I don’t understand how this can be happening. Half a million turbinate reductions are being done yearly in the United States. Worldwide, the number is in the millions. Some percentage of these counter-intuitive nasal surgeries results in the condition called Empty Nose Syndrome Since it happened to me in October 2007, I’ve met dozens of ENS victims in cyber space. We are all engaged in a desperate, daily struggle for the strength to cope with mind-bending nasal discomfort, pain and breathlessness.
We exist in a state of ongoing shock and disbelief no matter how long ago this may have happened. Every day we wake up to lives forever altered by something that simply cannot be true: A doctor did this to us. A doctor cut functioning, healthy tissue out of our noses. In many cases, we were not told this was going to happen. In most cases, the issues for which we saw the ENT were minor—allergies, stuffiness, snoring, sleep apnea and ear ringing, to name a few.
According to Doctor Eugene Kern, founder of the term “Empty Nose Syndrome,” we all “share the same symptom complex…difficulty breathing, crusting, bleeding, pain, a change in [our] sense of well-being…”
I would add to this complex of symptoms—disbelief. Acquiring Empty Nose Syndrome is a bit like experiencing an alien abduction. Your whole sense of reality is challenged. You cannot believe that a doctor did this to you. You cannot believe that any doctor thinks this is a good idea. You cannot believe that any intelligent person thinks this is a good idea. Before this happened, you thought that doctors were intelligent people. Ah yes, let’s just hack bone and mucosa out of the nose, rip out that pesky immune system, get rid of that extraneous organ of breathing. Hand me the chainsaw, nurse!
You can identify an Empty Nose Syndrome victim by his or her expressions of disbelief: “Did you even think that doctors did that?” “It’s like medieval times, isn’t it?” “Did you think you had to ask if he was going to cut bone out of your nose?”
I will always remember the first shock waves. I woke in the night about ten days after the surgery to the sense of my nose having been replaced by a dry, burning gulch. I did not know that bone or mucosa had been removed from my nose. A tight fist of fear closed around my heart. In such moments, one clings for dear life to one’s beliefs about how the world works. It was out of the question—of course—that the doctor had caused me permanent harm. It was simply a terrifying—but temporary—side effect of the surgery. It could not be anything else. How I struggled to calm myself in those dark hours. I didn’t know about saline spray. I had never even used a nasal spray. I dipped my fingers in water and kept moistening my nostrils. It didn’t do any good.
As the days passed without improvement, my shock and disbelief grew. This could not be permanent! What kind of crazy, mad scientist would turn a blessedly comfortable nose into this?! Certainly not a doctor.
So I asked him, “Is this dryness temporary?”
“No,” he said, “It’s permanent. Your nose will always be drier because it’s more open, now.”
Excuse me? Was he suggesting that he had intended to do this to me? Invisible flying saucers circled my head. I concluded that I must have heard him wrong.
“The dryness,” I repeated. “Will my nose always be this dry?”
“I believe I answered your question,” he said.
And so my disbelief became a permanent condition. As it is for every sane person who encounters Empty Nose Syndrome. Including doctors. “I had to deal with this medically and emotionally,” Dr. Kern says in his lecture. “This was for non-malignant disease…”
How can this be happening?
What can we do to make it stop?