a pain in the neck
If you’re following along at home, you’ll remember I visited a neurologist recently to find out why my body seems to be breaking down like a car with a just-expired warranty. Like any older car, it’s a little sluggish to respond (especially in winter), and I’ve definitely got some alignment issues. Begrudgingly, I agreed to take their fancy tests, because, well, I’ve always been good at taking tests.
Of course, these weren’t like the exams I used to ace in school. My English teachers never hit me with a hard rubber hammer or poked me with needles or shot electric current into my arms and legs, although that might have given me more incentive to actually read “Paradise Lost.”
I was hoping the tests would be both definitive and reassuring. They were, I suppose, a little of both. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Buried a few paragraphs down, in amongst these 1,689 words, you’ll find what the diagnosis is, but first I should talk about the tests. Whatever’s wrong with me, I still have an understanding of dramatic structure. (If you don’t mind spoilers, the answer is in the twenty-first paragraph.)
The Neuro-Conductivity Studies were done by a very quiet man named Dr. Sharazz, which I kept thinking sounded like the name of a Bond villain (“We meet again, Doctor Sharazz…”). The name of the test had me imagining being strapped into something some gigantic, shiny apparatus like you might find in ‘Star Trek,’ but in fact the device looked like some precocious kid’s Science Fair experiment, very low-tech and definitely not shiny.
After an hour or so of this particular doc putting electrodes on various parts of my body and cranking the voltage to 11 (I’m guessing here), causing my arms and legs to twitch on his command (“You won’t break me, Sharazz!”), he began the EMG, which is like the previous test, except the electric jolts are sent through needles deep into your muscles.
I got an ‘incomplete’ on this one, because frankly, I wimped out. The pamphlet said, “The pain is less than a typical hypodermic injection” and “You may feel a tingling in your muscles,” which was accurate if by ‘tingling’ they meant ‘really disturbing radiating discomfort that will make you believe your leg is on fire.’
So after twenty minutes of this vaguely medieval process I said “No mas” and eventually he stopped. He seemed empathetic, and said he “got a lot of information.” Mostly, I’m sure, about what a wuss I am.
Next up was the MRI. Since I was pretty stressed, I wanted to have a cigarette, but at this clinic, there didn’t seem to be a place where I could have a cigarette in the MRI machine.
The room and the machine were all cool and sterile looking, like the second hour of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Now I was getting the high-tech wonders of modern medicine. Unfortunately, this was another ‘incomplete.’
They were hoping to do four MRIs, two after being injected with contrast dye. I thought it would be just like a flu shot (damned lying pamphlets!), but as they started describing it, I just remember hearing terms like “put you on an IV” and ‘side effects’ and “nausea’ and…you can guess where this is going. I’ll take just the two MRIs for now, thanks.
Almost everyone I dealt with at the clinic had at least pretended they understood my irrational fears. Not the MRI lady. She was thoroughly professional, but let’s just say she didn’t have the warmest bedside (‘tubeside?) manner. I would try to lighten the mood (at least my mood—I suppose she was fine) with a joke, which just seemed to make her more annoyed.
At one point I had an itch and I moved a little, and she seemed genuinely put out when she said “You know, every time we pull you out of there we have to start over, and I’m not going submit crappy test results.” Now, I suppose she could have had a full slate of people she still had to shove into the pod that day, but c’mon—I might be a little easier to work with if I didn’t feel like I was being scolded.
I had a week to wait for my ‘consult’ with the neurologist, and spent much of that week trying to distract myself from the test results. I even went out to a ball game for the first time in years.
In my somewhat reclusive writerly life, I can go days without real reminders of my ‘condition.’ But at the game, around forty-three thousand other people, I felt a bit more ‘disabled.’ There were two moments in particular that strengthened my resolve to see this medical stuff through.
First, since I can’t lift my right arm above my head, I’m incapable of giving a proper ‘high-five,’ and there’s not much point to watching sports if you can’t do that. I tried left-handed, but that felt really awkward and I knocked over a guy’s beer.Second, when ‘the wave’ came around to our section, I could only sort of half-stand stand and could only raise one arm, making it look like I was mocking the wave, or worse, trying to stop it. This was the compelling evidence I needed to get me back to the doctor.
