The pain began in August 2013, a little over a year ago. I recognized it as sciatica, having experienced it in 2002. The symptoms had a debilitating effect and I couldn’t walk unaided.
A trip to the doctor produced a series of X-rays and an MRI, showing arthritis and two herniated discs in my spine. I’m over 70 years old, so the arthritis was no surprise, but the damaged discs made life nearly unbearable.
If you’ve never said, “Oh, my aching back,” at some point in your life, it’s almost certain you know someone who has. Lower-back pain is a reality for many millions of Americans at any given time.
Simple acts, like walking, sitting or lying down can become painful in an unrelenting way. I found that if I bent forward when I walked, the discomfort was lessened. Although I may have resembled Groucho Marx, there was no punch line, and eventually, I stopped walking. The couch was a comfort zone, so that’s where I settled, but shortly after, I learned just how quickly muscles can atrophy.
My weakened muscles resulted in several falls at home. I was lucky to regain my footing by using furniture or the walls to pull myself upright. All those late-night television commercials of the white-haired woman lying on the floor, pleading, “Help me! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up,” played an endless loop in my head.
My worst-case scenario happened one Saturday morning in the supermarket parking lot. As I left the store with a dozen bags in my grocery cart, I relaxed my grip on the cart for only one second. It rolled away, following the slope of the asphalt, and stopped, some 20-feet away.
I made a desperate grab for the handle, but only lost my balance and fell to the pavement. I felt as helpless as a turtle on its back.
That’s when a Good Samaritan stopped his car in the middle of the lot and came to my aid. However, he wasn’t strong enough to get my 200-pound carcass upright. And then a second Samaritan came to help, but he, too, struggled. The third Samaritan was built like a defensive lineman, and I was lifted up immediately. They put my groceries in the trunk and were very solicitous about my well being.
I thanked them politely, but I could not bring myself to look in their faces. I don’t know if I was ashamed or embarrassed, but I could not meet their gaze. If they read this, they’ll know how truly thankful I am.
I pleaded with my doctor for pain relief and finally was prescribed hydrocodone, a sure method to rid myself of pain, or so I thought. The side effects proved worse, and I stopped taking it after a month or so. Powerful drugs don’t make the pain go away, they only make it so you don’t care if it hurts or not.
Except for a loving neighbor who acted as nurse, caregiver, chauffer, volunteer chef and furniture re-arranger, I would have been lost. She cared for me every day, sometimes at the expense of her own family. To her go my greatest thanks, which are only reluctantly accepted.
The neurosurgeon referred me to a pain management doctor, and I received two epidurals, about six weeks apart. The procedures involved injecting a combination of steroids and local anesthetics into the epidural space outside the spinal cord, to marinate the lumbar nerve roots. There was pain relief, but it was short-lived, and I wanted something more lasting.
At that point, I had ruled out surgery. The thought of a titanium apparatus fusing together two of my vertebrae was too scary.
The next stop on my journey was physical therapy. Therapist Gary Antone and his able assistant, Kyle Tijerina, oversaw my therapy for the following months as I regained strength in my lower limbs.
I progressed from crutches to a cane and walked with self-assurance, something I hadn’t done in a long time.
My physical therapy is about to end as Medicare funds dry up, but I’m joining a gym to continue strengthening my muscles. These days I measure success in small increments; the ability to rise from a chair without pushing off from the table is an important one I’m working on. I’ve learned that miracles don’t have to be big to be appreciated.