There was no lightening or thunderbolt or exact period of time or date but it came on very gradually—so gradually that I actually did not even notice the change in my body.
I was still an avid runner living in Augusta in 2011. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and we all have 20/20, but at the time, I couldn’t even fathom that something devastating was brewing. Looking back, I remember running my regular 6-10 mile route when I began to “trip.” At first I attributed this to just being clumsy, which I never was before. It is amazing how the human mind can deny and deny something that is so obviously wrong. Running, previously my most enjoyable past time, began to be fraught with anxiety about whether or not I would trip and fall. Each time I ventured out, I would lecture myself on “lifting my right foot up.” When I did trip, I would chide myself by saying, “What’s wrong with you—PICK UP YOUR FOOT, IDIOT?” But invariably no matter how much I tried, my right foot would not lift far enough off the ground, resulting in tripping. One day, after a very frustrating and anxiety-ridden run, I checked the tread of my sneakers and I saw that the toe of the right sneaker was almost completely worn down, while the left sneaker was fine. Yet I still thought I was merely clumsy. A few days before Thanksgiving, I went to Kroger to buy food for a dish and took a huge fall in the parking lot, spilling my grocery bag. I quickly got up and tried to figure out what had happened. Apparently while getting to my car, my right foot did not clear the curb—more like dragged—and down I went. Fortunately or unfortunately I seemed to be walking normally so this pattern continued until August 2012.
As an obsessive runner I had multiple knee surgeries over the years for a ripped meniscus. In August 2012, I underwent one more surgery on my damaged right knee. I had every confidence that I would recover as I had before, although I was told I should not run anymore. I accepted that and I was just grateful that finally I would be pain free. However, my knee never got better and continued to be so painful where I could walk only with a marked limp. I tried all kinds of shots in my knee but it would not heal properly.
In addition, for a while I had bad lumber pain, especially in the morning. I thought I just needed a new mattress and, no matter how many mattresses I tried (I drove the mattress store employees crazy) my low back pain persisted. But it was not only lumbar pain—my whole body hurt and my toes were numb. I went to my internist, and after doing a cursory exam he concluded that I didn’t have any disc involvement and put me on an anti-inflammatory medication. I asked him if I should at least get an MRI, and he rejected that idea due to the cost. I emphasized to him that MY WHOLE BODY ACHED, but nothing was ordered. I finally decided that I would “self-refer” to a neurosurgeon. I went to the Neuroscience facility on Steven’s Creek Road and saw Dr. B, an osteopath, the first person before referral to a surgeon. He ordered a lumber MRI and it revealed spinal stenosis, pretty common in someone my age. We decided on a course of epidural steroid injections, which proved to be mildly successful for about a week. Then after two courses of this treatment, the pain returned and he finally referred me to one of the neurosurgeons (Dr. S) in that practice. My surgery was scheduled for Election Day 2012 and I had high hopes of becoming pain free again. At that time I was a massage therapist, and it was very difficult to practice my occupation and bend over, trying to relieve others’ pain, when my back was killing me. I went home from the hospital the next day with a plan to do lots of walking and get myself back on track for a quick recovery. However that was not the way it played out. Within a week, I was having balance trouble and within two weeks I was reluctantly using a cane to get around. My right knee was just as painful as ever and I could not walk without a limp and cane. I began to have nerve pain that I almost could not identify because I had never experienced that before. I frantically searched the Internet for some type of explanation and came up with “failed back surgery” as the culprit because I read story after story of patients who never recovered from lumbar surgery.
Now my 4 month long nightmare began in earnest. I went back to the Neuroscience practice and spoke with the surgeon’s very unsympathetic physician’s assistant who said, “give it time” and that the “nerve root needed to heal.” So, I tried to do just that, but instead of seeing improvement, my symptoms became worse and worse. At this point, I had severe burning and tingling nerve pain from my waist to my toes. I had a mysterious pressure on my abdomen and back whenever I stood which was relieved only when I sat or lay down. My right leg was cold to the touch, beginning to atrophy, and I could not lift it properly, much less walk without a cane. What made this so nightmarish was that NOBODY BELIEVED ME. Each time I went in for a check up, I was told over and over, “Well, this is so unusual. We’ve never seen this before”, as if it must be psychosomatic in nature—that was the implication. In the meantime, I was so debilitated at this point that I had to keep crutches and a cane by my bed so I could get into the bathroom at night. I actually drove, but with my heart in my mouth because my right leg, which was partially paralyzed, didn’t function properly. I had so many close calls that I knew God had to be traveling with me each time I ventured out. I had to lift my leg up with my hands to get it in the car and my biggest fear was that I would kill a person or family while driving. When I went shopping I would try to park as close as I could to the store, sometimes abandoning my mission because it was too far to walk. Everything that we take for granted was an effort and it gave me a great appreciation for what disabled people deal with on a regular basis. I asked the physician’s assistant if she could take pity on me and write a note for me to get a disabled car tag, but she refused stating, “Those are only given to people who are totally paralyzed” which is untrue. I ended up getting one from my orthopedist instead.
