Panama Canal Time Lapse Video

May 24, 2013 2 comments

My wife Alicea and I just took one of the best vacations ever – 2 weeks on the Disney Wonder cruise ship from Miami to LA via the Panama Canal, with stops at Disney’s Castaway Cay in the Bahamas, Cartagena, Puerto Vallarta, and Cabo San Lucas.  HIGHLY recommended if you get the chance!

The focus of the cruise was of course the transit of the Panama Canal from the Atlantic/Caribbean side to the Pacific.  We made the crossing on Sunday, May 12, 2013 and I rigged up a camera on our balcony to capture the event.  Check it out!


I’ve had a few folks ask how I did this, so here’s the rundown…


  • Microsoft LifeCam Studio – I was hoping to take 1080p quality pictures, but ended up taking 720p pics due to processing power on the laptop I was using (more about that below); the biggest benefit of this camera over the LifeCam Cinema is it has a tripod mount receiver to screw it to a stand
  • Joby GorillaPod GP3 – flexible tripod that’s sized for our Nikon DSLR (way overkill for a webcam, but I didn’t want to buy a single-use device)
  • Joby BH1 Ball Head w/ Bubble Level for GP3 – allows you to adjust the angle of the camera independently from the flexible tripod, which is critical for fine-tuning the picture direction and level without compromising the security of the legs gripping the railing
  • USB 2.0 extension cable – I knew I didn’t want my laptop exposed to the elements, so I got a long cable to snake through the door to our veranda.
  • Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch Ultrabook – I was originally hoping to run the camera from my Microsoft Surface RT, but the LifeCam Studio isn’t supported on the Windows RT platform. So I brought my work laptop: Intel Core i5-3427U 1.8GHz, 4GB RAM, 180GB SSD
  • Disney Wonder – DCL’s second “Magic-Class” ship: 11 decks, 965 feet long, 106 feet wide, 83,338 gross tons, 5 main engines producing 78,000 horse power, max speed 23 knots (26.5 mph), launched in 1999
  • Panama Canal – infrastructure used to allow ships to pass between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans without going around the southern tip of South America (saves ~8000 miles of travel); ~48 miles long channel (ocean to ocean), 3 locks up – 3 locks down, 85 feet above sea level


  • Webcam Timelapse from TNL Enterprises – free app that can both capture the pictures from the camera over time and compile them into an AVI video file
  • Windows Movie Maker from Microsoft – free app part of the Essentials Suite used to add music and onscreen text to the video

Concept and Testing

There are effectively two levers you can “pull” for a time lapse video: picture capture rate and the final video’s frame rate.  The capture rate is probably the one you will want to play with the most (see discussion below).  I left the video frame rate at the Webcam Timelapse default of 15 frames/second.  It’s ever so slightly more choppy than Hollywood movies (24 fps), TV broadcasts (30 fps), or your computer screen (60 fps or better for gaming), but with time lapse video everything is choppy so I don’t think it matters.

The length of your movie is just math:
duration of event (minutes) / captures per minute = total number of frames
total number of frames / frames per second = seconds of video

So if you take 4 hours of an event and take a picture every 10 seconds, then render a video at 15 frames per second, your final movie will be 1 min 36 sec long.
4 hrs = 240 mins
captures per min = 6    (60 seconds in a minute / 10)
240 min * 6 cpm = 1,440 pictures
1,440 frames / 15 fps = 96 seconds of video

The biggest point of advice I can make is to do some test videos before you try to capture your big event.  Make sure your webcam drivers are installed and your app can see/use the device.  Figure out how big each picture will be and ensure you have enough hard drive space to save them all.  Make sure you have line power or enough battery to last the full event you want to capture and make sure you have a way to disable any sleep timers your computer or OS may have.

For your test videos, play with the frame capture rates (how many seconds between pictures) to get something that’s both smooth and not too slow.  If you’re watching flowers open taking a picture every second is too fast, but if you’re shooting boats moving in a harbor capturing a frame every minute is likely way too slow.  There’s also the frame rate you use for the playback of all those shots to factor in to how fast people will see time pass in your movie (and how long it is).

