It had been two years and I had tried everything. Anti-inflammatory medication, physical therapy, spinal epidurals. Nothing helped. I would watch people walking down the street, swinging their arms, and be amazed that they weren’t in excruciating pain like I was.
Would I ever walk again?
I found the answer the first week in April. I was home recovering from the gift of life – a kidney transplant from my daughter Sarah.
Grace was a visiting nurse sent out to help me post-op, tutoring me on how best to take my antirejection medication.
“My worst problem,” I told Grace, was not the healing of my kidney. It was my “sciatica agony,” (pronounced 'sigh-atika') a throbbing, burning, sizzling pain that ran like a hot river down my left leg.
Grace nodded. “A couple of years ago,”she said, “I also had sciatica. The pain was so horrible I had to stop working.”
Grace had surgery with a Dr. Guy Lee at Abington Memorial Hospital. “As soon as I woke up from the operation,” she said, “I knew the sciatica was gone.”
I was ecstatic. And wrote down his name and found him on the Internet. The pain had been so bad the past two years, it was unbearable.
My nephrologist (kidney doctor) at Einstein Medical Center acquiesced with my desire to have surgery as soon as possible. Dr. Shiang-Cheng Kung told me to wait only four months because of my acute distress.
Before I met nurse Grace, I had heard nothing but horror stories about back surgery.
As a psychotherapist, I had half a dozen patients with bad backs; back surgery only made them worse.
My friend, Mike, a car mechanic, has had at least six back surgeries and is thinking about going on disability because of his continuing pain.
All these cases were in the days before the invention of new techniques, such as the micro-discectomy I would undergo from Willow Grove Orthopedics.
When I told friends I was going to have back surgery they were dismayed.
"Wait a minute,” I said. “This surgery works! It’ll set me free!”
I was truly excited for Wednesday, Aug. 3, to roll around, though I could scarcely believe the pain would go away.
First, though, there were so many doctors I had to get clearance from before they would consent to operate.
My family doctor, Jim Foxhall, was in charge of this auxiliary team. Having gotten clearance for my 37-year-old kidney from Dr. Kung, Foxhall requested I get cardio clearance for my 65-year-old heart.
I passed all the tests and the countdown to surgery began.
The day before the operation, my daughter Sarah came in from Brooklyn and stayed with me a few days after the one-day surgery.
I was in great spirits the night before the operation. Heeding the words, "nothing to eat or drink after midnight," Sarah had put together one of her spectacular meals: fresh flounder encrusted with pecans and pesto sauce. My boyfriend Scott joined us in our last supper.
I drank plenty of water up until midnight, needlessly fearing I would awake with the thirst of someone lost in the Sahara.
With continuing military precision, the hospital ordered us to be there at 6:15 in the morning.
My son Dan picked us up and off we went in the misty semi-darkness.
“Are you scared, Mom?” he asked.
“Not at all,” I said. Compared to my chronic pain, the operation was a piece of cake.
The Lenfest Pavilion of Abington Memorial Hospital houses the waiting room for the Short Procedures Unit. Within 10 minutes, I was ushered in to my own little room with curtain and asked to change into a hospital gown with snaps and straps I couldn’t figure out. Nurse Patti pulled the necessary strings.
Soon my surgeon made his appearance. Guy Lee scribbled in black Magic Marker on my back so he’d remember where to cut.
Their double-checking process was enough to drive you nuts! I must have stated my name, birth date and why I was there nearly fifty times.
“You’re my first patient today,” said Dr. Lee in his always cheery voice.
“How many patients do you have today?" I asked.
“Only two,” he said. “It’s an easy day. I’ll see you in a few minutes."
A few minutes. It was going to happen. My heart quickened.
Guy Lee was a man on the go. From prior conversations, I knew he’d listen to rock and roll in the operating room, with a preference for Metallica.
After he left, I removed my contact lenses, and kissed my kids goodbye. The orderly had arrived and transferred me into another bed. Every time I moved my body, I'd grunt. The sciatica was merciless the week before surgery, perhaps sensing its defeat.
