My Earie Canal

A video exists, probably scrambled like eggs across the Ethersphere – a digital rendering that my ear, nose and throat specialist captured while documenting the state of affairs within the interior of my auditory canal. He attached a conical tip to the corner of his iPhone and journeyed into the place I’d been warned since youth to never insert anything smaller than my elbow.

He is a professional, so I wasn’t worried. I admit feeling a little uncomfortable at first, his grip on my ear reminding me of Sister Gabriel’s back in the sixth grade when she caught me tracing a line around a textbook picture of Jesus with my pen. Unfortunately, the doc’s email wasn’t working the day of my film debut, so he couldn’t send me a copy. I’m sure he deleted it by now, the video that is. I still have the ear.

It all started with a growth just inside the flap area, if you’ll excuse the slangy, nontechnical terminology. My medical jargon at the time wasn’t so good. Whenever I touched my ear I felt a spot like a tiny button: scaly and dry and itchy. All classic symptoms of a skin cancer, but I was positive it was just a pimple. To abate my fear of ear acne, I rubbed an ointment on it. “Zits, at my age,” I said to myself, and at the risk of sounding ridiculous, now I have said it to you.

Fortunately, a medical volunteer at a local health fair urged me to see a dermatologist, so I made an appointment and received a quick assessment: nothing less than a squamous carcinoma, which required removal. In half an hour, the dermatologist had diagnosed the problem, numbed my ear and sliced the little bugger away so it could be biopsied. She had little doubt about what the medical lab would report, and she worked so efficiently I felt no pain. I did, however, notice a strange odor at the end of the procedure, which turned out to be the searing of my own skin as the dermatologist cauterized the bleeding wound, a little too reminiscent of the fragrance from a barbeque.

I assumed I was done with the business of cancer, but I wasn’t. After two short months the growth returned, same location. This time I made an appointment with an ENT, soothed by the notion that the word “ear” had been listed at the front of his calling card. He turned out to be a genius, a man with the patience and aptitude for digging in narrow places, and one who refrained from launching into the usual joke about being able to see daylight out the other side.

The first thing he noticed was that cancer was not my most pressing problem. I also had a hole in my eardrum, with a proliferation of trouble behind it known in the medical profession as a “cholesteatoma,” which sounded to me like a condition prompted by eating too much cheese. It wasn’t like that. Rather, a cholesteatoma turns out to be a destructive and expanding growth that can smother the ossicles’ ability to vibrate, resulting in a thick and muddy perception of sound, making it impossible to hear anything out of that particular ear. He explained the scenario with diagrams and by pointing in the direction of a plastic model, but I couldn’t fully appreciate the seriousness of the condition with a mental chunk of cheddar wedged in my ear.

Surgery to resolve both my problems would involve two skin grafts, one to cover the hole where the cancer had to be more rigorously cut away from its roots, and another to patch the hole in my eardrum after the cholesteatoma had been teased away from its perch inside my head. I was relieved to hear I’d be anesthetized for the entire procedure, which he estimated would take a little over an hour. In the end, it required three.

Construction on my sister canal, The Erie, began in 1817 and finished in 1825. With a  hefty price tag of $7 million, the project was deemed a success for reducing shipping costs by 90 percent and it spurred settlement in the Great Lakes region. The dredging of my Earie Canal took a millisecond by comparison. How can I even begin to compare the costs.

I woke up looking a little like Van Gogh after his self-mutilation, minus the obsession to paint. The doctor said the growth behind the eardrum had been much larger than expected. I smiled in that dumb way an anesthetized patient perceives his world, thinking, “That wasn’t so bad!” All that remained for me was to be able to stand up, pee and be driven back home. The aftereffects of the drugs made these seem like reasonable goals.

David Feela