“Maura woke to a huge claw squeezing the back of her neck and a knife buried between her shoulder blades. Unfortunately, that was how she awoke every morning, and multiple times throughout the night.”
These are the first lines of my current work in progress, Out of the Depths. It’s also an accurate description of the constant pain I’ve been experiencing for the past two-and-a-half years. A few days ago I had an appointment with my neurosurgeon. I had myself so worked up over it that when he walked into the exam room and said, “How are you doing?” (or something equally non-threatening) I burst into tears. I don’t mean I teared up, or sniffled a little. I’m talking gasping, heaving sobs. You’d have thought they had the graveside scene from Steel Magnolias playing on a continuous loop in the waiting room. It took my kind and compassionate doctor only a couple of sentences to ease my fears (Yes, the pain will get better, he just doesn’t know how long it will take) but I’m not one of those people who can just turn off the tears. Once I get started my eyes stay red, my chin quivers, and my nose runs for at least an hour. And if anyone talks to me, looks at me, or, God forbid, asks, “Are you OK?” . . . well, the heaving, gasping sobs start right back up. I managed to calm down enough to call my husband, my mom, and my boss to tell them the good news: There is still reason to believe the pain will decrease; and the bad news: I won’t be returning to work next week as planned.
Since I first herniated a disc in my neck in January 2009 (no car wreck or skydiving accident involved – I just woke up one morning in pain) I have had four neurosurgeries. I’ve done physical therapy, aquatherapy, special spine-only physical therapy, and massage therapy. I’ve had cervical traction, two epidural injections, and a half-dozen trigger point injections. I wore a TENS unit and pain relief patches all day every day for over a year. I took muscle relaxers, anti-inflammatories, steroids, various neurologic meds, and weird custom-blended medications I had to buy at a pet pharmacy. In my search for answers I had five or six MRIs, two cervical myelograms (more painful than the surgeries), and Xrays without end. I saw two neurosurgeons, two pain management doctors, and various therapists in addition to my regular primary care doctor.
I was back at work full-time three weeks after my first surgery, and four weeks after my second. I showed up on time for work every day, and gave it my all. Some days I had to excuse myself from patient-related conversations and dash to the nearest restroom to throw up because the pain was so bad. Some afternoons I closed my office door and lay down on the floor in order to avoid passing out from the pain. I carried heat packs and cold packs to work and placed them on my neck and back between supervising stress tests. I hauled a cervical traction setup to the office and lay in it on the floor while I returned pages. The pain was often so bad I couldn’t think clearly and when co-workers would ask me questions about a patient I couldn’t understand the question, let alone formulate an answer. I forgot things. Lots of things. All the time. I made mistakes that could have caused patients irreparable harm, but, thankfully, they were all caught and corrected.
I don’t talk much about my pain issues on the blog, because it’s boring as hell. Yes, it has been the focus of my entire life for over two years, but it even bores me. However, I felt a need to share the story today, because last Thursday’s doctor’s visit changed my life. My FMLA is exhausted, you see, and my boss has to post my position – the position I’ve held for nineteen years. Thankfully, I have good short-term disability insurance, and long-term if it comes to that. I’m on strong narcotics and muscle relaxers around the clock, and I can’t function at all without them. But I’ve lain awake night after night, thinking, “I have to go back to work. I have a family to support, and we can’t go without insurance. I have two children to put through college!” And then I’ll think, ” It would be so easy to make a mistake that could get someone killed. Or even if the worst didn’t happen, I still wouldn’t be doing my job properly. Sooner or later that would catch up with me, I’d get fired . . . and I’d deserve it.”
Don’t worry, I’m not planning on posting regularly about my neck pain (although I do plan to write a celebratory post when and if it gets better). I just wanted to share what’s been going on for those friends, family, and co-workers who might be wondering, “Why the hell isn’t Angie back at work yet? What is she, some kind of slacker?!” No, I’m not a slacker, I’m not a wimp, and I’m not milking the system. I’m just trying to get through a pretty horrific situation the best way I know how.
I’m linking this post up to Wordful Wednesday (God knows it’s wordful!) on Parenting by Dummies and Seven Clown Circus and to Mama Kat’s Writers’ Workshop for the “bad day” prompt (only because there wasn’t a “bad two years” prompt) and Pour Your Heart Out (for obvious reasons).