I hooked everything up at home before we even left Seattle to make sure the apps and drivers were all in order.  I discovered then that I couldn’t run the webcam at full resolution because it kept grabbing lots of garbled or black frames.  The specs for the camera say you’ve got to have a quad-core processor to do 1080p video and my laptop is a dual-core, but I thought I’d be okay since I was taking stills.  I’m not sure if it’s the time lapse software, drivers, or combination, but the 1080p was not working well.  Perhaps the camera is slower to initialize 1080p and ever picture captured is a fresh “initialization” since I’m taking stills and not video??? Either way, the 720p setting looked just fine and in the spirit of not freaking out during vacations I just rolled with the punches.
Winking smile

We had a port of call in Cartagena, Columbia (beautiful city by the way) a couple days before the Canal crossing and a cargo ship pulled in next to our berth so I decided to set up the camera right and play around.  I’m glad I did since for that video I captured a frame every 15 seconds, which turned out to be a bit too coarse as I evaluated the output.  I tweaked the capture settings down to every 5 seconds and that looked perfect – that’s what I used through the Canal.  You can see this test video below.  15 seconds was great for some stuff (clouds, the big cranes moving along the wharf, the incredibly slow opening of the cargo doors opening on the ship), but it largely missed the tugboat going in and out a few times. The last ~2 seconds of this movie are fames every 5 seconds, and you can noticeably see the motion get smoother.

That’s actually an interesting point with the rig and method I used here – I can’t change between time-lapse and real-time in the final movie unless I sit with the computer and tweak the capture rate on the fly.  Ideally I’d love to capture everything in real time and then speed it up for large swaths of time.  That would have let me have more time to annotate some things onscreen in the Canal video (like the Chagres river followed quickly by Noriega’s prison), or use real time video at the start/end of the video.  But hey, I did all this for <$150 in hardware and free software; you get what you pay for!

My Setup

DSC_0939I set up my camera the night before we started our Panama Canal crossing to make sure I could get the sight line and horizon adjusted properly with daylight (we started the crossing before sunup) and to make sure the camera was acclimated to the outside conditions.  If you haven’t cruised in warmer climates before you don’t know the “joy” of waiting 20 minutes for your camera lens to acclimate to the high heat and humidity of outside from your cool and dry inside stateroom (it instantly fogs up).  Here’s an attempt to take a picture of a tugboat at the entrance of the Canal with our DSLR before the lens had acclimated.

DSC_1267Our stateroom on The Wonder was 8080 – nice and high on the port (left) side towards the back.  It’s also a 1br Concierge Suite that we scored as an upgrade when we checked in, but that’s a different story.  The nice thing for our purposes was that it has a double-veranda (essentially it’s two rooms side by side) so we had plenty of room to hang out on the deck and take pictures with our regular camera and stay out of the way of our time lapse rig.

As you can see, I used the Joby GorillaPod to get a nice and secure hold on the railing and then leveraged both the Ball Head and the webcam’s own “foot” to adjust the picture angle.  I actually wish the webcam’s foot wasn’t adjustable – it would have been easier to just tweak the ball joint and not accidentally move the camera itself; it took me quite a few tries to get the horizon fairly flat (and it’s still just slightly off).  If I had to do it all over again I’d want to find some sort of extension pole that would have allowed me to get a bit more out over the railing to maybe see down to the water line (there’s only 2 feet of clearance on either side of the ship in the locks!).

I knew from my testing in Cartagena that I wanted to use 5 frames per second max quality; the Webcam Timelapse app has some sliders for compression and image quality – I just maxed everything out.  I got the software settings dialed in, put my laptop to sleep, and set my alarm for 5:00a (the captain said that was about the time we’d be hauling up the anchor and heading towards the first lock).  As soon as my alarm went off all I had to do was power up my laptop, run the USB cable outside, plug in the webcam, and click the “start capture” button.  If you do this make sure you carefully route the USB cable through the door jam to optimize getting as best a seal as possible to keep the cold air in and hot air out at the same time you don’t break your USB cable.  The Disney ships use sliding doors so it was pretty easy to do if you let the cable hang vertically as you close the door.

