Back trouble involves more than pain.
To start with, it’s almost impossible to get much sympathy for it. You try to tell someone about what you’re going through, and their response is usually, “Yeah, I’ve got that, too.” With that, it’s game on. It makes me want to say, “yes, but mine is worse than yours.” (Anyway, mine is mine, and I don’t really care much about yours.) May I suggest that the next time someone says they are having back trouble, be a good egg and let him/her talk about it. You’ll get a turn to talk about yours later. Unless, of course, the complainer is me. Mine is so severe and complex you’ll be ashamed to mention your own. You’ll recognize that any suggestion of equivalency would be baloney.
Here’s a problem with back trouble that you don’t hear much about. Examinations usually require putting on a gown and waiting for someone to come back to your little dressing cubicle and take you to another room. I’ve heard people complain about the wait being too long. Not me. I don’t think it’s long enough, since in that interval you’re supposed to tie a bow knot behind your neck to keep the gown in place. I’d not be uncomfortable naked – it’s just a body. Everybody has one. But hospital rules require gowns, and I find it impossible to tie a bow behind my neck. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. I could ask the next person I see to tie it for me, of course, but I fear it would be taken as a sign of weakness or, worse, age-related feebleness. So, I usually make some kind of knot, and when the x-ray or whatever is finished, getting out of the unnecessary gown requires Houdini-level cleverness.
Another thing. Few of the doctor’s minions are named Ralph or Susan, especially if you live in cosmopolitan New York. They leave voicemails saying to return a call to someone whose name is often unintelligible. I’m pretty far into the process at this point, and as soon as I have time, I’m going to include in my recorded telephone greeting, “Please leave a message, and spell your damn name.”
Here’s one more. Everybody on the planet has his or her own preferred treatment, ranging from herbal concoctions to consultation with a wizard who lives in a suburb of Ulan Bator (just a Zoom call away), and they are all too happy to point out that mainstream science and traditional western medicine are really so, so yesterday. Yeah well, as my mother liked to say about anything the least bit new, “I like reg’lar.”
The other day, I was the beneficiary of serious and expert attention from a neurosurgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery, an orthopedics hospital (incidentally not likely to fill up with Covid patients). He required only a few minutes to perform a clinical exam and a few more minutes to look at some hieroglyphics on a screen. He didn’t actually say it – he’s too well trained for that – but I could see him thinking it. “Shit buddy, you’re in trouble.” He explained what was wrong and recommended a pair of surgical procedures. I said, “If you’re not too busy, I’ve got some time this afternoon.” I’ve had three back operations in the past, and they all had good outcomes. When you need it, you need it. He did schedule me for next week, and by top-shelf surgical standards, that’s almost emergency speed.
The common areas of the Hospital for Special Surgery look like one of those military field hospitals you see in movies. Patients hobble around on canes and walkers and sport casts of various sizes and configurations. Pain is in the air. In my everyday world, I was growing tired of looking pitiful as I limped about among the able bodied, so it was a welcome feeling to go through the big front doors and suddenly be with my own kind.
I can hardly walk, and I think constantly about myself and my pain, but I am receiving expert treatment and enjoying remarkable kindness at every turn, so it’s easy to keep the unpleasant part in perspective. It does not escape my notice, however, that if I were one of the thirty per cent of Americans who are uninsured or on Medicaid, I would have to make do with ibuprofen. That’s not right, and it doesn’t have to be this way.