My dissertation director thought I was full of crap when I told her I could only sit and write for 15 minutes at a time. It was better than “my dog ate the chapter,” but her sense of humor had disappeared, and I knew I was on her last nerve. In fact, my neck was pinching my last nerve (or nerves), especially the ones that ran down my arms and neck. After 15 minutes of looking down at the keyboard to type (I heard that. Yes, my typing is so bad I have to look at the keyboard) my neck and arms would begin to hurt, and my little fingers started to get numb. The pain got worse so slowly that I didn’t realize how bad it was. I’d make little, incremental adjustments now and then to deal with the pain. I’d had 2 three disc fusions, and while they eased the pain in my upper arms a little, I still had pain shoot down the back of my arms and my little fingers were still numb. But somehow, working in fits and starts, I finished the dissertation.
The day I defended it, the pain was so bad I couldn’t look down, so I fumbled with the many tubes of stuff at the bottom of my bag. I grabbed what I thought was my toothpaste and started to scrub my teeth hoping they would be perfectly white for my dissertation defense. For some reason, the toothpaste tasted oily, but I continued to scrub, keeping my neck perfectly level. I brought a small glass of water up to my mouth and rinsed out my mouth, spitting as close to the sink as possible. That was when I noticed my mouth and tongue were going numb. At first I thought it was nerves, but it continued to get worse until I had tried to speak with a dead tongue. Without looking down, I fumbled around and found the tube. It was Monistat. My dissertation defense was going to be, well, different to say the least. My answers sounded more like “Ma dithertathun ih abouth Emothun and Wetheric," (Emotion and Rhetoric).
Yep, that’s when I knew it was time to fix whatever it was that caused so much pain I couldn’t bend my neck. By this point, not only could I not turn my head, I had a bolt of lightning that shot down into my shoulder when I bent my head to rinse my hair. My solution was to adjust the showerhead. The bolt of pain was impressive and a little alarming, but the pain level had crept up slowly over time, so I didn’t recognize how severe it was until I couldn’t write. I had called a student into my office to rip his paper apart, and when I began to write a comment, my hand slid across the page. I tried again, and my hand slid again. The student and I looked at each other in shock. I couldn’t write. The doctor told me this situation required a higher 3-disc fusion of C-3, 4 and 5. I crossed my fingers that this was the solution.
After surgery, the pain in my arms lessened, but my little fingers still got numb. At least I could write again. I wore the soft collar for 6 weeks like a good girl. Then I started to hear a little crunching sound when I turned my head. The bolt of lighting returned, bit it wasn’t nearly as bad. Clearly this second fusion was not fusing. This time I had to admit that in addition to the disc degeneration that initially caused my symptoms, the new crunching sound meant the vertebrae in my neck were starting to degenerate as well. Now, I was officially scared. Two different surgeons had tried to do everything they could, and my neck was still falling apart and felt like it was about to cut into my spinal cord.
That’s when I made an appointment with Dr. Todd Albert, one of the top ten cervical surgeons in the world (or at least he thinks he is--- just kidding, he really is). He looked at my x-rays for a long time. Then he said, “Can you see that these two vertebrae have fused, and these two haven’t?” Annoyed that he thought I couldn’t see a crumbling vertebrae, I replied, “Well, yeah. I’m not blind.” I’m sure he’s had worse patients than me (I heard that), but I wanted to be to be sure he remembered me. I shouldn’t have worried. The man remembers everything.
Anywayyyy, he said, “I can fix this, Toni, but I’ll have to go in from the back.” At that point I made some rude comment about not caring which orifice he wanted to go through. That got a chuckle and a smile, but he never looked away from the x-rays. Then he said, “At least your spinal cord is small.” Well, that ticked me off. “Are you saying I don’t have the ‘backbone’ Texas women need to survive the redneck idiots down there?” He turned around and said, “What?” I was sure he’d only heard part of what I said, so I abbreviated the question, “Is that what you think?” He had a confused look on his face (and Albert is rarely confused). So I let him off the hook and said “a small spinal cord?” He smiled and said, “that’s a good thing, Toni, because we’ll need to fuse C 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and T1.” Say Whaaaaaat? Regardless of my trepidation, I told him to do it as soon as he could.
And he did. He fused them all with bars and screws. Unbelievable. The next morning, through my morphine haze, I noticed that there was a man standing at the foot of my bed. He was wearing the most beautiful black suit I’d ever seen. “Damn. Is that you, Doc?” He said, “How are you doing?” I croaked out “Well I’m in excruciating pain, and I’m REALLY tired of buzzers going off all the time.” He said, “They’re probably trying to keep you alive.” Oh crap. That did it. No more complaining. Then he told me I’d get out the next day. I looked at him incredulously. “I’m what?” “You’re going home tomorrow.” And since ‘he’s the man,’ I swallowed hard and nodded, “Uh, Okay.”
After a few days of recouping, I thought I’d jump up (something they don’t recommend) and go to the kitchen. I got about ten feet and passed out. Ahhhh, now I know why they told me not to jump up. When you have low blood pressure and pain meds in you, getting up fast can be disastrous. But I’m a slow learner. I repeated the same mistake over and over until waking up on the floor got really old. Once I accepted the recovery protocols, things went swimmingly. I had a few twinges during recovery, but I could write immediately, and the arm pain and the ‘bolt of lightning’ pain completely disappeared. That’s right, my symptoms were gone. I could rinse my hair and my fingers weren’t numb. THAT made me very happy.
A year later all the vertebrae had fused, and for the first time in 15-20 years, I HAVE NO SYMPTOMS. No pain, zero, zilch, nada, none. And much to my student’s chagrin, I can return to writing sarcastic comments on their papers. God is good.
University of Scranton