STILL BALANCED – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Balance

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.

As soon as the cast came off, I got pregnant. Not accidentally. Absolutely on purpose. I had been very near death and I wanted to make a life.

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.

So balance for me is not about dance or the beauty of movement. It’s managing to stand up then convince the legs to move me along.

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.


25 thoughts on “STILL BALANCED – Marilyn Armstrong

  1. Wow, quite the journey, and you are a very determined individual. And that is one scary set of X-rays, I can see why everyone was pale after looking at them–really surprising that your spinal cord somehow wasn’t sheared off (although it may be below the cord ending and just grabbing at nerve roots.) Yikes!


    • I got to the doctor as soon as it went numb. The pain I was used to. Numbness terrified me. I WAS lucky, however. I was assured that it was amazing I was still able to walk because people with a back half that bad can’t stand up. But I was young and youth is amazing. it’s what I do NOT have now.

      Liked by 1 person

        • I imagined myself “mature.” Basically me, but with a few white hairs and maybe the odd wrinkle. I didn’t imagine my body crumbling quite as thoroughly as it has. I don’t think kids have a real understanding of age. They know people get old, but they don’t have a vision of themselves as older. Maybe it’s our culture, or maybe that’s just how youngsters are.

          Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve been thinking about it lately only because I often say my back is bothering me, but I rarely explain WHY it’s bothering me and why it’s not a minor little ache, but a lot more complicated. But I deal with it. We ALL deal with what we are given. However bad I have it, I know many people who are much worse off than me. I think no matter how bad you are doing — short of being on the edge of death of course — someone else is having a harder time. And because I know a lot of people with problem backs and there’s a warning in this: be careful how you handle this stuff. A bad surgery and/or a bad surgeon can make it MUCH worse.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Now you’ve made feel like a real cry baby who whines and complains about occasional lower back pain. I take a few Advil and sit with an ice pack on my lower back until the pain subsides and doesn’t return for a few weeks. I can’t imagine having to deal with what you’ve had to deal with.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Everyone gets their own stuff to deal with. My real worry is not now, but the future. I can still walk and move, albeit in a limited way, but in five years, will I still be mobile? It’s worrying. Garry complains a lot too. Whatever pains you have, they are the worst pains you have. If they get worse, you still deal with them. Because that’s life, isn’t it?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. My goodness. Well I won’t say I’m in any pain at all without thinking of you and how incredible you are. In the 60s (apparently and the 70s) that whole body cast and immobilization was their cure. My mother had her first hip surgery in 1965 (ish) and was in a full leg cast (plaster) and immobilized for six weeks. She then had to be on ‘light’ exercise and bed rest for six months. It damaged her leg dreadfully, and was the start of the whole foster care for her children nightmare. So in a way I’ve lived your story and seen what it does to the healthy body. Now of course, with most any surgery they have you up, if not immediately, then within 24 hours and walking around (at least with joint surgeries). The back surgeries haven’t advanced all that much from what I’ve heard. I have a cousin who has severe back pain (almost constant), she’s heavy and they used to blame that for the problem which turned out to be the reverse…she got heavy because of her back problems and immobility. She had some sort of spinal surgery about two years ago, and still suffers immensely with the pain and mobility is an issue. She can stand, and find her balance but staying that way for long is a trial. She uses public transportation to get around and I don’t know how she does that. My hip and knee issues have made me just stay home and ruminate. But both examples – you and my cousin, have shown me clearly that I don’t have any REAL problems at all. None.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Everybody’s problems are the worst problems they’ve ever had. If they get worse, you will deal with that, too. It’s not a competition. I was trying to explain what I meant when I said “bad back.” Because everyone has a problem with their back. They seem to come with being upright. Even when I had my surgery, in the more advanced hospitals, they were getting people up and moving faster. I chose a hospital my husband could get to without driving into Manhattan, but I would probably be in better shape had I chosen Columbia Presbyterian rather than the local joint.

      Warning to all: don’t pick the most convenient place if there is a more advanced, better facility available, EVEN if it’s inconvenient.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Very wise words. Where were you in 2016? I had my knee surgery in SLC, which is an hour and a half from my home. They were the best option, but the recovery? Wicked. Still. You’re absolutely right. Everyone’s own problems are the worst, for them. That old saw about piling everyone’s troubles in a big heap, and that they would choose their own back again. I’m still amazed by your fortitude!


        • You have to work in your own region, though many people come to Boston for surgery because we have some amazing hospitals and doctors. I had my heart work done at Beth Israel which is as good for heart surgery as it gets. Anywhere. It wasn’t convenient for anyone, but I picked the best surgeon I could find and he did a brilliant job. That my chest didn’t heal is no one’s fault. No one can make it heal. I think I don’t grow connective tissue well.

          The spine surgery — in 1967 — I chose badly. I should have gone to Columbia Presbyterian. More advanced equipment and better surgeons. But I didn’t. I made the same mistake again in 2002, but to be fair the doctor I was supposed to work with retired and the doctor I got was NOT good and badly mangled the surgery. It was more than a decade before I became almost normal and by then, I also had cancer.

          I have had really bad luck from a health standpoint.


  4. What can I say – there is nothing left to say. You must be the model for the Bionic woman. I find the worst part of horses is getting up and getting down again.


    • It’s a lot easier using stirrups than falling out of the saddle. I’ve done it both ways and I highly recommend the stirrups and saddle arrangement.

      I will never be an unknown corpse on a slab. I’ve got all these bionic replacement parts with tracking numbers!

      Liked by 1 person

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