In August I decided to get serious about my health. Well, semi-serious. Slightly more serious than usual, anyway. Basically I wanted to spend more time exercising and less time having a sodium-fueled panic attack after eating enough Kung Pao Chicken to feed a family of four. So I enrolled at a gym up the street from my house. And it was fun! The gym is one of those “MMA” gyms, but it’s less about punching each other in the face and more about bouncing around with fingerless gloves and punching bags while doing some vaguely Crossfit-ish things too.
So naturally after a couple weeks I hurt my back.
At first I thought it was a pulled muscle. My whole back locked up and it was really hard to stand up straight. Transitioning from “standing” (or my best approximation of it) to sitting or lying down was agony. So I rested it, iced it, and popped ibuprofen like they were candy. And it got better! Better enough that I could go back to the gym, where I would promptly hurt it again.
I went through about four months of this before I bit the bullet and went to Urgent Care.
I explained how I’d hurt it months ago, and how I couldn’t stand up straight, and how I had this horrific electric agony burning down my left leg at all times, and was demonstrating how I could barely sit without hurting myself to a very beleaguered-looking dude who held up his hand to shush me and said, “Yeah, okay, I see. You have a herniated disk.”
Oh. Wow. I hear those are bad. I asked him what I needed to do to fix it.
“First you have to get an MRI, but you don’t have insurance and they’re expensive, so instead here’s two fistfuls of Vicodin and muscle relaxers. Good luck.”
I shuffled out the door seriously worried about the slippery slope I found myself atop, staring into the yawning maw of pill addiction waiting for me at the bottom. One of the things Kat taught me was that sometimes splurging on yourself is worth it. Not all the time, and you should be frugal when you can, but sometimes you just have to spend the money and tell yourself it’s worth it. I figured “medical treatment to end my horrible pain and hopefully keep me out of a methadone clinic” was one of those cases.
So I bit the bullet and signed up for Obamacare insurance, which I was legally obligated to do anyway, and went to my regular doctor. She confirmed the diagnosis: herniated disk. She also confirmed that before we could really treat it, we had to see exactly what was going on. She prescribed the MRI. I asked her what I could expect once we had some results, because I had done some googling and seen the word “surgery” pop up a few times.
“Well it will probably involve some physical therapy. It can take up to six months sometimes, but normally these things heal themselves once you learn how to avoid stressing it further. Surgery is always a last resort only in extreme cases.”
I went and got the MRI, which if you’ve never had one is a terrifying experience I can only describe as being stuck inside an alarm clock. I lied down on a little gurney and a nice Filipino lady gave me an IV of some kind that immediately gave me a horrible chlorine taste on my tongue. Before I could ask if that was normal, she put a little squeeze ball in my hand and shoved me in the tube with the reassuring advice of, “Maybe just keep your eyes closed.”
I kept my eyes closed and squeezed the stress ball. I stopped moving. The Filipino lady’s voice crackled over an intercom:
“Are you okay?” “Uh, yeah. Why?” “You squeezed the ball.” “Oh. I didn’t realize that’s what that meant.” “Only squeeze the ball if you need to come out. It’s a panic ball.”
With the panic ball explained, she pushed me further in. I had to sit perfectly, agonizingly still while the machine worked, the whole time it fired a horrible hammering, buzzing noise all around me like a clock radio alarm at jet engine-decibel levels. Even with earplugs in it was almost painful. I could feel it vibrating my teeth. And the thing about an MRI is it’s not just a pop in pop out kinda thing:
“Okay we’re going to take another image. This one will take 18 minutes so don’t move.” “Oka-”
We did five or six images, each one longer than the last, until a final marathon session of 22 minutes. At some point I was bored enough and possibly insane from all the noise to open my eyes. Instantly my heart rate shot up as I saw the roof of the thing almost pushed against my nose. My arms were already touching the sides. It was like a coffin. No, it was tighter than a coffin. It was like I was stuck in a sewer pipe, or maybe like I was a white Battleship peg stuck inside a perfectly-sized hole on someone’s submarine. I could feel a newfound and deeply-affecting sense of claustrophobia start to build in me.
Actually, let’s take a closer look at that photo:
He’s frowning. EVEN IN A DRAWN DIAGRAM TO EXPLAIN WHAT AN MRI IS, A DRAWING IN WHICH THE ARTIST COULD HAVE DEPICTED THE PROCEDURE ANY WAY HE OR SHE SAW FIT, THE PATIENT LOOKS UNHAPPY. THAT’S HOW MUCH THIS THING SUCKS.
But I survived! And I hobbled out with a newfound resolve to do whatever it takes to never have to go into one of those tubes again. I awaited my results, which arrived that same afternoon via the weird MyChart thing my doctor insists on using because god forbid we talk to each other on the phone. There was a lot of medical-sounding terminology I couldn’t really parse, but my doctor’s note was clear:
“Please contact the neurosurgeon immediately.”
I sent a note back asking if this meant I should expect surgery.
“Not necessarily,” the reply came back, “this is just a follow-up consultation to discuss your options.”
Ah, I thought, I get it. He’ll probably tell me about the surgical option and let me decide if I want to do that or rehab it. I booked my appointment and met with the neurosurgeon. He walked in, shook my hand, and sat down.
“You need surgery.”