Last week, for the first time in more than 10 years, I failed to publish my weekly Adoration Letter. To be precise, after publishing 568 consecutive weekly letters over a period of 10 years and 11 months, I missed one. Yes, I have a “reason,” which is another word for “excuse,” for not writing the letter, but I’m not willing to let myself off the hook.
What’s my excuse? On the day that I would have ordinarily started writing — Friday, November 8 — I was hooked up to a ventilator in the intensive care unit (ICU) at Saint Mary’s Hospital in Rochester, Minnesota. Four days earlier, I had surgery at the same hospital.
Saint Mary’s is owned by the Mayo Clinic, and my surgeon was Christopher F. Viozzi, D.D.S., M.D., one of the top oral and maxillofacial surgeons in the country. Dr. Viozzi specializes in bone graft surgery, bone reconstruction, cleft palate repair, facial fracture repair, facial reconstruction, jaw surgery, laser surgery, reconstructive surgery, facial deformities, and obstructive sleep apnea.
There have only been a few times in my life when I have met a doctor who was not only smart, caring, creative, and personable, but also treated his patients with genuine concern, compassion, and respect. That’s the type of person Dr. Viozzi was. The entire time that I was in the hospital, he treated me like I was his brother.
The original plan was that I would have surgery on Monday, November 4, and would be released from the hospital by Thursday, November 7. If that had happened, I would have written my Adoration Letter and then emailed it to my daughter Mary to print and distribute. Unfortunately, the original plan didn’t play out the way I had expected.
The purpose of my surgery, which is called “maxillomandibular advancement surgery,” was to reconstruct my jaw so that the narrow air passage in my throat could be expanded to allow more airflow to my lungs. To accomplish this, the bones on both sides of my jaw were separated and my entire jaw was moved forward by almost three-fourths of an inch. The bones were then secured by permanent titanium plates that were attached to the bones with screws. The plates were positioned to hold my jaw in place so it would heal over the next several weeks.
During what was expected to be a six-hour surgery — but ended up being eight hours — Dr. Viozzi had to work around a wisdom tooth that was located in my lower right jaw. For various reasons, I had previously had three of my four wisdom teeth removed. The remaining wisdom tooth had not caused any problems, so there was never any need to have it removed.
While Dr. Viozzi was working on cutting through the bone near my wisdom tooth, the bone fractured. In order to stabilize the bone, he attached a titanium plate where the fracture occurred. Dr. Viozzi had warned me before the surgery that there could be complications with the bone where the wisdom tooth was located, because the bone was narrower around where the tooth was located.
After the procedure to move my jaw forward was completed, Dr. Viozzi inserted additional screws into my jawbone (above my teeth) and then used the screws as anchors to wire my jaw shut. He had told me be before the surgery that the wiring of my jaw was a possibility. Because of the bone fracture, he felt that it was necessary to wire my jaw to keep it stable and so that it would stay in the same postoperative position until it was fully healed. He was concerned that the area of the fracture or one of the other areas where my jaw had been cut would shift, which would require additional surgery in the future to realign my jaw.
The first two days after my surgery were considered “normal” by my medical team. Because I had significant swelling in my lips, cheeks, chin, and mouth — combined with the wiring — I was not able to speak. I was given a notepad that I used to communicate with my wife, Georgette, and the members of my medical team. The day after my surgery, I wrote down one word that described how I felt: “brutal.” The second day the word was “torture.” The third day I wrote two words: “Groundhog Day,” which was a reference to the Bill Murray movie by the same name in which he wakes up every day and is forced to go through and endure the same problems and frustrations of the previous day.
One of the things that my medical team taught me to do after the surgery was to drink water and other liquids. I was not going to be able to eat any solid foods until the wiring was removed, and it was going to stay in place for six weeks. The only way I could drink fluids was to insert a five-inch-long narrow rubber tube into the left side of my mouth and then maneuver the tube until the end of the tube was positioned at the back of my throat. At that point, I could then push on a large syringe that was attached to the rubber tube, and the fluid in the syringe would flow into the back of my mouth, where I could swallow it.
