Most of my adult life I dealt with back pain in one form or another. I am nearly 6’6″ and my weight has fluctuated between 260 lbs and 415 lbs as I have grown older. Despite my weight issues I have always stayed active, playing basketball as often I can. I have prided myself on being the exception to the “fat” stereotype…someone who has remained fat by eating astronomical amounts of food while maintaining an active lifestyle just short of a Men’s Life cover model. Back pain has always been the price I paid for my daring lifestyle.
Usually, I experienced “sciatic” pain. In my case, my right leg would feel weak and numb. I have never been able to adequately describe this pain to people who have not experienced it. It is like a constant low-volume buzzing in your ear. While a moment’s experience is hardly noticeable or upsetting, an hour of it wears you down and becomes more than a distraction. It is pain without a single specific sensation that you can quantify as pain. This sciatic pain would come and go with no rhyme or reason. I could wake up with it for 6 days and then on the seventh it was gone. Weight loss helped, but was not a guarantee of being pain free. While it was a nuisance, it never kept me from sleeping or doing what I wanted.
Suddenly last year, I experienced real back pain for the first time in my life. It happened, like most bad things in life, after I did something stupid. I had attacked weight loss with a passion and was experiencing a nice bit of success. Most of my success could be attributed to working out consistently with a lot of weight lifting involved. I know you can tell where this is going…I was doing a two arm bent over long bar row when I overextended. The person before me had left their plates on the long bar…it was twice my normal weight but I was feeling robust so I thought I would give it a try. On the first lift, I felt it…a burning sensation in my lower back running down into my left leg. It was significant. After finishing my set of 10 I realized I had made a mistake. An MRI showed a 4 mm herniation at L3-4 and 5 mm herniation at L4-5.
I spent the next month on the floor of my bedroom doing depositions by phone and practicing law by e-mail. I did physical therapy with no relief. I refused pain medicine, but did try a nerve therapy drug that seemed to slowly soothe my nerves. Curiously, I could lay comfortably, but I could not stand or sit for any period of time. The pain was significant, but not debilitating. I still worked out. I stretched my back, worked cardio and did assisted lifting exercises. The pain gradually got better and I was pain-free two months later. I vowed never to let that happen again. I was going to be “smart” about basketball and other physical activities. I was going to be more cognizant of my age and limitations.
Then about six weeks ago, I was playing basketball at LA Fitness. It was a Saturday morning, I had completed my work out and done a three mile run on the treadmill. I was feeling very good about myself—vital and strong. I was playing against a bunch of twenty year olds when I was twisted down while going up for a rebound. I felt a twinge, but ran up and down the court two more times before realizing my shoe was untied. After tying my shoe, I was unable to stand back up. Using the wall as a brace I pushed to my feet, but could not stand erect and could move no faster than an amble. We quickly lost the game as my guy hit two threes and then drove by me for the final bucket when he realized I could not move. I went home praying it was a tweak.
It was not a tweak. This time the pain was down my right leg. I could not stand and I could not lay down. Ironically, I could sit in my truck and drive, but everything else hurt. I tried working it out. I stretched and rode the recumbent bike, but could not run and could not lift even on machines that allowed for bracing. I got back on the nerve drug, but experienced no relief. My pain doctor wanted another MRI and an ESI, but I resisted. The last problem went away after a couple of weeks, surely this one would as well.
After four weeks of no relief, I got an MRI referral from my pain doctor. The MRI showed a 1 cm extruded fragment at L3-4. This was new. It was pressing down on my spinal root and causing most of my pain. Unlike the time before where my pain progressively got better, my back was getting progressively worse. It was about this time that I learned what “pain” really was.
I soon was incapacitated with pain that could not be measured in words. Initially, I could find one position at a time that would give me minutes of relief. The pain would slowly seep back into my right leg or lower back. If I was lucky I would fall asleep during one of the respites and get thirty minutes to an hour of rest. Trapped indoors, trapped in bed, days and nights became meaningless….time just ran together becoming a taunting reminder that pain could continue indefinitely.