I suppose sitting in a room with a guy is one of the better ways you could find out scary news. Although it might be cool to have those Publisher’s Clearinghouse people come by with an oversized envelope announcing “You may already have won an invasive procedure!”
But this was just my-far-too-young-looking-to-seem-like-he-knows-enough neurologist. My neurologist is young enough to actually have used Facebook in medical school—I’m just hoping his status updates were along the lines of “Can’t go out tonight—studying again” rather than “Can’t believe how hungover I am again.”
Suddenly I wanted to be in 1972, so that my doctor could be Marcus Welby, M.D., all gentleness and aphorisms, with everything wrapped up in about an hour. I wanted a kindly old doctor who would take my hand and start his talk with “Now, son, I know this has been hard…” I don’t think they even teach ‘kindly’ in medical school anymore.
Actually, by this point, I had gone from dreading the results to hoping I had something they had never seen before—maybe an article in a respected medical journal about my strange pathology, or some grant money. Then I realized the grant money would go to the doctors, not to me.
So, ready for the worst, I walk in with The Girlfriend, and the doc says “Well, you don’t have MS or ALS.” Okay…so we’re going to have me guess, by process of elimination? “Uh…Is what I have…longer than eleven letters?”
Then he says, “I think I’ve figured out what’s wrong.” Keywords: ‘think’ and ‘figured out.’ It’s at this point that I remembered the old saying that medicine is an art, because he sounded exactly like a chef stating, “I think I know what the sauce needed—more tarragon.” Great—now I’m worried I have a tarragon deficiency!
I tried to make a joke about not taking all the tests, and he just sighed and said “Well, I have limited data to work with” with the same resigned but mildly disapproving tone as your freshman biology professor saying “Well, the midterm is forty percent of your grade…”
For some odd reason, he did the Hitting Me With A Metal Hammer test again, and either my HMWAMH responses were ok, or he got bored hitting me, because out of nowhere he said “Your brain is fine.” Not ‘you’re fine,’ just my brain.
The it was time for the slide show. I saw pictures of my ‘fine’ brain, and he pointed out how the pictures showed I didn’t have MS. “The problem is in your neck. You have severe spinal stenosis.” More pictures, this time clearly showing my spinal column narrowing until, at one point, it looked like my spinal cord was being pushed through a straw. This, it turns out, is not good.
Severe. Spinal. Stenosis. I liked the alliteration, but a long-held theory of mine says that if your diagnosis starts with the words ‘severe’ and and ‘spinal,’ it doesn’t matter what the third word is. I wasn’t gonna be able to just get a prescription for this.
As for how it happened, it was one of those Zen moments in which I got the impression that didn’t matter either. The doc muttered something about “wear and tear,” and since I had been clumsy all my life, he thought I could have injured my neck in a fall, but what he knew for sure was that I would need surgery to fix it.
He went on to say “The concern is, if you get in a car wreck and get whiplash, you’ll be a quad.” I guess he figured it didn’t need any sugar-coating, but…YIKES! Get me Doctor Welby, stat! Look, I’m not sure when I might sign up for spinal surgery, but I know damn sure I’m gonna try to avoid getting into whiplash-inducing car wrecks.
When I left they gave me a CD with all my pictures, though I’m not sure why. I’m probably not gonna look at them again, but maybe I’ll put one of the brain scans on a t-shirt or a hat with a catchy phrase (This is MY brain on drugs.”) Anyway, the next step is a consultation with a neurosurgeon.
After not seeing a doctor for decades, I see a GP, then a neurologist, then a neurosurgeon…you know what, I’m gonna keep going up in the medical hierarchy—see if I can get seen by someone who teaches neurosurgery, or maybe a dean of neurosurgery somewhere. Just to be sure.
Eventually I may even become comfortable enough to have the operation I need. If I do, I know the first thing I’m gonna do when it’s over…I’m gonna high-five the hell out of someone.