The Webcam Timelapse app has a nice video monitor window that opens during capture so I could validate what the camera was seeing.  Note: it’s not super obvious, but you can resize that window.  After everything was up and running I took our DSLR and went up on the top deck to take pictures of the locks, etc.  Alicea went back to sleep.  Smile  The app ran all day without a hitch and captured 8,431 frames from 5:09a through 5:03p, or about 3.6GB (350KB to 550KB per picture).

Before I did anything else I made a complete copy of the frame capture folder and marked it as read-only.  Call me paranoid.  Then, with the Webcam Timelapse app still open, I ran through the convert to video flow.  It only writes .AVI files; there’s another quality slider (again, full up) and a frame rate selector (15 fps is default).  Please note this app doesn’t prompt you if you use the same file name as an existing file – use extreme caution and make sure you don’t overwrite a video file!  It took about 20 minutes for my laptop to render the movie, but when it was done I had a 3.77GB AVI file.  I dumped that on a USB stick and brought it and my Surface to dinner to show off – big hit!

Once we got home from the cruise I created a project in Windows Movie Maker and imported the AVI file in along with a couple tracks from MUTEMATH (awesome band by the way, if you’ve never heard them).  I also annotated the video with onscreen text with content sourced from our fantastic onboard lectures during the cruise by Capt Ken Pucket, a docent/narrator who came onboard with the pilot and spoke through the day on the PA system on deck, and a few reference tidbits from Wikipedia.  The final movie was bounced down in .MP4 format (693MB) and uploaded to YouTube (where I finally learned how to unblock a movie that has licensed songs in it – though unfortunately Warner Brothers blocks mobile devices from accessing the video as a result … whatever).


I think that’s about it.  This project actually got me pretty interested in doing more time lapse movies.  I too another one on the cruise of a sunset as we sailed from Puerto Vallarta to Cabo San Lucas, but the auto-adjust features on the webcam software kind of killed a lot of the colors there.  It’s still pretty cool though – check it out!

We’ve got an older Nikon D40X DSLR that I want to see if I can can run directly from a computer so I can better control color, focus, etc.  We’ve got a great view of Mt. Si from our bedroom and some beautiful sunsets from time to time – looking forward to experimenting!

Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions in the comments.


Final Stats

Panama Canal Transit video:

  • 8431 frames (3.59GB)
  • raw video length: 9:22 (3.77GB)
  • edited video length: 9:59 (693MB for YouTube 720p MP4, 1.6GB for 1080p)

Panama Canal traversal:

  • 04:53 – anchor aweigh (up)
  • 05:09 – video capture started
  • 06:10 – vessel entering Gatun Locks
  • 07:45 – vessel leaves Gatun Locks
  • 08:31 – let go anchor (we were “holding” for traffic to clear the Pacific side of the canal)
  • 09:38 – anchor aweigh, continue crossing
  • 13:53 – vessel entering Pedro Miguel Lock
  • 14:38 – vessel leaves Pedro Miguel Lock
  • 14:51 – vessel entering Miraflores Locks
  • 15:51 – vessel leaves Miraflores Locks
  • 16:55 – start of sea voyage (pilot departs the ship)
  • 17:03 – passed sea bouy marking end of channel (video capture stopped)

Cruise details:

  • Fuel oil consumed: 444,300 gallons (main engines)
  • Diesel oil consumed: 1,663 gallons (generators during shore days)
  • Fresh water consumed: 3,127,608 (created by onboard desalinization plant)
  • Total nautical miles: 4,479
  • Departure: 6 May 2013 16:58 – Miami, FL, USA
  • Day 1: Disney’s Castaway Cay, The Bahamas
  • Day 2: at sea
  • Day 3: at sea
  • Day 4: Cartagena, Columbia
  • Day 5: at sea
  • Day 6: Panama Canal crossing
  • Day 7: at sea
  • Day 8: at sea
  • Day 9: at sea
  • Day 10: at sea
  • Day 11: Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
  • Day 12: Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
  • Day 13: at sea
  • Day 14/Arrival: 20 May 2013 06:15 – Los Angeles, CA, USA

The end is the beginning

September 14, 2012 4 comments

What a long day.  Today I closed a chapter in my career and started writing the next.

