Medical Purgatory

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Something I drew during the intense pain of a back injury, between emergency room visits and downing as many pain pills as was safe to swallow.  Drawn as the dollars I owed the health system multiplied like jackpot totals above a slot machine.  Drawn when it was uncertain just how much my life would be permanently impaired.

One simple decision ruined my life for months, perhaps years, to come.  I was scheduled to perform a song I wrote for a museum exhibit on a Friday night in April.  I was staying with a friend on the Thursday before.  She was hosting a show at her house, had a band travelling from Washington, and I was set to play too at this house show.

My right shoulder had been aching fiercely for a couple weeks at this point.  A doctor thought I had bursitis in the shoulder, and sent me home with some diclofenac for anti-inflammation.  The diclofenac did absolutely nothing.  I remember cooking a chicken and carrot stir fry for dinner one night.  The stirring motion alone was almost enough to make me cry.  My arm was weak and practically useless.

What I should have done at this point, when I had a huge guitar amplifier to carry to my car, was phone a friend and have them help given the state of my shoulder.  What I did instead was assume I could still handle it with my non-dominant arm.  I ended up twisting and contorting half-falling down some steps.

I got the amplifier and everything loaded in my car, yet my back immediately hurt badly.  At first, I did not realize the severity of the injury.  I drove to work hoping it would be one of those things that was sore for a day and gone.

By the end of the work day, I was having a hard time walking.  Yet I agreed to play these two shows, and I take giving my word on a gig seriously.  I took some motrin and drove to my friend’s house.  Some combination of motrin and alcohol got me through my set.  I remember being in pain but not an intolerable amount.  It was a pleasant night with friends.  I slept on the floor of the living room.  It hurt somewhat but was not the painsomnia that would come later.

The next day my back hurt tremendously.  Just getting in the car was a struggle.  Yet after limbering up and taking 800 mg of motrin I was moving around.  No way I could even carry my equipment with how badly I was hurt at this point.  A friend and fellow musician was nice enough to play roadie.  He got my amplifiers into the venue.  I still had to crawl around and hook up the guitar pedals for this ambient, post-rock-ish song I contributed.  Every motion felt like getting stabbed with a sword on my left side.

I could barely stand, the 10 pounds of strapped on guitar felt like a mountain weighing me down.  It hurt so much.  Yet I focused and got through it.  The performance was not my best yet also was not my worst.  Afterwards in the hotel room I began to realize just how injured I was.  Laying on the bed, I was unable to get back up.  Every time I turned it would hurt so bad it was impossible to fight through.  I could not move.  So I went to sleep.

Somehow I fell asleep yet did not wake up any better.  Muscles from my back hip down through my toes would not unclench.  It felt like fire.  That was when I learned what sciatica was.  First thing I did was find an Urgent Care clinic that was open.  I made it out of bed and to the clinic.

I found then if you have back pain, doctors assume more often than not you’re some kind of addict looking to score pain meds.  First thing the Urgent Care clinic told me was they don’t prescribe narcotics.  Urgent Care is not great for getting to the root cause of anything.  Their main concern seems to be patching you up just enough to send you on your way.  They gave me a shot of demerol and a prescription for muscle relaxers, and did just that, sent me back into the world.

The demerol worked for several hours, yet then I was in a worse state than I already had been.  I was starting to become stomach sick as well, either due to catching something, or maybe just through all the pain meds and muscle relaxers I was on at the time.  It was not a fun time to be alive.  I was still in denial about how badly I was hurt, tried to go to a punk concert.  Realized halfway through that maybe this would be a long term, serious thing when the demerol began to wear off.  Drove the hour and a half home.  I can remember just screaming in pain most of the way home, it hurt that much to sit in the car.

I managed through some concoction of stubborn will and pain meds to play music and get through the weekend but utterly crashed once home.  I could barely move.  Every second just hurt.  My days only consisted of moving from the bed to the couch.  Lying awake sometimes 36 hours, until my exhaustion outpaced my pain, and I could sleep.

I hit the emergency room every other night during this time.  I did not want to go.  Yet it hurt so much, I didn’t know what else to do but limp to my car, scream in pain at the sheer torture that was bending and sitting, and limp into the ER.  The doctors were stingy with any kind of pain meds.  It took a miracle to get a tramadol prescription.  Then it took another miracle and a doctor I had known since I was 5 years old to get a hydrocodone prescription.

The pain meds did not do much.  For weeks, I lived for the intervals I could take more pills.  They brought the pain down from not wanting to live anymore bad to just severe and debilitating bad.  The doctors would not do much for me at this time.  They have a whole timetable for escalation that is absolutely aggravating when you feel like death would be preferable to the state of your body with a back injury.  They would not send me for an MRI, really dragged their feet on that.  Instead insisting I complete 6 weeks of physical therapy before an MRI was a possibility.

