WHATS IN THIS BLOG:
• Immobilizing back pain.
• The Laser Spine experience.
• The surgeon.
• A nasty diagnosis.
• Where is the finish line?
BACKGROUND. This is Part 3 of a long story about hopes built and crushed. This is a story of one woman’s faith and enduring persistence through a debilitating health crisis. In Part 1 (click here for link) Mary was immobilized by a new back injury received during a bad fall in her bathroom. She can’t drive, she can’t walk, and she can’t stand more than about 10 minutes without excruciating pain.
In Part 2 (click here for link) was described cement injection into Mary’s spine. After the slow-burning disappointment of this, she clung to God and explored his spiritual resources. Then came the dim awareness of Laser Spine Institute (LSI), like a gray dawn light seeping through a window which slowly, slowly grew like sunlight into golden streaks of hope.
LSI EXPERIENCE. We flew to Tampa, Florida, with Mary on a wheelchair between flights. Through the windows of the plane we gazed down at the white-sand beach with its multi-storied tourist accommodations, then circled over Tampa Bay tinted with sunset-speckled beauty. We wondered whether we would leave this place with the same glow of hope.
A shuttle escorted us to LSI about 3 miles away. The hotel driver was a friendly believer from Minnesota, who said he would gladly pray for Mary and her back situation. We took this as a good sign, especially when he told us he had talked with lots of folks who had been helped by their visit to LSI.
The pain specialist looked at the MRI, and said Mary’s previous fusions might prevent an operation in her lumbar region. We hadn’t come all the way to Tampa to hear that, and our spirits sank. However, he recommended a nerve-block test to confirm if the pain was coming from this region. This test caused excruciating pain for Mary, but it did confirm the source of pain in the L4-L5 region.
Still we were left with uncertainty….. LSI has nine different operating procedures for the back or neck, all minor invasive and all out-patient operations. But would the surgeon even consider doing any of the procedures on Mary’s back? We sweated it out for a whole day before our appointment with the surgeon.
THE SURGEON. Dr Z, as he is known, strode purposefully into the clinic office and introduced himself with a strong accent from eastern Europe. He looked at the MRI and the nerve-block test, and told us quickly what he wanted to do……a bilateral foraminotomy. The word foramin means tunnel, and he planned to widen the tunnel through which the nerve roots exit the spine between L-4 and L-5, in order to decompress these nerve roots. Down near the hip these nerve roots join the sciatic nerve, which then feeds the leg muscles further down.
Dr Z said he had done 5,000 of these procedures, and had even invented an improved tool to chisel out a groove in the foramin bone. Bilateral meant doing the procedure on both sides of the spine, because the nerve-block test had shown Mary’s pain came from both sides.
The operation took place next morning. It took only an hour, and another hour for Mary to wake up. The two incisions left behind, one on each side of the spine, were like keyholes. But Mary’s pain was intense. The nurse hit her up with opioids, and I took her home on the shuttle. After helping her into bed, she slept for five hours. When she awoke, the pain was gone from her back and she could walk erect. We high-fived and thanked God volubly. What does a miracle feel like? To us this felt like one.
AFTER THE OPERATION. Mary was released by the clinic the next day, and we flew home the day after that. Everything went swimmingly for nine days, when suddenly a sciatic pain reared up in Mary’s left hip and thigh like sharp nails being hammered into flesh. LSI at Tampa said this wasn’t unusual, and advised short walks to stretch the nerves irritated by the operation, and to ice them every two hours. However, the sciatic nerve seemed to grow worse and the problem persisted for two weeks.
One morning Mary couldn’t stand up on her left leg. I was called to help, and ended up pushing Mary to the bathroom in an office chair. For a whole week, Mary had to take an opioid pain pill 30 minutes before she could limp to the bathroom using a walker. We were discouraged, to say the least.
The family urged Mary to get a cortisone shot to fix the sciatic pain. However, her primary physician wisely recommended to do nothing, as the nerve pain should go away eventually. This was comforting.
The LSI nurse called from Tampa next morning, and insisted the nerves take a long time to heal. It had only been four weeks since the surgery, she reminded us. She said sciatic nerve pain was not unusual and we didn’t have to worry about it…..just remember that an icepack is your best friend, she said, and that the nerves will heal.
WHERE IS THE FINISH LINE?
The LSI nurse had said 12 weeks (3 months) is the magic number, when Mary’s pain should be much better. We held this date up like a US flag on Fourth of July. But three months came and went and we were forced to lower the flag, because things weren’t much better, and actually it was hard to say they were any better at all.
Mary could stand a little longer, an hour instead of 10 minutes. With hopes up, she would walk hesitantly 50 yards to the mailbox each day, but hopes dropped when she could walk no further due to back and leg pain.
A NASTY DIAGNOSIS. We started doubting. Four months came and went, then five months, then six months. Some days better, some days worse. Then a new diagnosis hit Mary like a fist in the belly….. she had RA, or rheumatoid arthritis. One of those feared auto-immune system diseases which are incurable. There is no telling how long she had had RA, but we recalled many times over the past 20 years when she would have a good day, then crash the next day and lie in bed for two or three days. When the diagnosis came over the phone, I remember Mary saying, “Well that’s a real nice thing to know,” as she bravely tried to cover her tears.
The RA was diagnosed six months after the back surgery at Laser Spine Institute. To our surprise, about a week later, Mary’s back and legs started to get better. There has been a definite, though gradual, improvement over the past months.
A VERY GOOD DAY. One week ago, Mary was up doing breakfast at 8 am. Met with and directed her cleaning lady at 9 am, showered and dressed for a lunch party at 11 am, went for physio-therapy at 3 pm, and after that sweated over a hose to water all her outdoor plants in 95 degree heat. She felt well all day, and the pain level was well-controlled by the opioid patch she has worn for years. Her energy level spoke for itself. She now says she can tell that her back and legs are doing better. She still can’t walk much more than 50 yards, but is optimistic.
Mary says, and shows by her actions and the way she talks, that her health is getting back to where it was before the bad bathroom fall. For six months, Mary was essentially housebound. It has taken seven months, but it appears Mary has got her life back! She can buzz around town, eat ice-cream with friends at Braums, go to the bank, etc.
To be fair, she still has severe bouts of fibromyalgia and occasionally restless legs syndrome. And it’s way too often that severe fatigue will force her to bed….. probably the RA. But the prognosis seems better than even one month ago. She is optimistic and very thankful to God.
We have good things to say about the Laser Spine Institute. They were well-organized, friendly and cooperative at every level of the clinic. Their procedure, although not supported by Medicare and therefore expensive, appears to have been a life-saver for Mary’s broken back.
We don’t know if she would have become better without the LSI procedure, but we think it’s unlikely. We also think that if the shadows of RA and fibro and restless legs weren’t there on an almost daily basis, the restoring of her lower back would shine through more clearly.
GRATEFUL THANKS. For all Mary’s family who have been there for her, this is a grateful thank you. You have responded to many emergency situations. Mary would also thank all of her friends who have prayed continuously for her health situations, especially for this broken back when hope was crushed more than once.
And last, I know personally Mary is grateful to God for hope which keeps rising in her indomitable spirit through her relationship with Jesus, despite health issues which have been immensely difficult.
Thank you, Mary, for allowing me to tell your story. It’s a remarkable story of one woman’s faith and enduring persistence through a debilitating health crisis. You are an inspiration to me, as you are to others.
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The Gray Nomad
Helping someone to hope.
Your sun shall no more go down, nor shall your moon withdraw itself; for the Lord shall be your everlasting light, and the days of your mourning shall be ended.
[Book of Isaiah, chapter 60]