© Scott Dawson, http://scottpdawson.com (607) 279-7173, @scottpdawson

My Childhood Battle with Osteomyelitis

It’s amazing to think about how an event that happened 26 years ago could have had such an impact on me as I grew, and influences how I run today. There’s rarely a time when I’m out running or working out that I don’t think back to this time, to how much of a challenge it was, but also how grateful I am for everyone who helped me through that 54-day span of my life. I know this was an immensely challenging time for my parents and brother, but I’m old enough that I’m interested in recapping what happened and sharing the story. Here’s my boyhood tale of perseverance.

The Journal

All right, so I kept a journal. Not a diary: that’s what my mother keeps. My journal was invaluable for putting together this chronology, since the passage of time had me remembering this ordeal being far LONGER than it actually was.

The Beginning (Days 1-5)
Feb 16-20, 1988 — 5 days

This is the first day (a Tuesday) my leg started to hurt. It was a pain at the top of my right femur. I had been cross country skiing the day prior, and had fallen in an awkward position, but thought nothing of that until days later. I got a headache, nausea and fever Tuesday evening and hit the sack early. I would spend the rest of this week at home sick, sleeping a lot. Friday, my “cold” symptoms were abating, but I still had a fever and my leg was really starting to hurt badly. I wrote, “My leg is really starting to hurt again. I hope it will heal soon so I can walk normally.”

Diagnosis (Days 6-7)
Feb 21-22, 1988 — 2 days

Sunday. Temperature 103.4. Leg pain excruciating. Time for the emergency room. Blood drawn. X-rays taken. I wrote, “… was admitted for an indefinite time: scared.” I remember very little from the first few days in the hospital. However, I apparently kept up my kind affect, as the doctor wrote of my physical exam at this time, “Pleasant, very nice young man.” Primarily I was afraid of the unknown during these few days. I had a bone scan on Monday, and they decided to operate on my hip. They had diagnosed osteomyelitis, and I went into surgery Monday at midnight. Dr. Daniel I. Yale was the doctor I remember most, and I understand he was the one who had diagnosed the rare infection. My friend Sarah’s Dad, Jim Boyer, was also in the OR that night, so that gave me comfort.

Two radiologists reviewed this scan, showing increased uptake of radiological markers in the area between the femoral head and trochanter. Layman's terms, osteomyelitis in that bone.
Two radiologists reviewed this scan and saw increased uptake of radiological markers in the area between the femoral head and trochanter of the right femur. Layman’s terms, osteomyelitis in that bone.

Inpatient Treatment (Days 8-23)
Feb 23-Mar 9, 1988 — 16 days

I got a lot of cards, flowers and balloons!
I got a lot of cards, flowers and balloons!

Tuesday morning, post-surgery, I awoke to a drain from my femur to help eliminate the byproducts of infection, and was started on massive antibiotic therapy. If you read more about this infection, it’s kind of scary. No specific cause, and no specific cure. The infection was literally hollowing out my femur bone, and it needed to be stopped. I needed to be an optimist, though (more on that in a future post), and had great support (in the form of visits, cards, flowers and balloons) from my family, classmates and community. During this time, I kept occupied with books, daytime TV game shows, playing my portable keyboard and listening to music (I particularly remember a Men Without Hats tape from Chris Mount; I listened to Pop Goes the World many, many times). I also grew to loathe injections. Countless IV changes and blood draws are what gave me my adulthood aversion to needles.

On Day 15 (March 1, a Tuesday), I walked on crutches for the first time! Then on March 5, I got dressed for the first time in 2 weeks. Oral medication started on March 7, and I was told I’d be rid of the IV the next day, and I’d be headed home! Wednesday, March 9, I was able to go home after one more (unfortunately, not the last) blood test.

Outpatient Treatment (Days 24-54)
Mar 10-Apr 9, 1988 — 31 days

Rockin' my crutches (and bowl cut) at home.
Rockin’ my crutches (and bowl cut) at home.

I was thrilled to be home. I was still absent from school, relying on the great work that my teachers put forth to get me work to do to keep up. On Monday, March 14, I went back to school again, sporting some nice crutches and also an increased dosage of the oral antibiotic (something was not working right, if they upped the dosage, right?).

The hammer dropped on Monday, March 21. My entry for that day says it all. When Scott’s pissed off, he’s really pissed off:

“Oral medication not working; have to have my IV put in; that really pissed me off. Cried. Feel scared of needles.”

Two days later, I got a hep-lock in my forearm so I could get my antibiotics intravenously before school, which continued for the next 18 days. My Dad would take me to the hospital each of those mornings, I’d get my IV antibiotics, then I’d head back to school for a full day there. The increased dosage through IV did the trick in totally clearing the infection and giving my femur a chance to fully re-calcify. Wednesday, April 6, I said good-bye to my crutches, and then 3 days later, the hep-lock came out.

Fast-Forward 26 Years

That was it. Since then, no physical issues. I fell in love with running just within the last decade, but I always look back on this experience for having made me stronger. I am grateful for the strength it gave me: not just the physical healing, but also of the mental toughening. When the going gets tough, I can dig deep, think of coming out the other end of this experience, and keep on running hard.

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  1. As someone who works in diagnostic imaging, it’s crazy to compare the image quality of the bone scan from 1988 to what they look like nowadays. I know the picture above is probably a scanned copy of a printout, but still, I don’t know how a doctor could make an accurate diagnosis from some of those images back then. I guess those radiologists had the letters M.D. after their names for a good reason.

    More importantly, I see patients in the hospital all the time going through similar circumstances to what you went through. It would be interesting to know what some of them will think of their current experiences 20-30 years down the road. I feel that reading this post kind of puts me in the patients’ shoes, and will give me something to think about while I’m at work tonight.

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