I Knew This Day Was Coming, I Knew It Right From The Start

(song: Illusory Light/artist: Sarah Blasko) 

Well kids, I'm fucked. At least, that's how I feel right now.

If you've seen my recent Facebook posts you know that I just had surgery on my back. Lower back pain is not new to me -- I referenced my battle with lower back pain in this post from 2011. And then again in October of this year when I forfeited a half-marathon I spent the summer training for. I've known since 2003 that I have herniated discs in my back. I've known since 2003 that I was probably going to have to get surgery some day. What I didn't know was how quickly things could go from bad to worse when your body has had enough. 

Let me break down the events for you.

  • October 10 - I forfeit my spot in the Rock N Roll half-marathon after months of summer training. I'm just happy my ankle was strong enough to train and I think nothing of my back pain because I know it's temporary and I tell myself I'll roll and stretch and it will be fine, like always.
  • November 15 - I run my best 5K race. I feel great. The next day, my back is sore but that's nothing new...
  • Nov. 22 - Having just joined in October, I run my first Prospect Park Track Club group run despite my back being super sore after the previous day's 5-mile run. Little did I realize, my first run with PPTC would be my last run for a long time. 
Bad things start to happen:
  • Nov. 24 - I notice a weird pain in my glutes. It felt like they were in a vise grip and had been set on fire. Both cheeks. I notice that it goes away when I sit or lie down. Only standing and walking causes pain. This kind of pain was foreign to me.
  • Nov. 26 - Thanksgiving Day. My family and I fly to Georgia. I am struggling at JFK but I'm still able to walk to the gate. I tell myself it's stress and that once I'm back in my hometown,  all the pain will melt away. I'm running in a 5K race the next day and I can't wait to see if I can beat or meet my time from 10 days earlier.

Thanksgiving in GA. I remained sitting for most of my trip.
  • Nov. 27 - Upon my first step out of bed, my ass is engulfed in flames. It also feels as if my legs are super glued into the hip sockets and therefore unable to move back and forth. I burst into tears when I know I can't run the race that morning. I go to the local clinic and get a prescription for prednisone, a steroid that has worked in the past. Unfortunately this time was different and walking continues to become increasingly difficult.
  • Nov. 30 - I notice the tops of my feet and shins are very numb. I also cannot grip my toes to slide my feet into my shoes. I'm still taking the steroids but the numbness and glute pain persists. I call my physical therapist and tell him what's happening. We mutually agree it's time for medical attention. While still in Georgia, I call NYC's Hospital For Special Surgery and get the earliest appointment available - December 10 at 3:45. 11 days away. I'm worried now. I spent my trip helping to care for my sick father when ironically, I was having just as much trouble getting around as he was. My spirits are plummeting.

My dad and me in matching wheelchairs waiting for my car. I had to valet my car because I couldn't walk from the parking lot to my dad's doctor's office.

  • Dec. 1 - Fly back to New York. The short walk to the terminal at our outbound airport in Florida is so painful that I request a wheelchair at JFK because I know the walk to baggage claim will kill me. I feel defeated as I get wheeled through JFK.
  • Dec. 3 - I see my physical therapist. I sob as I hobble to the table where he checks my strength - I can barley lift my toes. It's as if I can't make my feet work with my brain. I am so depressed at this point. All I do is drive my son to and from school and stay on my sofa all day. I can't stand comfortably for more than 10 minutes at a time. I cry a lot. Later that evening, I fall on a staircase in a restaurant because my legs collapsed when I tried to ascend.
  • Dec. 5 & 6 - I forfeit my spot in the Jingle Bell Jog 4-miler - my favorite race of the year. The next day I miss the PPTC Pajama Run. At this point I know I can't run NYRR's Ted Corbitt 15K on Dec. 12. I'm angry and sad. I've reached a level of darkness I had not felt since the postpartum depression I experienced after the birth of my son. 
Shit got real scary, real fast:

December 10, Thursday 

My first appointment at Hospital For Special Surgery is with with physiatrist Dr. Alex Simotas. I had been instructed to go for x-rays before the appointment so I arrive with my x-ray disc in hand. As I walk into the exam room, he says, "How long have you been walking like that?" I was walking as if walking was new to me. My legs felt numb and weightless, as if I had just had casts removed. They were really wobbly. The firey pain in my glutes and hip-flexors was still present (when I stood or walked). I tell him it's been about two weeks - 17 days to be exact - and give him the rundown of the numbness and pain's progression. He seems shocked that this has been going on for over two weeks. He says, "Jesus, what have you been doing?' I answer honestly with, "Lying on my couch and crying." He checks my reflexes. They're not good, but they're not completely dead. He has me press my feet against his hand one-at-a-time. He is extremely concerned about the weakness and my inability to lift my feet and/or toes upward. He asks me if I have control of my bathroom functions. Why I didn't ask questions, I don't know, but I tell him I'm just fine in the potty department. I then ask him, ever-so-naivley, "So, have I graduated from steroids to a cortisone injection?" He replies with, "You're way past injections. You need surgery." I'm speechless. He tells me I have bilateral foot-drop. He wants to send me for an MRI right away so he has his secretary begin the process of getting an approval from the insurance company for an emergency MRI. He leads me to the sofa in his waiting room, and makes a point of telling me to sit down. He tells me not to walk or stand or do anything beyond what is absolutely necessary from this moment until I get surgery. Stunned and in tears, I call my husband and tell him what's going on and ask him to figure out when and where to get our son who is at a friend's house. My head is spinning. I ask the doctor what the urgency is and he explains that waiting could mean permanent nerve damage. I cry some more. Because I have a recorded history of back issues he is optimistic that it's spine-related but the foot-drop and numbness can also mean things like MS, which he wants to rule out. He actually speaks to a surgeon during our appointment. By 5:30, we have the approval and I am scheduled for an emergency MRI at 10PM.

Oh, my sweet spine, we used to be so good together.

I decide to go home and get a bite to eat since I had a few hours to kill before my MRI. As fortunate coincidence would have it, one of my friends is married to an orthopedic surgeon. I call her in hysterics and tell her what's going on. She calls her husband, Dr. Michael Gerling who schedules me for 8AM the following morning. I have my 2nd opinion scheduled before my 1st. 

I arrive at East River Medical Imaging for my MRI.  Minutes later I'm freezing my ass off in a giant, clanking metal tube. Half-way through the MRI, I get "contrast" injected into my arm. This ice cold injection makes things like tumors, abnormal growths, disease...all sorts of fun stuff, appear more clearly on the MRI. After it's over, the tech tells me that someone from HSS will call me in the morning with further instructions. I head home at 11PM, exhausted and terrified.

10PM MRI party for one

December 11, Friday

I see Dr. Gerling, my friend's husband, and after he tests my reflexes and foot strength and reviews the MRI results, he agrees that I need surgery right away. A badly herniated disc is pressing a nerve which is why my legs and feet are numb. He also asks me about my bathroom functions. He sees something on the MRI that he thinks could be a cyst but would need a radiology report to confirm. He explains how he would do the procedure and tells me to think about everything after I see the surgeon from HSS. I cry, and thank him, and hug him.

I have just left my appointment with Dr. Gerling when the secretary from Dr. Simotas' office calls and tells me the surgeon has reviewed my MRI and wants me to come to his office in an hour. I arrive on time and am seen immediately after I finish my paperwork. The surgeon, Dr. Bernard Rawlins sort of looks like James Earl Jones' more handsome younger brother, complete with dreamy British accent. He does the same battery of tests that Dr. Simotas and Dr. Gerling did. He also asks me about my bathroom functions. "Is that a real concern?", I say now that three doctors have asked me. "It's a very real concern," he says. As I understood it, the nerves being crushed by the wildly ruptured disc could also be the nerves that help me control my bathroom functions. He echoes both doctors' call for immediate surgery. He tells me he wants to do it Monday. I agree to the surgery, then I begin to cry. He tells me I am to do nothing over the weekend, except rest. He explains the procedure and outlines potential risk, as he is obliged to do. He also thinks he sees a cyst and tells me he will review it with the radiologist after he sees me. He takes me down the hall to an office shared by his surgical coordinator and office manger  then bids me farewell until Monday. These two incredible ladies are simultaneously badgering my insurance company to approve this emergency surgery by the end of the day, and also scheduling me for all of the tests I need before surgery. After a series of phone calls, they order a wheelchair to take me across the street to the main hospital where my afternoon of pre-op fun begins. 

Dead legs rolling!

I see internist Dr. Joseph Markenson for my medical consult, then I go for blood tests, chest xrays and an EKG. I finish my pre-op at 4:30PM and head home in a state of complete disbelief that what I thought would be taken care of with a injection has escalated to emergency surgery. On the ride home I receive a call from a coordinator at Hospital for Special Surgery. I am officially confirmed for surgery on Monday at 4PM.

Holy shit. 

But I just thought I needed a shot...