As many of you know for the last 4+ years I’ve been on (or leading) the ops team for the Windows Live (aka MSN) Messenger server platform.  In the last year we’ve also launched the Windows Notification Service that powers live tiles and messages delivered to modern apps on Windows 8.  And oh by they way we’ve also leveraged our Messenger platform to power Skype

What a wild ride and a lot of work.  I’m both incredibly proud of the products we’ve delivered and continually humbled by the amazing talent that I get to call my friends and peers at work.  I want to extend a huge thanks to everyone on the Messenger/WNS team for making the last 4 years so enjoyable, especially Seth and Curtis for giving me a shot at it in the first place and mentoring me along the way.  I’ve made some great friendships that I will always cherish.

That being said, the great news is that I’m not going too far!  Moving forward I’ll be leading the service engineering team powering the address book, account profile, and social network feeds that light up your Microsoft Account across nearly every major property and device Microsoft offers. 

No pressure.  Winking smile

But between now and Monday I’m a free man! I’m not on call for my old team, I’m not ramped up on my new team, and I’ve unsubscribed from all the email lists I don’t need to be on anymore. I don’t think my phone will know what to do without all those emails flooding in. Time to relax and celebrate my son’s first birthday this weekend! 

Onwards and upwards to new challenges!

Categories: job, Microsoft, Personal

Starting over: being a geek

December 18, 2011 Comments off

I’ve always identified myself as being a geek.  I’m highly technically oriented, I love computers and took that avenue for my career, I’m a passionate musician, and I can be a little socially awkward if not shy towards situations and people I don’t know.

But maybe I’m a highly-functional geek since I also love sports and “back in the day” used to play basketball, and even played a season each of organized football and baseball.  On weekends in the Fall you’re very likely to find our TV tuned to a football game, be it college or NFL.  I’m also able to force myself to work through times when I need to be social for business, etc.

Worse for my geek creds, If you want me to build you a computer I find that a daunting task with too many options; I’d rather buy a Dell or HP box than build my own.  I’ve never gotten into some of the more popular geek/nerd TV shows; I’ve seen the Star Trek movies but never religiously watched all the TV series.  I’ve played D-and-D once in my life (back when I was 12 or so), and didn’t quite get what all the fuss was about.

But lately I seem to be reconnecting with the geek/nerd roots I’ve never had.  My wife Alicea has me reading a massive historical fiction series (Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels) and I’m loving it.  I’ve been spending time on some home tech projects like running network cables through the walls, upgrading our NAS, a power supply on our Media Center PC, and planning some other big projects.  I’ve started exposing our daughter Kaitlyn to the Star Wars movies – she loves them.  And I’m finally starting to get into Dr. Who.

The Who I remember from growing up were the episodes broadcast on PBS here in the States in the 80’s.  They had crappy production quality (even for that time) and just seemed way too weird.  But over the last year or so I’ve been periodically listening to Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist Podcast, and Chris is nothing if not a complete Whovian.  On top of that, over the last 3 months of being home with our newborn son, Alicea has been blowing through all the modern Dr. Who episodes on Netflix – and I’ve seen a few of them and loved it.

Today is a turning point.  When we got home from church I had a serious debate on whether to put on the Seahawks game or starting watching more Dr. Whos (I started watching the modern series yesterday with Kaitlyn).  Football won for a little while, but Dr. Who is on now.  Maybe we’ll watch some more football later – maybe not.

So it seems this is the season of rediscovering my geek roots.  Let’s build a computer and watch nerdy shows.  Will it last?  I’m not sure, but I hope so.  This body’s done playing sports. Smile

Categories: Personal Tags: , , ,

Personality test

April 10, 2011 Comments off

My wife just sent me a link to a personality test.  You can take it too:

This is one of the weirdest tests I’ve ever taken – it shows you a bunch of shapes and asks you questions that are not related to those shapes, but your answers are to choose between the shapes.  Sounds bogus, right?  Well, I think it nailed me pretty darn well.  WEIRD!

