How I got this way
I was diagnosed with DDD some years ago, and pretty much ignored it, continuing to exercise: yoga, pilates, weights, swimming, cardio. The last three years or so, I began to notice some changes. An hour of shopping or just strolling around would leave me with a dull throbbing ache in my back, hips and thighs. It was like this long-line girdle of pain. Sitting through a movie or Philharmonic concert required near constant shifting and fidgeting, trying to find a nonexistent comfortable position. It was not so much pain as intense discomfort, pressure building up and up like a balloon filling with air, stretched tight, about to pop, yet no matter how I tried to move to relieve it, it stayed taut.
Last summer I’m invited to spend the evening in Bryant Park watching a screening of Jaws. I’m in agony that night; there’s no chairs allowed and no way I can get comfortable on the ground, so I sit, knotted up on the hard ground in a sea of people, unable to stretch out, stand up, or even to excuse myself and leave gracefully. I spend the next day, my birthday, in pain and unable to stand upright.
Then in October, I’m at the dentist’s office. He tells me to sit up and rinse. Doing so, I feel a tug in my back. I’m in pain, shooting down my legs, and unable to stand upright for two weeks. I get better, and I’m walking straight and exercising again, but it scares me and this is when I call Dr. Balderston. Armed with my recent MRI, a CT scan on my neck, a discogram from two years ago and every xray I’ve had from the last 19 years I head to Philly and hope.
Dr. Balderston is sympathetic, optimistic. He suggests a new discogram, hoping, I assume, that the pain is originating from one disc, in which case I’ll be eligible for a single disc replacement. Ten days after the test, in late January, I have a follow up visit. I see the doctor that did the discogram first. He’s arrogant and curt, telling me my only option is to have the rest of my spine fused, “and that’s unfortunate.” Balderston comes in all grim and serious. He says I have four discs moving abnormally and there is a new surgery to replace one or more discs and fuse the other two, but I should wait till the pain is really bad, till the bent-overness and throbbing legs are the norm, then have the surgery. A few years down the road, he says.
I get a bit better, then it all gets worse again. I can’t turn over in bed without holding on to the headboard. I need Tyler to help me sit down on the toilet. One day walking Tony, I collapse on the sidewalk in pain. More than once, Tyler finds me in the bathroom in the middle of the night, on the toilet, contorted and in so much pain I can’t relax enough to start the urine flow and the pain leaving me breathless so I can’t call out to him, can’t say, “Honey? Help me, help me get off the fucking toilet.”
It’s suspected (after some blood tests and an inconclusive MRI) that I may have a disc infection. After a week of IV antibiotics and more tests, I’m released, sent home with prescriptions for Demerol and physical therapy. I make no progress to speak of; the nerve pain goes away, the spasms stay. Then the spasms are gone but the pounding in my legs, hips and back returns. I try to swim, the pain is excruciating.
On our visit on Tuesday, my stomach does a flop when I see my xrays: there’s no space at all between the discs, flat as an iron, bone on bone. This is why I can’t stand up straight, why it feels like my stomach muscles are struggling to keep me from crumpling over and why I’m out of breath all the time from the sheer effort of holding myself partially upright. The first thing I say to him is “you said this would happen in a few years, not weeks.” He nods, reading my file.
We ask him how I got this way. He answers confidently that it is a combination of three factors: bad luck (the scoliosis), genetics and age. He seems equally confident that I’ll be able to have the surgery in the next few months, pending final FDA approval and the ok from the insurance company. At this point, I don’t much think about how I got this way, I’m trying to look forward to never being like this again.