I finally broke when I could no longer find those moments of relief. Positions that had worked before no longer worked. I would lay on my side, body pillow jammed between my legs begging God to make the pain go away. I would try to roll to the other side only to feel the knife of pain driven into my lower back. The jab of pain wrang cries of pain from my mouth that were so inadequate to express the torment I was feeling. As I slept less, I felt the emptiness of despair and hopelessness creeping further into my mind. I hate myself, but I would have strangled a cat to make the pain go away.
It was during this time that I realized how amazing my wife could be. All I did during these 5-6 days was lay in my bed…on the floor…and alternate between crying (ugly crying, gulping air crying) and screaming curse words or prayers to God for mercy. Whether it was 3 a.m. or 3 p.m. I did not care…I only knew pain and my desire to make the world know how bad I was hurting. Through it all, no matter the time or the form of outcry, my wife persevered. She never cried, but showed me strength and support when I felt bereft of both. She is a saint. I cannot say that strongly enough.
Eventually, the pain left us no option, we went to the ER. By this time, standing made me scream with each step. Sitting made my back feel like a fractured egg shell made up of fissures of pain. I could not dress myself. I could not brush my teeth. I could not shower. I could not shave. I could not even sit to use the toilet. I was a wraith formed from hours and days of pain. The depth of my fall was made obvious upon walking into the ER. When people stare and recoil from you when you walk into a hospital ER in the middle of a hurricane, you know you have reached new levels of physical desolation. I also remember how much I stunk…wreaking of flop sweat brought on by pain. It permeated my clothes. No matter how many times my wife tried to wash me clean, the smell never quite went away. At the ER, they gave me two shots of Tordol and when that failed a shot of Morphine. Neither shot gave me much relief, though the morphine allowed me to sleep that night, with the pain returning that next morning.
When Monday came my wife began a telephonic assault upon the surgeon’s office that had promised a pain relieving surgery. She had stoically bore my pain, my screams, my cries for several days. Now she saw a possibility of salvation and she was not going to let it pass quietly. She procured me a surgery for this Friday, but I needed to go in immediately for a pre-operation review. The pain was so unbearable…I was alternating between screams of pain and tears of anguish. I climbed into the car on my back praying the trip the would be shorter than I knew it was.
As an adult you know that there is nothing to be done for pain but bear it. Still I had quit bearing it days before. I was completely unmanned. I was devastated into a whiny hysterical puddle of crud. In that space…in the desperation of pain…I receded back to a time I was not responsible for my own security. To put it simply, I wanted my mommy. On that car ride, I broke down and called my mother and just like every other time in my life she answered. I lay there on that 15 minute trip unloading all the pain and desolation on her and begging for some rock to hold onto to get through the worst days of my life. She cried with me, she reassured me, she offered to come to me. It felt good to give my pain over to her.
Like a miracle the pain receded. Upon arrival at the hospital, inexplicably I could stand. I was lightheaded…I was weak…I felt twinges of pain, but the knife was gone. I was able to walk into the hospital under my own power without a single moan or whimper. I did laugh in near hysteria at the omission of pain. The sliver of discomfort still there was like the sweetest feeling of pleasure ever. I don’t know if it was God answering my prayer…if it was the pain medication finally kicking in…or maybe the fragment slid off the nerve just enough…I don’t know. I like to think it was me giving the pain to my mother. Regardless, the incredible pain was…and is gone.
Tonight is the eve of my surgery. I write this as therapy for my mental well-being. Hopefully, tomorrow the surgery will relieve the remainder of my pain and I can return to life as I knew it. I pray now and I pray always that regardless of all else, I never return to that pain. I have a new appreciation of pain. I find it impacting how I feel when I read the records of Plaintiffs in my cases. One moment I have disdain for their greed motivated complaints of pain with no real objective basis to support…after all I have now experienced real pain. Then the next moment, I think of them in a dark room alone, writhing with incapacitating pain and I shudder in sympathy.
I really have no idea why I wrote this. In retrospect it seems self-serving and somewhat narcissistic. Oh well.