I went in for another LUMBER MRI because they wanted to see if the surgical site gave them any clues, which it didn’t. I was suffering, both physically and psychologically and I began to lose hope. But I soldered on and each day I would wake up with HOPE that maybe the nerve root was finally healing and maybe, just maybe, I could at least walk a little better. Some days I would fool myself into believing that there was a tiny bit of improvement and my mood would be bolstered. But that positive mood was dashed the next day when, upon waking, it became apparent that I was not any better, and in fact, probably worse. We all know that HOPE is everything, and I had none. So, at this point, I began to consider suicide every morning, even planning the method. I believe that what kept me going was that I employed a 12 step program tool of thinking in terms of “one day at a time.” I would think, “OK, whatever you want to do, you can put this off until tomorrow” and that kept me going in the world for another day. On days that I was so depressed, I would force myself to go to the gym, and although I didn’t go into the regular gym because I was embarrassed by my debilitated state, I went to the disabled pool. It was there that I would find some gratitude because, although here I was, withered polio-like leg, ambling into the pool with the use of my cane, I saw people far worse than me—quadriplegics with happy expressions in the pool. I saw wheelchair-bound people and said, “Thank You God.”
I continued going to the Neuroscience practice for checkups, only to be shuffled back and forth to various departments. All the while, they were baffled by my deteriorated state. One day they decided to perform an EMG and I was so hopeful that finally they would find the reason for my crippling condition. It was New Years Eve of 2012 when, while sitting in my car, I received a call from the nurse stating that, “The EMG showed nothing but an old radiculopathy.” In English—nothing new and nothing that would account for my deterioration. That day was significant in that I just sat there, totally numb and disbelieving, my last hope dashed, and thought that I could not bring myself to go on in the world. A friend of mine happened to see me, and asked if I was OK and suggested we go to Starbucks, which saved me for another day.
The next person to see me at that practice was the pain management doctor who gave me the news in an abrupt manner, that he could not help me. He prescribed Lyrica and Neurontin for nerve pain, but all it did was cause me to fall because it made my muscles weak, so I stopped that immediately. I was so angry at his lack of empathy and bad bedside manner but it turned out to be the best thing that happened because he referred me back to the original doctor, going full circle. Dr. B, the osteopath, sat and actually thought about what might be going on and what my options were. He treated me as a person and his kind, thoughtful manner was appreciated. The new plan was to embark on yet another course of epidural steroid injections, but suddenly a thought occurred to him—what if we order a thoracic MRI? After the MRI I went back to his office with no expectations, but maybe a little hope. As soon as he pulled up the MRI on the screen, his eyes lit up because the MRI revealed a small benign tumor (meningioma) pressing on T3 of the spinal cord. Boom—my world exploded in a good way. He excitedly said, “Here’s your problem. This meningioma is pressing on T3, causing all your symptoms.” It was as if God came down from the heavens and blessed me—I was so ecstatic that words cannot describe it. I am brought to tears when I think of that moment. He quickly referred me back to the original surgeon, Dr. S, who was shocked and humbled. I actually did not want to use the same surgeon, but I realized she knew my case, and I could get this done very soon. Just prior to surgery I discovered an article from a Japanese case study that said, “If a patient is not recovering from lumber surgery, the surgeon should consider the possibility of a thoracic meningioma.” I sure wish I had seen that article months before, but at least it was finally correctly diagnosed. The spinal surgery, scheduled for a week later, was rough but successful. Right out of the recovery room, I clearly remember me lifting my right leg, unaided, and being elated. After a hard 5 days in the hospital, in severe pain, I was released. A home care nurse was ordered for 2 weeks and I dismissed her after a week. My walker went into the garage along with my cane and crutches. I am athletic and I began to recover so quickly due to my previous good shape and I began going to the gym again. I had to be careful that nobody slapped me on my back for a while, which would send me to the moon but other than that, it was fine. My damaged knee began to heal, and my atrophied and cold right leg began to warm and plump out, looking normal again. Here’s the thing, I was bitter at first for all the doctors who I felt failed me starting initially with my internist and I even considered hiring a lawyer to sue. But, I then began to think about gratitude and forgiveness and by the grace of God, a solution to my suffering was found. I began to think that maybe my travails helped me be more empathetic to the disabled, an experience I never would have had otherwise. On March 1st it will be 4 years since I got my life back. But, each time I perform an otherwise unremarkable feat such as walking briskly across the room, or climbing stairs unaided, I am in awe. Sometimes I am merely in Walmart and I marvel at how fast I can walk, or in an airport, briskly passing people on the way to my connection. It is amazing and miraculous and I will never stop being grateful.