Friday, December 2, 2011

The 'Scents-less' Girl: An Endoscopic Glimpse into Life without a Nose

If you had to pick one of your five senses to do without, wouldn't a sense of smell be the most obvious choice? I think, even knowing what life without the sense of smell is like, that I would still choose that over any of the other four choices. After all, very little if any adaptation needs to be made for a person who cannot smell. However, as unnecessary as it may be in comparison to the other senses, I am now learning that a functional nose is quite extraordinary.

Why couldn't I smell, you may wonder? Well, unless you're in the medical field, phrases like "severely deviated septum", "enlarged turbinates"," multiple nasal polyposis", and "chronic maxillary, ethnoid, and frontal sinusitis" probably mean as little to you as they did to me for the last 29 years of life. But this month, they mean a lot...of answers, that is.

In layman's terms- I had an incredibly crooked nose bone, enlarged tissues inside my nasal passages, benign tumor like clumps of hanging 'fingers' inside my sinus cavities and chronic infections inside all of my sinuses. (Gross, I know). I'm not sure when the infections started as I do remember smelling a few things in early childhood. In particular, I remember smelling the inside of my grandma's old Mark Twain books and comparing the smell to that of a graham cracker. Weird, I know, but that is my only 'smell-memory' although I must have been able to smell other things at some point. Still, the majority of my life I would say I couldn't smell much.

When my husband and I were dating, he would joke that if we walked by rotting garbage, drove near a paper mill, or plowed past a skunk that I would always comment "I smell cigarettes." Cigarettes are something that I have been able to smell occasionally so perhaps I assumed that any fragrance I was able to detect must be in fact, a cigarette. I guess not.

I had several visits to family doctor's over the years. But general practitioners always drew the same conclusion. "You have allergies. Take this... (spray, pill, decongestant, inhaler etc)." Nothing helped. When I was something like 22, I remember telling my Dr. emphatically "I feel like my nose is pretty much swollen shut". Again, no answers. I told another doctor "it's hard to breathe" and he suggested I was having anxiety problems and asked if I needed anti-depressants. Thanks. But no thanks.So I just pretty much gave up asking questions. Until last month, when I was forced to deal with a different issue.

I had always had problems smelling and breathing. That was just regular life for me.But now I was having problems talking. I'm sure you can imagine how well that works when you're trying to teach groups of rowdy young children. I finally decided I should see a specialist who could help me train my voice or something? I had no idea that my vocal issues even had anything to do with my messed up nose.

Then I met Dr. Choquette, an ear, nose and throat specialist at Northland Medical Center. He thoroughly examined me and then agreed that I had issues in my throat, although that was as simple as swollen vocal chords. But he said lots of these types of problems actually start 'upstairs'. It was all in my head, he went on to tell me, although not with a prescription for crazy pills in hand. It literally was in my head; behind my eyes, inside my cheek bones, inside my nose and even forehead. All of these areas are supposedly meant to drain in healthy ways. But mine were non-functional and that was the deeper cause of the pain and irritation to my larynx.

Who knew? After gawking at my CT scans he didn't hesitate to suggest surgery for me. After his explanation, it seemed a logical approach to fixing my problems, but first I needed to know if that was "really necessary". After all, I had lived all or most of my life with these 'issues'. He replied "you, my dear, are what I call a nose cripple. And you've never had a good nose so you don't know what a wonderful thing one is." Funny thing, it's like he meant to say "God made noses for a reason" or something nutty like that. He also explained how the problems with my nose were not due to any type of injury or trauma, as the CT scan had revealed there was no scar tissue. This was, as he stated, "my genetic blueprint." Fascinating. So he had won me over. Especially being that he had just answered a thirty year old problem that I didn't know even had an answer. I scheduled a day for surgery right away and waited anxiously for it arrive.

Before this, my only experience with surgery was a tonsillectomy I had undergone at age seven, so it stands to reason that I would be a little nervous. Thankfully, when the day of my surgery came, I was overwhelmingly blessed with doctors and nurses who made the whole ordeal comfortable, might I even say, pleasant for me. I was impressed by the way they carefully explained every tiny procedure before performing it. I was equally enthusiastic about the Novocaine given to numb my hand before putting in  my IV. (I remembered the feeling of the IV insertion I had at age seven and I was not the least bit excited for the replay of that life event). Once brought to the operating table I was covered with warm blankets and cheerful chatter about Thanksgiving plans. It wasn't exactly the spa, but so far, it was "pretty darn nice", I was thinking as I drifted dreamily off to sleep.