Here are my results…

Verbally and mentally fluid, you are refreshing and illuminating to those around you. This is occasionally somewhat discounted by the obvious pleasure that you take in exercising your mental acuity. Although generally peaceful you can often take a verbally aggressive tact in relations with the world, which can often be misunderstood by those around you. Innovative in the extreme, you can often think yourself right out of the correct answer to a given problem. Many times you are referred to as your own worst enemy. You tire very quickly of routine and so make poor clerks or administrative help. You also have no respect for authority and little patience for those you regard as inferior, most especially those in charge. Experimentation is your watchword and can occasionally lead to experience for its own sake and shallow decadence. Your thought can sometimes be scattered and disconnected.

Categories: Uncategorized

An open letter to United Airlines

September 8, 2010 1 comment

I’m so glad this happened today, and not tomorrow (my birthday). Now where did I put that bottle of scotch…

From: Nathan Novak
Sent: Wednesday, September 08, 2010 8:52 PM
Subject: Huge thanks to Louis for saving a horrible United experience

I called into the main United phone line this morning hoping to get our reservation (XXXXX) changed since we’ve booked an extra couple days at Disney World.  I was told by the rep I spoke to that there were no seats available on Dec 14th for awards travel, and that the next available date to change the return flights to was Dec 20.  The agent then asked if I was willing to upgrade to Economy Plus “for $132”.  I pointedly asked 3 times if doing that upgrade meant I could fly on Dec 14, and I was told yes each time.  So I gave a credit card number and the transaction was completed.  I was told the flight numbers were the same with the upgrade – which reinforced the idea that the date had also changed.

I waited a few minutes after getting off the call for to reflect the changes, and when they showed up the return flights were upgraded but were still booked for Dec 12.  The outgoing flights on Dec 3 remained in Economy.  I immediately called back and explained what had happened, and was again told that there were no seats available on Dec 14.  I was told to check back periodically to see if anything freed up.  I asked a few times if there were any regular seats available (not on miles) but I kept getting the same answer.  I also said that I wanted the upgrade backed out since I was misled into purchasing it.  I asked to be transferred to a supervisor but the agent got defensive and assured me he could help; I kept getting the same answers though – they wouldn’t let me even buy 3 seats at regular price. I gave up for the moment and said I’d call back after conferring with my wife.

We decided that we really wanted to fly on Dec 14 since there were some special activities we’d booked (and paid for) at Disney on those extra days, so I called back.  I got the same run-around where I couldn’t get a straight answer.  I asked to be transferred to a supervisor because the agent again was not answering my questions, and after some considerable back-and-forth the agent relented and transferred me … to a dead-end in the system that hung up on me after 25 minutes.

An hour or so later I called yet again.  By that time we had decided to give up on United for the return flight and I had already booked return travel for my family on Alaska Air (non-stop for roughly the same cost as the $150 change fee United would charge us anyway).  I wanted to get my return trip cancelled and the upgrade refunded.  The agent again pushed the “call back again another day” line and I again asked to be transferred to a supervisor, and predictably they didn’t want to do that.  So the agent cancelled the return flights on Dec 12 (I saw them disappear on the website) and then transferred the call to the refunds department.  I explained the situation after I was connected and the rep didn’t know what to do.  She put me on hold for a few minutes, then came on line and said she was going to transfer me to a supervisor.  I was on hold for about 45 minutes … and then the same rep came back on.  She said she couldn’t figure out the phone system or had some technical issue, and then she tried to help again, and then tried to transfer to a supervisor again.  I was on hold for another 15 minutes and someone finally came on, heard what had happened, and said she had credited me $279.

I went to lunch, and when I got back I checked the reservation again and the return flights on Dec 12 were back, and now not only the 12/12 but the 12/3 flights were also upgraded to Economy Plus.  I checked the e-receipt online and found I had been charged twice – once for $279 and then again for $264.  Keep in mind that I was told the upgrade was $132, and of course that the upgrade would also get me on flights for Dec 14.  At that point I was fried, and I had real work to actually get done.