The people at physical therapy were nice enough but physical therapy was an utter joke for the state my body was in at the time.  My first appointment, I had to get new tires on my car.  So I walked to the hospital, leaving my car at the tire shop about two blocks away.  I practically crawled through the door of the hospital.  I went through their core exercises and began to practice them.  However, it was obvious to me at least that I was injured far beyond the extent that physical therapy could help with.

Everyone I mentioned my back problems with had a well-intentioned though unsolicited and ultimately obnoxious suggestion of seeing a chiropractor.  I did a few times.  Like the demerol shot, it seemed to help things for a couple hours.  Then everything was back to excruciating pain.

It took hitting the ER at 2 AM for the 4th or 5th time before the doctors finally arranged for me to get an MRI.  I think whoever was on call was just sick of getting rolled out of bed at that hour.

It cannot be overstated how happy I was when an MRI was finally authorized.  They dragged their feet so much on that.  Until then I was in this limbo where I knew something was severely wrong but I had no idea the extent of the problem, and seemed light years away from any kind of tangible solution.  I did not know if this horrible back pain would be with me the rest of my life.  I did not know if I should start preparing to be on disability.  I did not know if I could expect any kind of recovery.  The MRI was something that would have concrete answers in the midst of all that uncertainty.

I got the MRI.  Turned out I had a herniated L5/S1 disc that was impinging the sciatic nerve with some bulging on the L4.  They scheduled me for epidural spinal injections.

Yet a funny thing happened during the waiting for the epidural injections.  I started to recover somewhat.  It was slow.  Yet I started to need my pain medication less.  I began to walk short distances using a cane.  Until now, I could not even stand long enough to cook meals at a stove anymore.  I began to be able to cook again.  Still severely impaired, and very much in pain, but noticeably better.  After reading about arachnoiditis, an awful, painful condition that sometimes occurs when the lining of the spine is pierced, combined with finally starting to not hurt so much, I decided against the epidural injections.  I would see how much I could recover on my own.

Since my job requires a 45 minute commute either way, I burned almost all my leave time.  The hardest thing for me that hurt the most was the bending motion to get inside a car, then sitting for more than 5 minutes in the car caused horrible pain.  I tried all sorts of absurd tricks, like sitting on a tennis ball, getting special lumbar cushions.  It all helped a little bit but couldn’t entirely solve or mask that I was severely injured.

I remember it was a eureka moment when I regained most of the feeling in my right foot.  Until then it had all gone numb, and I more or less dragged that foot behind me as I walked.  I started to regain a bit of strength week by week.  Up to a point anyway.

Now about 3 and a half months since my injury recovery seems to have plateaued.  I would estimate my right side is about 60% what it used to be.  I have some major limitations on how far I can walk and how much I can lift.  Yet I’m not in pain anymore.  Sciatica has mostly subsided except for a nagging feeling of something caught under my toes occasionally.  It does not hurt to bend or sit in a car anymore.  It is not ideal or even a tolerable baseline to live at.  Yet compared to when I was hitting the emergency room every other night and half my diet was pain pills, I’m doing a lot better.

I’ll probably need surgery eventually if I’m going to get back anywhere close to 100%.  But for now, I can make my physical state work.  It doesn’t hurt so much, but the weakness, and the locking up after overdoing it gets cloying.

Like all things in a capitalist system, most aspects of this injury revolve around money.  If I had the money, I’d get the surgery tomorrow.  In an ideal world, it could be scheduled and over with by now.  Yet due to insurance regulations, burning so much leave at my job and everything else, it’s looking like it will at least be 2018 (optimistically) before I can be fully fixed.  This injury almost wiped me out, physically, psychologically, financially, you name it.

I’m certainly more skeptical of the American healthcare system because of this back injury.  I am sickened by how commodified healthcare is in this country.  At numerous points, I felt my doctors were not making decisions based on what was best for me, but on following checklists the insurance company set out for them.  It costs so much to get sick or injured in America.  ER visits, specialist visits, the gas to drive to see the specialist, medications, physical therapy, more doctors visits, all those bills, even with decent insurance, add up.  Hospital bills quickly turn into an avalanche that bury all but the most wealthy.

I was better positioned than many to weather a medical hardship.  My job is fairly accommodating, I have insurance, I’m somewhere middle of middle-class income.  Even then I feel like I barely pulled through this without losing my job, which would have meant the loss of my insurance too, and then no way to pay for anything medical.  What is anyone with a less accommodating job, no insurance, and little income supposed to do?  Just fall through the cracks of society and die?  It’s sickening that due to greed and corporate monopoly of healthcare, the answer in America to that question seems to be a tacit “yes” though scarcely anyone will admit it out loud.