Funny how the mind works. I set a goal for myself. I wanted to see how much I could remember after I was wheeled into the operating room. For my kidney operation at Einstein Medical Center on Broad Street, my memories stopped after being rolled inside.
Young Derek covered me with a blanket. We began our four-minute trip into the OR. The thing to do is make conversation. Talking has a calming effect. I told Derek to put himself through college so he could get a better job.
“I am,” he said.
The operating room was freezing. A team of two people greeted me immediately and never left my side.
I was impressed. Who wants to face their own mortality in a meat locker with a dozen strangers in shapeless green uniforms?
I had gotten a detailed blow-by-blow account of what would happen in the operating room from Guy Lee. I did not want to be surprised by anything that might cause me panic.
There was, however, a slight disturbance. Steve, the nurse anesthesiologist, wanted me to wear a mask over my mouth and nose.
“It’s to help you sleep,” he said, comforting me. His hand on my shoulder and nurse Debbie holding my hand, reassured me. I told them how "touch" was so helpful.
Totally calm, among kind and compassionate people, I surrendered myself to the Unknown.
A faraway voice woke me from a slumber as deep as the ocean.
Instead of the usual half-hour operation, Guy Lee had spent a whole hour “digging me free.”
The spine runs from the top of the neck to just above the waist. Thirty-three vertebrae keep our backs straight.
Each one of these vertebrae is attached to a disc, made of strong connective tissues. The 23 discs hold one vertebrae to another. They also act as a shock absorber between adjacent vertebrae and allow slight mobility of the spine.
All is well during our younger years, but with age, particularly ages 30 through 50 – but also occurring in the teenage years - these discs begin to lose water content, making them a less effective cushion. The center of the disc becomes displaced or “herniated.”
Medical professionals have often described a herniated disc to that of a jelly doughnut. In time, the “jelly” leaks out into the spinal canal, pressing against the spinal nerves. When the herniation is in the lumbar region, near the waist, the jelly oozes out onto the sciatic nerve, the longest nerve in the body.
The pain from sciatica is intense and often disabling as it spreads from mid-buttocks down through the back of the leg and into the foot and toes.
My herniation was at L-1, which means one of the two lumbar discs near the waist, the major site of herniations. About 15 years ago, I dropped a toothpaste cap on the bathroom floor. When I bent down to pick it up, I felt a twinge in my lower back heralding my new life as a back patient.
Disc problems result from wear and tear, traumatic injuries, work-related positions such as sitting, lifting or stretching, and the awkward positions assumed by car mechanics and dentists. Heredity also plays a role.
It took Guy Lee an entire hour to dig out my jelly-like leakage. “Your herniation was huge,” he told me, “but I got it all out.”
When I came out of my deep sleep, I lay in bed and wiggled my toes. Not a trace of pain. I checked other points on my left leg and felt no pain whatsoever. Lee had warned me that the nerves would no doubt become inflamed again during the ensuing weeks. They did. But I remembered his reassuring words that the inflammation would resolve itself and I would be fine.
He wanted me up and walking immediately.
I was on powerful pain medication that dulled the intense pain from the incision, which had given me grapefruit-sized black and blue marks on my butt.
Because I didn’t want to enter the Betty Ford Clinic for painkiller addiction, I took myself off after five days. The pain was manageable, but then, don’t forget, my pain tolerance is high.
Two weeks after surgery, I’ve given up my martyr’s crown and have rejoined the world of the living.
My proudest feat is walking the hills of my street, Cowbell Road, and saying hello to neighbors I haven’t seen in years.
When Logan, a chocolate lab ran up to me, I was able to fearlessly pet his smooth coat and introduce myself to Joe, his owner, who, with his wife, Nicole, had recently moved into a house seven doors up from mine.
Little do they know I wrote a poem about the previous owner, titled “John Leonard, I Pick Your Trash Now that You’re Gone.”