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The Many Faces of Jim

I’m starting to recognize myself in the mirror again. What I see looking back at me is a slimmer version of what I saw last fall. It’s funny how a serious illness can make you feel more satisfied with the former status quo. Not that I was dissatisfied before, but the cancer put things into perspective.

Today a good friend told me, “No offense, but last month you looked like death warmed over.”
None taken. I already knew that. I avoided looking at the mirror, even when I brushed my teeth. After the beard and most of the hair on my head fell out, the bottom half of my face looked like a twelve-year-old boy’s. The top half? An old man.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had to adjust to drastic changes in the way I look. When my kidneys failed in 1997, my weight dropped to where it was in college (where it happens to be once again). My skin was sort of grey. In other words, I looked about like I felt.

I looked even worse when I got out of the hospital a year later after having a kidney/pancreas transplant. A purple hematoma shaded the right side of my face and neck. My arms and legs were like twigs. I looked like a junkie with little bruises on my veins from blood tests and IVs. Within a few months, my color was back and the Prednisone (a steroid and anti-rejection drug) had quickly increased my weight, and it showed in my face. At first I welcomed it.

Then my looks started changing even faster. Some days, I woke up to find I looked different from the night before. No, it wasn’t after a night of heavy drinking, either. I was still on high doses of Prednisone. (In addition to weight gain, it has some other unpleasant side effects, but that’s another post.) I bulked up like never before. I loved how my shoulders looked like a football player’s.

My face, on the other hand, looked like Charlie Brown. I moved back to Fayetteville and some people didn’t even recognize me. I had to buy new clothes to fit my bigger, healthier, post-transplant, non-diabetic body. That didn’t bother me. What bothered me was having to buy 36-inch waist pants at my heaviest.

For the first time in my life, a doctor cautioned me about putting on more weight. “It’s easier to keep it off than to take it off later.” Really? I’d never had to think much about it. Perpetually scrawny Jimbo had attained a maximum healthy weight.

Welcome to the world of the non-diabetic.

The Prednisone dose gradually tapered off and the bulk went with it. Most of it, anyway. A year after the transplant I had the body I was meant to have. With a normal metabolism, I could work out at the gym and hold on to the results. Before, a day of two of high blood sugar could undo several days’ worth of weight-lifting.

So, at 35, I was more satisfied with my appearance than at any other time in my life. My body had undergone changes more rapid and drastic than adolescence. For several months, it was one surprise after another—some welcome, some not. But it had been worth it. For the next few years, I carried myself with more self-confidence than I’d ever known, secure in the knowledge that, finally, I didn’t look diabetic, or like a dialysis patient, or overweight, or underweight.

When the kidney failed a few years later, I looked just as I had the first time around. After a second transplant, my body and appearance returned to what had become normal for me. I landed on 40 not only glad to be alive, but grateful I didn’t look ill–and happy that my face wasn’t steroid-plump and round like Charlie Brown’s. Had I really dreaded f-f-forty? Once again, a health issue had put things in proper perspective. Getting older sure beats the alternative.

Then along came cancer. I was too sick to even care how bad I looked. Not just vanity, bold cold weather made sure I had my head covered whenever I left the house. One nice thing about having cancer in the wintertime—it kept me inside, so few people saw just how sickly I looked.

Several weeks after the chemo, my hair gradually began to sprout, along with the first signs of green in the spring. My beard—and especially the hair on my head—are much softer than ever. Who knows if or how long that will last? I’ll just enjoy it as long as I have it. It’s just the latest twist in the ever-changing story of my life, illustrated by my appearance.