“Pour some misery down on me
I’m only happy when it rains”
Only Happy When It Rains
Album: Garbage (1995)
Though I can recall several contributing factors to my need for my first back surgery, I couldn’t tell you what started the chain reaction that led to my second.
My best guess is too many Smith machine squats with poor technique did me in. The symptoms began with stiffness stretching couldn’t relieve.
Relief from chiropractic visits was also proving temporary, so I went for an MRI.
Disc herniation, L4/L5. Ah-gain.
I tried a new therapy known as spinal decompression therapy. Picture wearing a vest that attaches you to an exam-style table and slowly stretches you while applying heat and sonic waves to your lumbar spine.
If you’re picturing a medieval torture rack, it’s the luxury version: padded and soothing.
I’d stand on a platform like Frankenstein’s monster, let them strap (trap?) me in the vest, then relax as the Doc lowered the table to a prone position. To the best of my recollection, sessions were no longer than thirty minutes. The table elongated to stretch the spine, then returned to relax it.
Streeeetchhh… And baaaacckkk…
After all that stretching, my chiropractor undid the straps on the straight jacket. I can’t remember whether he returned the table top a standing position. I do remember him recommending I take my time standing up because my muscles and connective tissues needed to readjust to support my weight.
I wait a bit before rising, though I’m thinking, Come on. How bad could it be? I should’ve recognized the voice in my head as my personal trainer’s and known better.
Upon standing, I feel like the weight of a small building now rests on my shoulders. My lumbar area screams “TABLETABLETABLE!!” as I’m diving for it. I’m lying on my side, shell shocked, trying to process it.
What was that?!!
My lumbar area disrupted my thoughts, providing further clear direction.
“Do that again, and you will CRAWL out of here.”
My immediate thought? I might crawl out of here, anyway. Or just rent the room for a few weeks.
I went through this therapy twice per week for about a month (memory’s foggy), staying on the table a bit longer each time. Though the building wasn’t there when I rose, there was always some building awaiting me.
A long neighborhood walk put an end to the table treatment.
I’m on the other side of my neighborhood when, with my next step, something feels really wrong.
I’ve got radiating pain in my left buttock near the outside bottom of my pelvis. If you’ve experienced sciatica, you know the area I’m talking about.
I’m limping now, so I slow down. That not only doesn’t help, but I’m getting worse with each step..
I stop at a curb. My neighborhood walking tour is ending half a mile from home. I’m far from stranded, though: I call the most affordable, hottest Uber driver on the planet: my wife.
“Hey, how’s it going?” she asks with optimism I’m about to dash.
“Something’s up with my back.” I share my location and ask her to pick me up. My wife, knowing that, under normal circumstances, I’d all but crawl home before asking for a ride from that distance, tells me she’ll be right there.
Turns out part of my disc had broken off and taken up residence on a nerve. That’s like building a home on the San Andreas Fault. My surgeon will evict the rogue cartilage, and fast, before it can do permanent damage.
It’ll be a minimally invasive procedure. He’ll drill a tiny hole in my lamina and insert a tool to remove the rogue in pieces. I’ll have half of L5/S1 left and a two inch scar as a parting gift.
My surgery’s timing couldn’t be worse for my morale: I’m a huge Halloween fan—the holiday, the franchise for its many warts and missteps, and Michael Myers, in particular—so this means I’ll be spending my favorite holiday stalking neighbors from my couch.
I vaguely remember it today.
During one of my post-op visits, I learn patients typically need a cleanup procedure in five years. I immediately think, that won’t be me. And spoiler alert: I prove myself right.
I won’t go patting myself on the back, though. ‘Cause this epic tale doesn’t end here.
My surgeon’s matter of fact, sage words as we wrapped my last follow-up appointment:
“Just don’t do anything f***ing stupid.”
Oh, Doc… you overestimate me.
It took me thirteen years to prove it to him.
“Stupid is as stupid does.”
Forrest Gump (1994)
More chronic stiffness degenerating into chronic pain. No sciatica, so I’m trying to will it into existence that it’s not a disc issue.
During my office visit with my surgeon from 2009, he’s trying to recall when I had my last procedure. I tell him. It stuns and impresses him.
He reminds me most back surgery patients need a cleanup procedure within five years. I’ve defied the odds. Turns out to be a consolation prize, because my MRI confirms I’ve re-herniated L4/5.
Sorry, little buddy. Now, I’m impressed: It’s been almost thirteen years, and that feisty little shock absorber is still manning its post.
You are a warrior, my cartilaginous friend. I’ve put you through hell, and you kept what was left of our shields raised like a stubborn Scotty, ensuring everyone aboard the Enterprise survived despite the impulsive Kirk at the helm.
The nursing team preps me in my tent. I call it a tent because I believe rooms have walls, not sliding curtains. Entitled? Guilty, your honor. I wonder if it’s too late to upgrade my insurance.
My surgeon enters the tent without knocking. Always good to see him, a cool person with the talent and intelligence to fix important parts in very tiny spaces. He wishes me a good morning and asks how I’m doing.
I tell him I’m doing well for a guy about to go under the knife again. Then I can’t help but reminisce.
“I remember you telling me not to do anything f***ing stupid. Guess I’m still figuring that part out.”
He smiles, gives me his usual firm handshake, grips my shoulder reassuringly, and tells me we’ll take care of it.
Sign. Me. Up.
This time is going to be different.