It could've been hours, or even days for all I knew before I finally woke up. But I know for sure now, that waking up from anesthesia probably isn't one of my favorite things. I jolted awake with frantic screams such as "they are trying to kill me!", "don't let them hurt me!", "hold my hand!", and "I want my bible". All of this ridiculous screaming and hyperventilating made things a lot worse than they had to be, too. I worked up an awesome asthma attack that caused what seemed like gallons of blood to spurt from my nose and soak my hospital gown. But after I calmed down enough to take two puffs of my inhaler, and the bleeding slowed down a bit I figured out that I was okay. And from there, my recovery was definitely better than okay, too.

Compared to the horror stories of my friend who had a similar, although less intense, surgery ten years prior to mine, the rest of my recovery was actually pretty much a cakewalk. With an amazing, supportive, nurturing husband to care for me until I could walk by myself, with many delicious warm cooked meals from my mother-in-law, as well as strong support and efforts from my employees and clients, it turned out the couch wasn't a completely miserable place to spend 7-10 days. I can't say it was overly fun, no. But mostly painless, and pretty easy. Not to mention, that after only eight days of recovery I discovered one of the greatest gifts the surgery could possibly bring. I COULD SMELL!

At 9:15 I was scheduled to get my splints removed, something I was not looking forward to at all. I expected it to be incredibly painful and assumed that I would still be very swollen afterward. I wasn't expecting to be able to smell anything right away. The reading material the doctor had given me stated that I only might see a change in my sense of smell, and even then it be within a couple of weeks. So you can imagine my surprise when, after my splint removal and on my way out of the hospital building, I washed my hands, unsuspectingly brushed some hair from my face, and captured something I'd never experienced before. Hand soap. Hand soap had a wonderful smell! I kept sniffing and sniffing my hands and laughing until I had tears in my eyes. I never knew I could get so much joy from cheap, hospital hand soap.

Having been laid up for a whole week I had a few errands I really needed to run. So my friend Kelly celebrated the smell of hand soap with me all the way to the store. Once at the store, while standing between two mountains, one of tomatoes and one of apples I asked "what am I smelling now?" Surely tomatoes and apples didn't have their own scent, did they? I knew candles should have a scent, and perfumes, as well. I knew that food that was being baked should have a smell. I knew there were bad smells like body odor and dirty animals, and sweaty feet. Working in the coffee industry for years also indicated that coffee had a distinct smell. But I had no idea that tomatoes had a smell. I mean, how many people sit around and talk about the smell of tomatoes? Nobody I knew ever had. And yet, suddenly, I could smell them. This inspired me to spread my nasal-wings (?) and fly around the store smelling everything I could smell. This probably wouldn't be entirely pleasant for most people. But to me, every single scent was... in a word...heavenly.. "You're like a little kid!" my friend Kelly announced. And I totally was. And still am.

It isn't just that I can smell things better than I previously could. It's also what that means to me. As a writer of poetry and other nonsensical things, I heavily rely on imagery to paint the pictures that I think words are responsible for painting.. I have oft created generic smells and inserted them into stories just to give them a little life. One story I recall writing was one where I described my mother smelling like lilacs. Now I don't have a clue if she ever smelled like lilacs or even what lilacs smell like, but I felt the need to give her some personality that way. With my new gift of smell, I don't have to create generic imagery anymore. I now have the potential to create magic.

The other fabulous and unexpected thing I discovered is that I can breathe through my nose. That means good things for my husband, like no more sawing logs through the night and better sleep for both of us. (Yes, I admit, many logs have been sawed in the Anderson's king sized bed.) But it also means that I can chew a whole meal with my mouth closed if I want. I don't have to stop for air after a few bites. It means that my mouth isn't desert-dry and parched all day, and that incessant and exasperatingly loud gum chewing is no longer a part of my everyday existence.These things probably don't seem magical to the average Joe. They probably seem, well, normal?  But I promise you, if you lost these simple pleasures, you would miss them sorely!

So what to learn from this strange and unusual experience?  First of all, I would be highly suspicious about the easily written prescription of a general practitioner. If you've had an unexplained health issue that persists for years despite the quick-fix meds you've been given,consider seeing a specialist. Secondly, don't ever, ever take that thing that sticks out of your face for granted. Because although the sense of smell may be the least important of all the five senses, that does not make it any less... wonderful. 

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