My spine is a mess. It was a mess when I had a spinal fusion and laminectomy in 1967. The surgery then was nothing like it is now. They chopped and hacked and hewed to make room for the spinal cord to not be cut in half by my 50% displaced spine.
How did my spine get so badly broken?
First, there was trying to dig out an old swimming pool using a pickax. I swung it back and there was a nasty snap in my spine. I was maybe 10 (possibly younger) and my back never worked properly again.
I ignored the pain because I was a kid. Kids don’t have back pain, or they didn’t in the 1950s. Now they do, but it was a different time.
After that, there were horses.
Despite the pain in my back (and yes, it really hurt a lot), I wanted desperately to learn to ride. My mother refused to let me take lessons, so I rented a horse when I could and taught myself. That sounds better than it really is.
Learning to ride, especially without a proper teacher, involves a degree of falling. Falling on your ass looks really funny (har har har), but the damage it does to your spine — especially when it’s a hard fall from a tall horse that’s moving pretty fast — isn’t pretty or humorous.
By the time I was 19 (and married), I had lost all feeling in my right leg. It was numb. My first husband (RIP, Jeffrey) thought a doctor was a good choice and we went. It turned out that I had a 50% dislocation in the lumbar region and my spinal cord was essentially being sawed in half by three ruptured, herniated disks.
It was 1967. All the delicate work they do these days to fix spines didn’t exist. Neither did a lot of the tests they use today. So it was pretty much drills and saws and a lot of surgeons for 11 hours that left me delirious with fever and in more pain than I thought a human could sustain.
That was when I had my first conversation with The Voice in which I got a choice: I could die and that would finish the pain (and me) … or I could cope with the pain and move on, but it was going to hurt a lot and for a long time. I didn’t understand that “a long time” meant “the rest of your life” because I was just 19 and “the rest of my life” meant two weeks from next Thursday.
Also, paying for the surgery — those were the good old days — effectively bankrupted us.
I wanted to live. I am too interested and curious about the world to give it up. I was also (wrongly) still of a mindset that assumed I could somehow use “mind over matter” to make everything work properly. I could “think myself well.”
I was in the hospital for five months and after that, wore a body cast (chest to knee on the right and to the hip on the left) and it was old-fashioned plaster. I got LOTS of signatures on it.
I hurt a lot. Constantly. I dealt with it. That was when I learned to smile broadly and to the question “How are you?” I could answer while smiling broadly, “Oh just FINE, thank you.” Any other answer was too complicated. No one really wanted to hear about it anyway, least of all me.
Balance. Between death and life to come, I needed to create a life, too.
Then I went back to work. I became a writer and editor and I took up horseback riding again because I totally refused to admit there was anything wrong with me. For the next 30+ years, I NEVER got a checkup of how my back was doing. Until that uninsured moron t-boned me in the late 1990s.
The people came out of the x-ray room white-faced. It was really bad. The “fusion” had long some unfused and what had been bone paste was just crumbled bone pieces.
Balance. I said “Does this mean I can’t ride anymore?” and I had the sense that they thought I was both incredibly stupid and totally wacko. Also, I was pretty sure they meant “No.”
I gave up riding. The accident finished off what had long since begun, but arthritis took over the job that the fusion was supposed to do. Calcification set in and literally wrapped my spine in an arthritic “sleeve.” Very sturdy. Rather painful.
So now, I have to be very careful about balance. I wobble a lot. My legs are weak. I can walk, but it hurts. My hips hurt. Sometimes my knees and ankles hurt.
For all that, with a lot of other unfortunately physical stuff happening (cancer X two)(two heart valves needing replacement, a pacemaker because the heart won’t pump on its own, a redesign of the left ventricle (myocardectomy, for those of you who like technical terms), and a bypass.
And my heart doesn’t bother me much except for the failure of the breastbone to solidify — it’s not the bones that are the problem. It’s the connective tissue which has not regrown, so the chest wall moves around a lot. No one can make the connective tissue regrow and even though there are new ways to do it, insurance won’t pay for it.
Getting out of bed in the morning is a serious balance issue. I take a fair number of painkillers … Excedrin, Tylenol, and a Demerol which is the only one of the chemical-non-opioids I can take without getting deathly ill. Yes, also horribly allergic to opioids.
After all of this, and another half hour’s sleep, I can actually stand up. Then I have to find my balance point … before I try to walk because if I walk, I’ll fall and falling is NOT good.
I sometimes wonder if all of that had happened today, with all of the better surgery and work they do, would it have changed everything? I didn’t have a choice, of course. That was the thing. I was lucky they could fix it at all. A few years earlier, and they wouldn’t have.