My doctor was ecstatic. “You’ve got a stress fracture in your foot, Tom. This is the best possible news!” He was so happy he was almost giddy.
Not everything is as it seems.
Some time ago I was amused by James Lindsay’s accusation that I had played “the context card” on him, for not accepting the ambiguous apparent meaning of a single scripture verse as he thought I should.
Context matters. Here’s the rest of the story from my visit with doctor. It was just the day before yesterday. I had a part swapped out in my ankle last December 11, an “allograft transplant” of my left peroneus longus tendon. This was a re-repair of an unusual rupture, the second of two surgeries necessitated by a congenital problem that caught up with me a few years back. (The first surgery never healed.)
Four weeks ago the doctor gave me the go-ahead to start walking while wearing an orthopedic boot. Let me tell you, it was great to be back on my feet at least! I could only walk short distances at a time, but I felt so free, being able to do just that.
But then something went wrong. I called the doctor’s office and told him I was experiencing a new severe pain on the side of my foot. I told him I couldn’t tolerate even wearing the boot, and could I please have some strong non-narcotic pain medicine?
Peroneus tendon work is known for having a lower percentage success rate, which was why the first work on it didn’t turn out so well. I didn’t know what I’d gotten myself into.
It turns out the doctor was pretty worried too. He used a new technique with me in this surgery. He couldn’t help but wonder if the whole tendon had torn loose. I think I could have assured him that hadn’t happened, but he didn’t ask those questions on the phone. He just instructed me to take it very easy until I saw him next.
So this week when he examined me and diagnosed a stress fracture, he was mightily relieved. The treatment for a stress fracture on the base of the fifth metatarsal is almost nothing. It means wearing the boot a few more weeks, that’s all. I can handle that. There was no transplant failure. It only means being patient a while longer with the process. I was relieved, too.
I’ve had a sore foot for just about two-and-a-half years running, with painful irony attached to the word “running.” It’s been my fourth and longest bout with a boot. I’m pretty sure I’ve used orthopedic boots and casts for well over a year of my life, because of this congenital problem (huge accessory ossicles in both peroneus longus tendons, for those who care to know).
I don’t know anyone else who has needed to replace one of these boots because he’d worn one out. It’s painful when I walk, and once in a while I get random stabs of sharp pain that makes me just gasp. It happened while I was writing this very paragraph.
I say all that for a reason: I’m not exactly prone to making light of the pain like I’ve been experiencing. I want to make that very clear as I move on to my next point, which is that there’s a lesson here about putting pain and suffering in context.
We don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, out of sight, in the zone of the unknown. A stress fracture is good news when put up against a failed tendon transplant.
What if I’d had a stress fracture, though, without knowing that the alternative was a torn tendon? That’s pretty far-fetched for me in my current medical context, but what about the first time I had a stress fracture, back in the late 1990s? It happened while I was recovering from a lesser case of the same accessory ossicle issue. The treatment for that stress fracture then might have kept me from tearing the tendon then.
Or it might have kept me from a car accident. Or from accidentally hurting someone some other way. Or … who knows? Maybe it brought me closer to the Lord, and stronger in character.
Pain and suffering is a problem, no doubt, and atheists and skeptics often tell us that gratuitous suffering means there is no all-powerful, all-good God. Who knows what’s really gratuitous, though? Who knows what’s going on behind the scenes? My doctor was relieved when he found out my situation wasn’t what it might have been, but which one of us can compare our pain to what might have been? How could we know what might have been?
This might-have-been perspective is just one way of looking at the problem of pain and suffering. There are other answers, some of which I think are stronger than this one. But this one was on my mind this week. I think you can see why.
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P.S. I won’t say it made everything worthwhile, but my foot problems gave me the chance to do something I’ve wanted to do for the longest time: get the telemarketer to hang up on me, instead of vice versa.
It was while I was waiting to see the doctor four weeks ago. My cell phone rang. The caller said, “Hello, Mr. Gilson, this is so-and-so from [some company]. How are you doing today?”
I put on a very somber voice. “I’m in the waiting room, getting ready to see the surgeon.”
“Oh. We’ll take you off our call list.”
I told the receptionist there what had happened, and we both got a good laugh out of it.