Two days after the surgery, while I was using the syringe and tube to drink fluids, I began breathing heavily, sweating, and panicking. My oxygen saturation level quickly decreased from the 80-90 percent level to the 70 percent level. A “Code 45” was initiated, and one of the specialists who rushed into the room immediately cut the wires in my mouth and placed an oxygen mask over my nose and mouth. My oxygen saturation level immediately improved to the 80 percent range. I was later able to review my medical records, which read, “It is theorized that the patient developed sudden onset laryngospasm that precipitated his hypercarbic and hypoxemic respiratory failure.”
After the wires were removed, I was intubated and hooked up to a ventilator to help with my breathing. I was then transported to the ICU. After two days in the ICU, the breathing tube was removed, and I was taken off the ventilator and moved to a regular room in the hospital. During that time, and up until the day of my discharge from the hospital, I also had a feeding tube that had been placed in my nose and threaded down into my stomach to supply my body with nutrition.
Georgette told me later that when the Code 45 was initiated, it felt as though a hurricane had hit my hospital room.
I was finally released from the hospital on Monday, November 11, which was a few days after I left the ICU. I am writing this letter from a hotel suite in Rochester, Minnesota. Georgette and my daughter Teresa are with me. I have an appointment with Dr. Viozzi on Friday, November 15, for him to check my jaw and alignment. At that time, he plans on doing additional X-rays of my jaw. I plan on returning home with Georgette and Teresa after my appointment.
I currently have a lot of numbness and swelling as well as a fair amount of pain, but each day is a little better. Dr. Viozzi has me on medications to help manage the swelling and pain. The good news is that the quality of my sleep has significantly improved. I’m experiencing a deeper sleep and am even having some dreams. I am, however, waking up a few times during the night to go to the bathroom and take my meds. I think it’s going to be a while before my body adjusts and I get back into a normal sleep routine.
I’m on a liquid and soft-food diet — I can’t eat anything harder than macaroni and cheese — for the next six weeks. Dr. Viozzi does not want me using my jaw for anything other than talking and chewing very soft foods. I am not able to talk very well yet. When I do talk, I sound like a mumbling old man with dentures that don’t fit properly in my mouth. Fortunately for me, that’s also getting better each day.
There was a point in time when I was in the ICU and on the ventilator when a young doctor approached Georgette and asked her if she and I had “ever discussed a resuscitation plan.” She told me later that when he asked her that question, it felt as though her heart skipped a beat. She immediately told the doctor that we had never discussed a resuscitation plan, but if it became necessary, she was absolutely certain that she wanted me to be resuscitated. When the doctor started asking her some additional questions, she called my younger brother Peter, who is a doctor in Illinois, and asked him to answer the doctor’s questions.
She then redoubled her efforts to recruit as many people as possible to pray for me. She posted a message on Prayer Makes the Difference, a public prayer group on Facebook that she manages. She sent multiple texts to our family members and friends. She made as many phone calls as possible. Before long, she had an army of prayer warriors who were praying for us and passing her prayer request on to their families and friends.
Next week, I’m going to share with you what was going through my mind and the challenge to my faith that occurred during this difficult time.
One more thing before I close. You don’t need to bother telling me that it’s okay that I missed my first and only weekly letter during more than 10 years of publication. I knew that I should have written the letter before travelling to Minnesota for my surgery. I was busy wrapping things up and I simply didn’t get around to doing it. (How’s that for an excuse?)
I have learned over time that if I allow myself to slip and then later justify my questionable behavior by making excuses, it won’t take very long before I become a certified victim and slacker. If you know me, you are well aware of the fact that I have high expectations for myself, my family members, my friends, and the people I work with. It’s only fair to them that I always strive to make a heroic effort to live up to the same standards that I expect from them.
From the bottom of my heart, I want to thank everyone who prayed for me and my family while we struggled through the challenges that arose as a result of my surgery. The love, support, and prayers that were offered on our behalf were overwhelming. We have been humbled by the kindness and thoughtfulness of everyone who reached out to us in our time of need.