I called again tonight and was eventually connected with Louis.  He was the first person I talked to who could fully speak and comprehend English, and he quickly realized the pickle I was in and vowed to do what he could to help out.  He also let me know the ins and outs of the Mileage Plus travel program (1-way and round-trip flights are the same cost in miles) and that to get a 1-way ticket would be a change fee of $150 (I’m assuming per seat).  Louis worked with his manager to properly note the account with the erroneous upgrade charges and got our tickets put back in Economy and got seats assigned.  He also worked with me to get the security questions answered for the itinerary and let me know how to contact the refunds group via email.

Needless to say this has been a completely horrible experience with United Airlines, and this trip is likely the last I’ll be taking with United.  All that being said, I want to commend Louis for being exceptionally understanding, level-headed, comforting, and helpful.  Louis was remarkably professional and let me know that he’d do whatever he could to ensure things were set straight.  As I’d say to one of the guys on my team, Louis had a “gold star” moment.  Please thank Louis again for me, and share his commendable devotion to customer service with your management chain.



Categories: travel Tags: ,

Slow Going

January 23, 2010 Comments off

It’s not quite 2 weeks since surgery, but I thought it was time for an update.  Things have been going as expected … slowly.

Tuesday morning we saw the surgeon (a day earlier than scheduled due to the ER visits) to get evaluated.  Everything is going really well with my knee.  Just getting from the car to the doctor’s office was the worst part of the trip – I had to go probably 300-400 feet on my crutches.  That’s a long way to go for someone in pain.

They took all of the staples that were holding together the incision – about 20 of them.  This was a bit uncomfortable because a few had started to have my skin grow over them, but it wasn’t too bad.  Most I didn’t feel, and the ones that were the worst just felt like someone was pinching you really hard.

After the staples were out I had a few X-rays taken so the doc could see what’s up.  It was weird being outside of the brace and standing up (with my crutches).  Definitely unnerving and scary.  But it went well and everything is healing inside just fine.  In fact I’ve been very surprised with how well my knee is doing after surgery.  I think if I didn’t have the hematoma causing all the pain and swelling in my lower leg that I’d be absolutely fantastic, and probably back at work.

Unfortunately, I DO have that damn hematoma, and it’s been the source of 80% of my pain and issues.  As long as I’m sitting with my leg up I’m okay.  But as soon as I have to get my foot below my hip-level to stand or sit in the car or whatever, I can literally feel my lower leg swell and it turns into a huge source of pain and discomfort.  The doc said he wasn’t too worried about the hematoma, and that physical therapy (massage, stretching, etc.) will help alleviate that.  That being said, it’s going to add 2-3 weeks onto my recovery.

Because of this extended recovery period it’s going to be a lot longer than expected for me to become independent (I can’t really move without help).  My wife Alicea has been absolutely awesome, but I know she’s had to make a lot of sacrifices for her work and personal time, plus take care of our daughter.  Thankfully my folks are going to be able to come out and stay with us and help out.  They should be here middle of next week (they have a trip to Myrtle Beach this week).  It will be great to see them and have the extra help around the house.  Shhh – don’t tell Kaitlyn.  :-)

I had hoped to be working from home a lot this week, but that didn’t materialize.  My team has been reluctant to task me up with anything, and frankly I’ve been too doped up to be really useful anyway.  I did get a chance to start working through the hundreds of emails that I got and started to make some small contributions though.  Maybe this next week will be better.

Friday (yesterday) was a long day.  It seemed like my pain was worse than it had been and the frustration of my situation really bore down on me.  I missed a dose of pain meds overnight and that just made everything worse.  Mentally it was a very hard day for me and I broke down before Alicea had to go to work.  In the evening me leg was super-itchy and we decided to do some brace-off time to let things air out.  Alicea also gave my leg a massage and put some lotion on to help the dry skin.  In hind sight we probably should be doing that more often to help with the skin and itchiness.

