17 February 2013


This past week my back has been giving me grief - and I realised, with a bit of a shock, that in my hurry to get past the last two years we lived in Yap, I had not mentioned something of some importance, both then and for my later life.  Memory is a passive function.  One recalls what one is interested in.  Pain is often easily forgotten.

Though I had reason to anticipate trouble.  My first back troubles began when I was in high school - just low back ache that I paid little attention to.  To my great embarrassment, it flattened me once, when I was 19.  Edna, her friend Roberta, and I were unloading things from my station wagon into the flat Edna and I were to live in in Berkeley - when, suddenly, I was on my hands and knees, groaning in agony - and in mortification at girls having to finish what a male could not.  Later that year, when I applied for a job at IBM in Oakland, they sent me to a doctor for a physical examination.  I didn't get the job - because the doctor told IBM I was likely to have back problems later in life.

Nonetheless, one readily forgets such matters at 19.  To be sure, some years later my father was obliged to stop active farming for years, to wear a back brace, and to work as an accountant - because of his back.  Still, one does not make the application to oneself.

In early1980, I was out for my daily 8Km run, when something rather more agonising even than that time in Berkeley hit my back.  It is a long time ago, now, and I don't remember how I got home.  Possibly I managed it under my own steam; perhaps I was given a ride.

This must have been in something like March, I think.  The ensuing weeks set up patterns that have been more or less part of my life since then.

X-rays were taken.  Nothing was broken.  Nevertheless, it was clear that I had ruptured a spinal disc - L4-L5, most likely.  For a time, there were patches of numbness in my right calf, the back of my right heel.  I was in pretty serious pain for months.  Surgery was proposed - and rejected (by me).  I bought books; began exercises (which I continue to this day); studied the anatomy of the back.  I went onto megadoses of vitamin C and of some of the B complex - and quite a lot of codeine.  When, in the summer of that year, I visited my father, Gary North in Tyler, and Ross Jackson in Pukekohe, I was nearly over the worst of it.  The feeling had returned.  I returned to Yap and tried to start running again, starting slowly.  Two weeks of that and I had to stop.  No catastrophic occurrences, but I could tell there would be problems.  Tried again, once or twice, over the next few weeks, with the same results.  I have not run since.

By the end of 1980, I was fine.  Sometime during 1982, it hit again.  It was worse this time.  I had numb places in my left leg; what was much more concerning was that my right calf was partly paralysed.  I could not walk without crutches.

The Education Department was wonderful to me.  I lived only a few hundred metres from work.  Using crutches, I made it to work.  Two desks were pushed together.  I worked lying on my back all day every day, with my head up on a stack of papers, and my knees supported on books.

Again, I avoided surgery.  Six months, together with exercise (and the possible help of the vitamins), saw me, again, in good shape - except that my right calf was still partly paralysed, and still is.

Today I am aware that this is something I will live my life with.  In 2006 it all happened again.  Now we are living in New Zealand at a time and in a place with MRI scanning, so the New Zealand medical system could confirm what had to be inferred in 1980 and 1982: I suffer (as, I think, does my brother, and did my father) from congenital spinal stenosis, with a consequent (in my case) ruptured disc.  The 2006 incident happened in June.

The surgeon assigned to me had examined me after the MRI scan, July.  He said: "Surgery might help; if it were my back, I wouldn't.  Keep up your exercises, take it easy.  You will probably be all right."  He saw me again in December, by which time I still used a cane, but was nearly ready to stop.  "Good," he said.  "OK, you're doing fine.  Keep up your exercises.  It will happen again; until then, don't worry about it."

One, as they say, of those things :-)  I recall, in 2006, praying that, if I were to be on crutches, or even in a wheel chair, for the rest of my life, the Lord would just enable me to do my work, to keep up what He wanted me to do.  Back in August, 1984 - when we had been in Pukekohe for three months, something occurred that was much more scary than the prospect of being confined to a wheelchair for life.


Edgy said...

"In early1980, I was out for my daily 8Km run, when something rather more agonising even than that time in Berkeley hit my back...

This must have been in something like March, I think. The ensuing weeks set up patterns that have been more or less part of my life since then"

I know what it was!! I was born! And I've been a pain the back ever since

John Thayer Jensen said...

At least the location of the pain is the back. Think of the alternatives :-)


John Thayer Jensen said...

From my brother, who appears unable to remember things seven years old :-):

I just read your post as noted below, including Eddie's comments(!), and tried again to post my own comment. How can I remember what my Google Account is or how to access it or what the password was 7 years ago, so here is what I wrote in your 'Post a Comment' Box which I could then not get posted!:

"Brother, it's at least possible, if not likely (in my opinion), that the NZ health care system concluded that an operation would likely do you little to no good in part so as to reduce expenditures to "the system" and thus ensure public employee pay and fringe benefit raises. With no real competition (your system is in fact a State mandated/controlled one, isn't it), there's not much incentive to risk a negative outcome for this or any other type of surgery -- which is why guaranteed monopolies never work. In the case of my doctor Jeffrey Labosky, his practice competes with others for private (primarily) patients, so that there is substantial reward for excellence and especially accuracy in predicting whether outcomes are likely to be positive vs. negative. There are two other neurosurgeons and three osteo guys here in Chico who perform the same types of surgeries, but none whose practices compare with Labosky's, which is why he can command a substantial premium from his private patients which in turn is what allows his practice to take on a greater percentage of public patients like me (plus he likes Susan!).

Anyway, hope your back issues don't get worse. Try one of those upside down hanging machines like Mom used for a while when she was in her mid-60's. That, and swimming."