The Ones We Can’t Do Without
I had a bone cut off of me a couple of weeks ago.
The anesthesiologist injected my veins with medicine to lull me to sleep while a surgeon severed the diseased bone from my body, and replaced it with a platinum prosthesis that rests on a tissue pillow molded from the flesh behind my ear.
You are probably thinking I’m writing this from a hospital bed and expect months of physical therapy to follow. An entire room quickly winces at the news of an elderly person’s hip replacement. “It’s the last step before death” I’ve heard one say. Opposable thumbs are a key to the door of civilization, and the Achilles tendon’s ability to attach to the heel bone is the stuff of legends.
But what about the stapes bone?
The stapes. Third grade trivia may have taught you that it’s the smallest bone in the body, part of a set of three bones that rest in the middle ear. That’s the bone that was cut off and replaced with a prosthetic a couple of weeks ago.
Well, that’s no big deal then. I hear you. I mean, the bone is 3 by 2.5 mm in size. As one who stands a proud five feet, that’s only 1/508th of my being. It’s insignificant. The body won’t notice if it’s diseased. The femur won’t know if it’s missing.
Surely, the stapes bone doesn’t matter.
Now, be assured, I am not about to argue that having my stapes cut out of my head affects the body as would the amputation of a diseased femur (or hip or heel). But be assured, the stapes bone matters.
As happens in some white, middle-aged women after pregnancy, that tiny bone began to calcify. And as it vibrated less and less, sound became quieter and quieter. Eventually, my husband’s snoring was less of a problem. I simply rolled over. My neighbor’s rooster no longer woke me up. But neither did my children. Sounds of danger came at me from undetectable directions, and I became very good at lip reading.
The impending silence had pros and cons. Some years into the effects, the otosclerosis worsened until the stapes stopped vibrating. The calcification approached nerves in the middle ear; nerves that connect to the cochlea and the face. A little bit of disease can spread through the whole body, and at about the eight-year mark, where there had been silence, a noise erupted. The disease was shouting in my head: ringing, hammering, swooshing, buzzing … and suddenly I was a contemplative robbed of silence. Always. Twenty-four hours a day. It’s been known to drive people mad.
Sleep became elusive. Anxiety increased. Thus, I began grinding my teeth at night, which brought on migraines that robbed my days of productivity. Sound made me dizzy, and lip reading was far from foolproof. Those gutturals will get you.
Plus, my vocal chords suffered amnesia. So much time had passed they no longer remembered correct volume or right pitch. To open my mouth was guesswork along the lines of crescendos and decrescendos until the person’s body language in front of me signaled, “Yes, that’s right.”
“Mom, quit yelling at me.”
“I can’t hear you.”
“Why didn’t you wake up?”
“Didn’t you hear that car coming?”
This diseased 3 by 2.5 mm part of the body was wreaking havoc on the rest of me, my body, my relationships, my safety, my psyche. It needed attention. It needed healing. It needed opportunity to function as intended, for the sake of the whole. So, despite the risk of facial paralysis, I asked a surgeon to cut it out, clean it out, and replace it with a stick of platinum. I fell asleep, and the doctor healed me.
But it wasn’t instantaneous. The recovery has been worse than the disease. It will take three or four months for the middle ear to completely heal and for sound to return. I spent a week in vertigo. I told friends it was as if I was trapped on the Tea Cups ride at Disney World and couldn’t get off until I puked. Other times it felt like that metal tube amusement park ride that spins manically until the floor drops out from beneath you, and you stick to the wall. That’s how I clutched onto the sides of my bed as it whirled in cycles like something out of Bed Knobs and Broomsticks. Sound waves hurt. They pound and stab my swollen eardrum, trying to get through without success.
That is, unless I hiccup. Each time I hiccup it is as if the tunnel of my ear opens and sound pours in, so loud I have to cover my ear with my hand. It is a glimpse of the memory of what it is to be a fully hearing person, a memory that will slowly become reality in the weeks ahead. But full function is going to take some getting used to.
So, when Grey’s Anatomy informs you the stapes is the smallest bone in the body, don’t dismiss it. It is tiny, but mighty. When it quits doing its part, the whole body goes down (or spins in circles). When affliction hits the stapes, head and hands react. When the stapes checks out, danger is just around the corner (but which corner is anyone’s guess). When the progressive sickness in the stapes is ignored, relationships suffer. Music dies. Boldness dwindles. Effectiveness wanes.
It may be risky to give the little stapes some much-needed attention. And the process of assimilating it into the whole may take time and cause waves. It might get worse before it gets better. But in the end, with the stapes functioning as it was created to work in the body, the femur walks straighter, the head thinks wiser, the throat speaks clearer, the hands move outward, and there is reconciliation.
“On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Cor. 12:22).