By the time Friday night rolled around we decided to try to get me upstairs.  After 11 nights (and 12 days) on the couch I REALLY wanted to lay down in a real bed.  The problem is that our bedrooms are all upstairs and our stairs have a few steps that are very shallow (tough to maneuver on crutches).  We figured out a solution, though.  I sat on my rear at the bottom of the stairs and Alicea held my bad leg up.  I used my arms to lift me up to the next step up, sat, moved up, sat, etc.  We had to stop a few times because I got so tired, but we finally made it.  Then I had to stand up, but couldn’t figure out how.  I ended up just scooting over to the bed and using the bed frame to get me up.  Not pretty, but effective!

Lying down for the first time in the bed (we have a Tempurpedic mattress) was like being in heaven.  I even got to cuddle with my beautiful bride for a little bit.  Wow, had I missed her.  She’s been so busy and I’ve been in so much pain and out of it that we really haven’t had too many chances to talk or have some “us” time for the past couple weeks.  It was great.

In the morning we figured out how to get me into the tub (we got a shower bench for me to use) and I took a shower.  Ahhhhhhhhhh.

That’s about all there is for now.  Physical therapy starts on Tuesday morning and my parents fly in from North Carolina on Wednesday evening.

Week 1: The Expected and the Unexpected

January 17, 2010 10 comments

It’s been just about a week since I had my patellar realignment surgery on Monday 1/11/2010.  I was hoping to update more often, but I’ve been “busy” with a few things.  But I’ll start from the beginning…

The surgery actually went very well and as-expected.  Well, that’s not true, there was something unexpected – the anesthesiologist offered me a nerve block in my left leg in addition to everything else.  This has never been an option I’ve known about in my previous procedures, and let me tell you: IT’S FRIGGIN AWESOME!  Essentially right before they knock you out they put a nerve block into your hip through an artery (either near the groin or your butt – or in my case it ended up being both).  It doesn’t really hurt at all, but what it does for you is gives you about 12-24 hours of ZERO feeling in your leg.  No pain, and the first day is always the worst!  After we learned of this option it made sense why this surgery is now outpatient, where as in 2001 I stayed 1 or 2 nights.

The weird thing with the nerve block is that you have absolutely NO control over your leg for about a day.  It’s like a dead appendage down there.  But it doesn’t really hurt, so it’s well worth the trouble.

Getting home I realized I forgot to do something – practice with my crutches going up and down the few steps to get from the garage to the house.  Oops.  If it’s been a while since you’ve been on crutches get some practice time in before you go to surgery.  Also make sure to set up where you will be when you get home.  I’ve been on the couch for a week now, but we’ve made it pretty comfortable.

Home after surgery on Monday 1/11/2010Monday night went pretty well.  I didn’t know when the block would wear off so I made sure to keep up with my pain medications, but only at the low-end dosage.  I woke up about the time for a medicine dose and was very sweaty.  I had my wife take my temp and it was 100.5.  I usually run colder than normal, but a minor fever is expected after surgery. 102F fever is the red line for when to call the doc.  I also started noticing some discomfort at the bottom of my calf on my left/surgery leg, but nothing major.  I figured it was just how my leg was propped up so we adjusted some pillows. 

Alicea took Kaitlyn to daycare on Monday morning and while she was gone I was able to get myself to the bathroom without too much trouble – great!  My calf was still hurting though – bummer! The block wore off sometime overnight so I was totally on my Percocet for pain management now, but I was keeping up.  I slept a lot during the day from the pain meds, etc. but every time I woke up I was sweating.  My temp got up to 101.8.  Hmmm – that’s not good.  Also my calf was starting to be more painful than my knee.  HUH?  We did some looking online and started to match some symptoms up with a possible blood clot in my leg.  Pain in my calf when I moved my foot up/down, massive swelling of the calf and foot and toes, and my calf was VERY painful to the touch.

We talked to the surgeon’s nurse, a 24 hour nurse line, and a few other resources and decided that we needed to go to the ER and get this checked out.  The last thing I wanted was a blood clot to break loose in the middle of the night when I was asleep and do some nasty stuff.  On the way to the Swedish ER in Issaquah I started having a bit of pressure (not pain) in my right chest; like someone had their thumb on the right side of my sternum.

