In late January, I began getting muscle spasms in my left shoulder. Within a week, I could no longer lie down, forcing me to sleep in a chair. The pain in my upper back and shoulders was becoming unbearable.
One evening, I was in my daughter’s room when I tossed her comforter onto the bed. That simple action almost took me out, by a new level of intense, acute nerve pain, unlike anything I had ever felt.
The best I can describe what happened in my daughter’s room was that a bolt of lightning originating in my shoulder, shot down my left arm with such force that I remember thinking my fingers were going to explode from the pressure. I yelled and cradled my left arm as I left the room.
I visited my PCP who took some film of my neck, then promptly referred me to a neurosurgeon at Piedmont Hospital. Dale R., MD, was the head of the Neuroscience Department at the hospital, as well as having his own surgical practice. He saw me the next day, primarily to take MRIs.
My next appointment with Dr. Dale was first thing the following morning for him to review the film. He told me he rarely sees anything quite as bad to highly suggest emergency surgery on a first visit.
He said he would always be candid with me, and at that point, he told me that worst case scenario, I was at risk for paralysis — with, or without the surgery — best case would be some permanent nerve damage. What he pointed out and explained was I had a severely herniated and ruptured disk that was compressing my spinal cord, and it could literally paralyze me if it got much worse. I had already lost most of the feeling in my left hand.
I stood with him as he and his secretary moved previously scheduled surgeries around to make an opening for me. His regular current wait time was three-to-four weeks.
My surgery was scheduled for two days later — Valentine’s Day, 2001.
Of My Five Senses, Hearing Wakes First
When I’ve come out of surgery, my hearing wakes-up first. My other senses do not exist. I cannot see, which is not like closing your eyes, it’s more like you don’t have them. Nor can I feel, which does not mean pins and needles, it means no body. Luckily my brain puts everything into perspective, as I know where I am and what I’m doing. But still, I feel as if I’m just a big ear floating in space, and listening to everything around me.
Lesson to Learn: Never talk in front of someone “sleeping” in a hospital bed, because you think they cannot hear you. You may end up being very surprised. After my surgeries, I would be able to hear and process everything I heard as normal. The one big thing not normal was that only my sense of hearing had returned — I could not see, move or make a sound.
Initially, I considered the surgery successful for a few reasons:
1 I was able to wiggle my toes;
2 I awoke in a horizontal position, and didn’t feel that pain;
3 the spasms were gone, and so was the lightning.
I did acquire nerve damage, as not all the feeling returned to my left hand. But time would be needed to confirm how successful it was overall, and unfortunately, time never provided the answer I hoped for.
My neck never healed correctly, and here, nine years later, my neck is providing me a constant level of pain, both chronic and acute, that I never had before the surgery. Also, I often hear grinding when I turn my head, which is accompanied with arthritic-type pain. My neck is held together by six titanium screws, and two titanium rods.
Since the surgery, I also need to be very careful while eating. Food lodges easily in my throat, as if they left a poorly marked detour in there. Even swallowing one typical sized pill will usually get caught, and more often than not, I need to bring it up, before I attempt to send it back down again. I’ve had a few fairly frightening experiences, moving beyond lodging to borderline-choking … the worst time it happened, I was alone and on the floor before it cleared.
Even though my neck never gave me chronic pain, in just two weeks, it became the reason I would have surgery on my spine, like it or not. I doubt I would have ever had back surgery if not for my emergency neck surgery.
I figured my back would not be as difficult as my neck, not an emergency, and I’d be able to finish my life closer to pain-free. About a month after I recovered from my neck surgery, I went back to Dr. Dale, where he promptly had MRIs shot of my lower back.
He showed me where four vertebrae were virtually missing the three disks that were supposed to cushion them and protect the nerves … they were now, and had been for some time, virtually bone-on-bone.
I asked him about other treatments, and he explained them, but provided little hope they would offer any relief. I tried the only ones with any hope — both were epidural-steroid treatments, one administered in a simple office setting, and the second more surgically but with a much higher chance for success
In July, I had the simple office procedure, and it did exactly nothing, just as the pain specialist predicted.
In August, I showed up for the more invasive procedure. That pain specialist predicted the same outcome … little-to-no relief. My pain relief had vanished by the next afternoon … just over 24 hours. For the right candidate, epidural-steroid treatments can provide pain relief for six months and longer.
In September, I had planned to schedule my surgery, but time stopped and the world changed — I was watching CNN live when the second plane hit. I had been in those buildings, even at the top. That moment had a very lasting effect on me. It would be another month before I returned to “thinking surgery” and scheduling my back procedure.
continued in Part 2 . . .