Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Broken Rod in My Back

my sexy spine

i know how dramatic this sounds. i’ve seen enough dropped jaws when i’ve told friends that “my doctor said one of the rods in my back broke” to know i must follow it up immediately with, “but i’m OK. really.” and i am OK. really. 

there is no pain — most of the time. and the pain that i do feel some of the time is no different than the pain most people with bad backs have some of the time. in that sense, the broken rod in my back is a lackluster piece of metal, operating well below its full potential when considering how much damage it can do. the orthopedic surgeon i recently visited assured me that it could be much worse and that i should consider myself lucky. and i do.

i found out a few months ago during a checkup at the Cedars-Sinai Spine Center. i hadn’t had my backed checked in 10 years, which is dumb considering i had my spine fused 15 years ago and probably could have benefited from routine checkups. but orthopedic surgeons are like dentists to me: administrators of childhood pain that produced life-long scars who must be dodged for years with lofty excuses.

i had had scoliosis since puberty, and by the time i entered young adulthood, the curvature reached a 42-degree angle. the surgeon said i would need to correct it eventually, so three days after my 22nd birthday, he made a 13-inch incision down the center of my back to add titanium rods along my spine that would fuse with bone chips “shaved” off my pelvis.

i was in the hospital for five nights, hooked up to a morphine drip, in a back brace for months and had to undergo intense physical therapy to get mobile again. (read the full story here.) in short, it was hell and a half, the worst physical pain of my life that made me contemplate suicide for the only time in my life. just thinking about that pain now makes me want to vomit and pass out, like i did countless times back then.

fast forward to now and the three rods have become four. maybe three and a half, as the piece is less broken off and free-floating than it is bent and hanging. it never fused with my bone or back, leaving that area unsupported, which could become problematic for me down the road. doc said it didn’t snap violently (i would have felt that), but weakened gradually by years of normal activity. he likened it to breaking a paper clip by bending it repeatedly at a certain point until it eventually gives way.

i am officially part of the failed fusion crowd. the surgeon said it happens in about 10% of cases.

so my rod gave way. i don’t know when it happened, probably years ago. no, you can’t feel the broken rod with your hand so quit trying to lift my shirt and touch my back, sicko. however, i can feel the broken rod from time to time. it creates a crunching sensation when i move a certain way that feels like two bones grinding against each other. this is not particularly painful, nor is it pleasant, so i try to minimize its occurrence, but the truth is i feel it several times a week. 

on days when i’ve done a lot of heavy lifting, moving furniture or gardening, i feel a small circle of pain at the broken point of the rod, and when i saw the area on the X-ray, i could locate it easily on my back. i’ve felt this pain for years, but it never reached debilitating levels so i would do a few stretches and carry on.

and i must still carry on as this issue does not have an magic solution. initially, i wanted the rod reattached with an operation. i read about the minimally invasive surgical breakthroughs made since my butcher job 15 years ago and knew they could go in through the belly button with a microscope for a quick procedure that would require only one night in the hospital and a few weeks of recovery.

after i suggested it, the surgeon called me crazy in the nicest way possible and then told me i was the only patient who ever walked into his office asking for an operation. he held up the sheet i had to fill out before every appointment, the one measuring my pain level from a 1 to 10. he pointed to all the 1s, saying “it’s not an issue until it’s an issue.” then he pointed to the waiting room full of 10s, a throng of aching and mangled bodies who looked like they were pulled from a freeway pileup. they always made me uneasy with their walkers, canes and groans, as i springed past them effortlessly, feeling a little guilty but mostly lucky not to be them.

doc said that having a needless surgery could create new pains and problems so i better accept my good fortune and work on maintaining it. and after the (crazy expensive) CT scan that showed more than the standard X-ray, he said the surgery i might need would be like the first one, but far worse.

apparently, the last surgeon (now deceased) should have extended the rods all the way to my neck instead of stopping midway down my back, because the area where he stopped is developing arthritis due to the stress on those upper vertebrae to support the bottom half of my spine. so the best corrective surgery for me at this point would cut my entire back open, remove the old rods and insert new ones from neck to tailbone.

hearing him say it made me shaky and nauseous. not gonna happen again. no fucking way.

CT scan of my back. on the other side of where the rod ends, about midway up my spine, the vertebrae are a little lighter, indicating arthritis. 

with that, i took his prescription for physical therapy and order to “get fit and stay that way” to heart. i would need to lose weight and strengthen my core in an effort to stave away the arthritis and chronic pain that are my certain future. to that end, i joined a gym close to my work and did the unthinkable by actually going.

there, i learned how to use all these nifty core strengthening machines that made my back feel bionic. weirder still is that i actually enjoyed the visits and felt grouchy when i hadn’t exercised in a while. not that i’m close to becoming a gymrat or ms. fitness USA, but i’m happy to spend less time on my couch eating bon-bons and watching soap operas.

taken on my first day of physical therapy. my favorite part was the heat packs and massages from the therapist, which helped me pretend i was in a spa instead of a gym.

Tico and i have also begun playing tennis regularly at our local court. despite its graffiti, i have affectionately renamed it “the country club,” calling Tico “Wellington” while we’re there and asking him to call me “Penelope.” he just rolls his eyes and runs me all over the court. we make sure to drink Perrier after.

in addition, i have been steadfast in my refusal of meat since February, helping to ensure that my diet consists mostly of fresh fish and veggies (and an occasional Twix bar). this has translated into a whopping 10 pounds of weight loss since the start of the year. normally, i would rejoice at this amount as i’ve been trying to lose “that final 10” since birth, but i’ve noticed that the 10 has turned into 20 – and probably 30 if i’m honest with myself, but let me keep the deception going a bit longer.

illustrations of some of my core conditioning exercises, courtesy of Tico

sadly, the weight has been coming off slooooowly, thanks to my aging metabolism and penchant for being lazy, but it will come off this time. having a medical imperative forces me take this seriously. i don’t want to become one of those aching, mangled bodies in my surgeon’s waiting room and i certainly don’t want a repeat of that first surgery.

but don’t worry, i won’t become one of those needy people who tracks her weight loss and food online or checks into the gym weekly on Facebook. nor will there be some big bikini reveal at the end of this, as i don’t know photoshop. what there will be is rather dull: a better diet, more exercise and, hopefully, a healthy back that i’ll be able to use well into old age. 

now if youll excuse me, i need to go do some situps.