The Swedish ER in Issaquah is absolutely fantastic.  If you’re in the area and need an ER I highly recommend you go there.  Staff is very professional, knowledgable, and super friendly.  The ER doc said he was pretty sure I had a clot in my leg as I had all the telltale signs and pain.  They took off my leg brace and wraps and everything looked normal with my incision site – though there had been significant “seeping” of blood into the gauze pads, which is expected.  With the chest discomfort they decided to do a CT Scan with some special radioactive dye in my veins to find any clots.  But none were found.  The ER doc said that was about 98.5% definitive that there was no clot, and that the best thing to do was wait and see what happens.  They put humpty dumpty back together again and said I should see my surgeon or primary care doc again at the end of the week.

Wednesday and Thursday were more of the same … lots of pain in my calf and not too much in my knee.  We got a urinal from the ER on Tuesday so I didn’t have to get up to go #1 any more.  This little piece of plastic is a life saver.  My calf was pretty bad for the pain so I was on max Percocet, to a mostly positive impact on pain.  We also called the surgeon and he said seeing my primary care on Friday was fine, but to keep him posted.  Our scheduled follow-up with him isn’t until this coming Wednesday, 10 days out from surgery.

At my doc’s office ( – Kristina is absolutely an incredible care giver for my family) we unwrapped everything again and found lots more seeping.  I’m not sure if that much on top of what was there at the ER 3 days before was expected, but there were definitely a few spots still seeping a little blood between the staples.

Kristina didn’t think it was a clot anymore since she found my whole leg was swollen and hot, not just my lower extremities.  She called and talked with my surgeon and they decided to put me on a high-powered antibiotic thinking that perhaps there’s some infection deep within the joint system (the incision looks totally fine).  She also wanted me to go on a more powerful pain medication and get an ultrasound of my leg to completely rule out a clot.

Due to scheduling and resource availability we ended up having to go the pharmacy, then get Kaitlyn from daycare, and then roll to Bellevue’s Overlake Hospital for an outpatient ultrasound.  The timing was bad and I missed a dosage of pain meds.  Unfortunately my leg “went downhill fast” with pain and we ended up going to the ER at Overlake first.  They were able to get my pain under control after an hour or two and wheeled me back for the ultrasound.

The ultrasound on my leg was not able to show any blood clots – hurray!  But what they did find was a large hematoma – a pool of blood – between the muscle layers in my calf.  This is likely from internal bleeding after the surgery that made it’s way there via pressure from swelling.  Another possible cause is a tear in the calf.  In fact I talked with the on-call doc from my surgeon’s group today and he said that we’re effectively battling two different injuries now: knee and calf.

There’s not much to do about the hematoma over the weekend.  I’ll be seeing my surgeon or someone from his group most likely tomorrow.  I’ll know more in the morning when I can talk with my doc’s nurse to see what his schedule is like.

Home after 2nd ER visitThe bottom line is that I’m in some minor-ish pain (2-4 out of 10) from my knee and calf as long as I’m lying down with my leg propped up.  If I need to get off the couch as soon as my leg dips below my hip level it feels like someone has lit off a pain grenade in my whole leg; definitely a 10 on the pain scale. 

But these issues are not surprising for me because this was my 4th surgery on my left knee.  The more you mess with the joint the more issues surgery can cause.  If this was my first surgery and just having a patellar realignment I would be doing great, most likely independent for movement within the house and maybe brave enough to go upstairs to sleep in a real bed.  I’d definitely be ready to start working (from home) in the morning to feel like I’m actually still involved in the world out there.

Instead, I’m not sure when I’m going to be okay to work from home.  I’m hoping it will be sometime later this week, but time will tell.  Until then I’m going to be stuck on the couch taking Dilaudid 4-8mg every 6 hours for pain, 800mg of ibuprofen every 8 hours for swelling, and a horse pill of antibiotics every 12 hours.

I’ll try to write another update in a few days.  In the mean time feel free to follow me on Twitter – @nanovak.


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