baby oil, but I don't. not even the over the counter ear wax removal drops. Simple, just do the shower regularly or hot bath and it will cleanse all...

btw, just met a new immigrant here, a manager at Boysen paint who he said known you for he had taken some seminar under you. he's from my town Province of Iloilo, town of Leganes and he's extending his regards to you and family. I'll pass over your site...
snglguy said…
Glad I never used those cotton buds to clean my ear. Masama pala yun...

Shouldn't the makers print some sort of warning on the plastic packaging like they do on the cigarette packs?
exskindiver said…
there's an expression floating around EENT specialists here in North America:
"do not stick anything smaller than your elbow in your ear"

what a nightmare of a story.

the seemingly innocent
Johnson's Earbuds should no longer be called ear buds for this very reason.

Or have they quit calling it that already?

Glad you are okay.
Nelson Dayrit said…
I had tympanoplasty with grafting 15 years ago,but it was a failure. now am suffering from mastoid on my left ear.Am schedule to be operated soon for mastoidectomy and tympanoplasty here but hesitant. Planning to visit your doctor at Medical Plaza Makati, but am worried about the expenses. Will Philhealth Card help or i need to pay cash. Probably how much?? God Bless....
Bong C. Austero said…
i had my operation at makati med. the bill came to around 90k, but fortunately, i have HMO cover.
Dr lagos is affiliated with maxicare. She did not charge me an arm and a leg, that I can safely tell you.

quake2eater said… is a group of specialists in the ear, nose, throat, head and neck in Davao City, the premier city of southern Philippines . It is a center for the diagnosis, therapeutic and rehabilitative management of ENT-Head and Neck concerns.
Sriganesh R said…
I know how it feels. Ear pain can be excruciatingly painful.
And it is very irritating.
A wisdom tooth is growing and the ear is paining! Can you believe that? As if the pain in my mouth wasn't enough. Phew!
I also underwent tympanoplasty and mastoid obliteration just last week. I can't hear on my right ear, but I am looking forward for better hearing in the the coming weeks/months, as advised by my doctor. How's your hearing now? Did it improve?

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