Back to Back, or Why I’m Especially Thankful Today

SEVEN WEEKS AGO today, I woke up for the first time in months without feeling as if my left leg were being crushed by a vise grip.

You wanna talk thankfulness? Today’s the day to do it, right?

Well, I’m crazy grateful for science, and medicine, and higher education, and simple human compassion, all of which combined to relieve a suffering I had never before experienced and would wish only on the worst of people.

***

This was me, three-and-a-half years ago.

A third injection after the two described in the link served to reduce the inflammation in my spine enough to eliminate the sciatica in my left leg. Life returned to normal. Eventually I began working out again, and even dug into a couch-to-5K to get back to running. I gutted my way to three miles every other day, finished a few 5Ks, and got my strength back thanks to the 7-Minute Workout.

This past spring, I started to notice a twinge in my left leg when I ran. It was mild enough to tolerate — which is to say, I opted for the middle-aged route of willful ignorance.

But the pain got worse. Months later, I can recall the run that compelled me to throw in the towel, to acknowledge that I hurt too much to keep going. Back to the GP I went. Back to physical therapy I went. Back to the MRI facility I went, to learn that the same problematic disc was again herniated. Back to the pain doc I went, to endure two more rounds of epidural injections in my spine. They were as delightful as the needlework I underwent in 2015, but were far, far less efficacious. I even tried acupuncture, and I’m a Western medicine kind of fella.

The pain continued to worsen.

***

If you’ve never suffered from chronic pain, I envy you, and hope you appreciate your good fortune. The tissue of the L5-S1 disc had again breached its rightful place between two vertebrae and was touching the sciatic nerve on the left side, radiating blazing hurt from the top of my hamstring to mid-calf. Constantly. With no relief.

The mental bandwidth expended to deal with such pain is enormous. I found myself forgetful and clumsy, two traits previously foreign to me, and emotionally shattered. The hurt was all-consuming. It was all I could think of.

Finally, finally, FINALLY, after all options had failed, the medical system sent me to a surgeon. He cut into only about 30 percent of patients who came to him, he told me.

And your herniation, he told me, is twice as big as the ones I usually see.

Two-and-a-half weeks later, a nurse slid a needle into the top of my left hand and wheeled me into an operating room. Someone dropped a mask over my mouth and told me they were just trying to get the fit right, and of course within five seconds I was out.

During the hour I was under anesthesia, the team cut a two-inch incision at the base of my spine. They entered my back, swept aside the curtain of muscle, and rummaged around to the spinal column. One of them snipped off the problematic piece of disc that was playing footsie with the nerve. One of them sewed up the incision.

Six hours after arriving at the hospital, I awoke in the recovery room. Outpatient back surgery — is it any wonder I’m grateful?

In the seven-plus weeks since my procedure, I have reveled in my relief. Friends and colleagues tell me I look utterly different. Dragging a leg behind me when I walked and forcing a significant portion of my brain to process constant pain apparently rendered me pale, drawn, and haggard. I’m brighter and sharper, they say, and that’s just how I feel.

As recently as half a century ago, the science that relieved my suffering didn’t exist. When I consider the thousands of years of humanity that had to endure unspeakable pain, I am humbled. And then there are the countless sufferers of hurt far worse than mine was, without the relatively easy fix that was available to me. Thousands of years from now, the surgery that healed me will be seen as barbaric. Yet it worked. It worked.

For everything that helped my doctors and nurses to reach the point they did, where they could do something to free my soul of the debilitating, punishing effects of endless pain, I am grateful.

I hope you are as thankful, but for less serious reasons.

May you have much to be grateful for.

Happy Thanksgiving. | DL