A couple of days ago, I went into CVS to pick up prescriptions and some over-the-counter allergy medication. On that day, I was hobbling about with a cane, because two weeks of long hours at my desk for work left me in pain, with intense back spasms. Since I don’t normally use a cane, I was finding it a little awkward as I juggled my purchases, my cane, and my bag. A young lady walked around me, in a hurry, and I thought, “Ah, we’re getting old, aren’t we?” She was clearly one of the athletes from the college a block away. I’ve seen some of her fellow students around town, in their shorts and Gardner-Webb t-shirts, a kind of uniform for the track and field and volleyball athletes. I wanted to stop her and say, “Appreciate the body you have, and take care of it, because before you know it, you’ll be so wrapped up in work and family and life that you’ll find you no longer prioritize caring for your own body.” But I didn’t. I let her pass me a couple of times as we made our way through the narrow aisles of the store.
When I finished shopping, I sat for a moment in my car and tried to remember a time when I felt good and strong. It’s hard to do that when your back is so painful that even driving a short distance is difficult. But I reminded myself that I have so much to be thankful for. Even walking with a cane is a blessing, when you consider that some people cannot walk or even sit upright. Some can’t breathe on their own. But it’s not much use comparing oneself to others. Pain is relative and ability is also relative. We adjust. We become accustomed to our own version of normal. When life throws us a new challenge, we adjust in order to survive. If we were constantly aware of our limitations, we would lose our minds.
Though I was never really athletic, throughout my life I’ve had activities I enjoyed. When I was very young, it was roller-skating and bicycling. I walked a great deal. But when it came to running or doing things like broad jumps or triple jumps, I was very bad at it. I had no stamina, and my body couldn’t seem to get the hang of the coordination needed for those jumps. I famously landed on my face trying to do the broad jump on a mat, in front of the whole class. It was humiliating. (After high school, I was diagnosed with asthma, which made all the problems I had with track and field make sense.) My lack of upper body strength meant that I could not do pull-ups or even the “flexed arm hang”. My arms were like noodles. Later on, though, I took up weight-lifting and was able to hold my own in that realm. I never could do more than 45 pounds over my head, however. I would get a sudden headache and dizziness. I later found out I had Chiari malformation, which explained why the headache and dizziness happened and also some of the upper body strength issues. All that is to say I had my own limitations, even before I hit my twenties or had any injuries. Things like that will discourage you from being much of an athlete or gym rat.
But I didn’t give up. I adjusted. When I started traveling for work in the early 1990s, I got a gym membership that allowed me to go to gyms within the network of affiliates anywhere in the country. I would go with my colleagues to work out on the machines or take an aerobics class. On the road, there wasn’t much to do if you didn’t want to sit in your room and drink or meet up with others to go to dinner and drink. It was lonely, but the exercise helped. It was all going well until I had an asthma attack halfway through an aerobics class in Augusta, GA. Two of my co-workers were in the class with me. They brought me water and sat with me, but I didn’t feel I was getting any oxygen. I got to ride in an ambulance to the ER and get several breathing treatments that night. I was prescribed an inhaler and given information about asthma. (Funny enough, I can still remember what I was wearing in that aerobics class!) After that, I carried a rescue inhaler and used it before exercise and any time I had wheezing. Mostly it was exercise that triggered the attacks. I continued to go to the gym, but I shied away from the aerobics classes in favor of the machines.
In 1995, I injured my back for the first time. I was pretty strong (as long as I wasn’t lifting anything overhead). One day I had to move a line printer (look it up, kiddos) from our main building at the naval hospital to one of the satellite clinics. It was a heavy sucker. As I lifted it off the loading dock to move it to the bed of my pickup truck, I swiveled the top of my body rather than stepping into the turn. Easy mistake. We turn the top half of our body many times a day, but you have to do things differently when you move something heavy. Swiveling your upper body puts additional strain on your spine. I felt a pop in my lower back, followed by tingling. I managed to get through the rest of my day, delivering the line printer but with someone else moving it off my truck to its new location. The next day I called in sick and went to the chiropractor. He took x-rays and showed me the slight shift in the vertebrae at L4-L5. I ended up having six weeks of chiropractic care and physical therapy to try to alleviate the issue.
But my chiropractor also pointed out on the x-rays that I had another problem. It appeared that my gallbladder was full of stones! On the film, it appeared as though I had a cluster of white grapes in my belly. The stones had calcified, meaning I’d had them for awhile. He told me that if I wasn’t having any symptoms, there was no need to do anything about it. But he described what a gallbladder attack felt like and instructed me to go to my doctor if I experienced any of those symptoms. I was focused more on getting my back sorted out right then.
After six weeks, I returned to work, feeling almost back to normal. I wasn’t in a hurry to lift anything, though, and I was fortunate to have a few other people who could do that for me. It was about a month later when one of the gallstones decided to move. I had lunch and about a half hour later, I was bathed in a cold sweat, vomiting, and bent over in pain. One of my government counterparts said, “Yeah, that sounds like your gallbladder. My wife had that last year. See you in a month!”
I went to my family doctor, who was a young guy with zero people skills. He tended to treat his patients by sitting at his desk, making no eye contact, and typing furiously into his computer. He also tended to be condescending and treat people like hypochondriacs, no matter the issue. I sat on the exam table, pale and dripping with sweat. He had yet to take a look at anything but his computer screen.
I said, “I think it’s my gallbladder.”
He glanced up and then back down at the screen. “What makes you think that?” he asked, a little sarcastically. “You don’t fit the profile.” The profile is “fat, fecund, and forty,” in case you were wondering. I was of an average weight and was only 33. Yes, I was fecund (fertile).
“I had x-rays at the chiropractors office a couple of months ago when I injured my back. He showed me the gallstones on the screen and told me what an attack might feel like.”
I had the doc’s attention. He got up from his desk and came to the exam table. He had me lie back while he pressed on my abdomen, eliciting a yelp from me when he pressed on the gallbladder area.
He went back to his desk and started typing again. I sat up and tried to hold down what was left from my lunch. I started having chills. I asked him what he thought it was and what I should do. He hadn’t said a word to me.
“Oh,” he said, “I’m sending you to the hospital. You need to have that out.” That being my gallbladder.
He wanted me to go directly to the hospital, do not pass go, do not collect $200. Instead I went home, took a bath, shaved my legs, and packed a bag before heading to the hospital. All that sweating and puking had left me feeling very gross. I had to tell my husband what was happening, too. (I can’t remember if we had cell phones yet.) In the end, I went to the hospital, was put on NPO (nothing by mouth) for three days – because my gallbladder was infected – and then had surgery. My digestive system, unfortunately, has never been the same, but I was back to work in a month.
It was 2005 when the second bad thing happened to my spine. I was working out at the gym (trying to take care of the body, you know) when I felt a pop, but this time in my neck. I’d had a foraminotomy at levels C5-C7 a few years before because of pressure on the nerves exiting my spine at those levels. It resolved the problem. But this time, I had created enough pressure at those levels by lifting too much weight that the jelly-like disks between the vertebrae herniated. Back to the chiropractor I went. We tried manual therapy, traction, exercise, and PT. The problem just seemed to get worse. Eventually, I went to my family doctor – in Maryland, not the guy I saw for my gallbladder – and he ordered x-rays and an MRI. Before I got home from having the MRI, he was on the phone with me. He referred me to a neurosurgeon because I had disk herniations at both levels. I ended up having to have the levels fused (and then another surgery six months later when one of the screws broke and was pushing into my esophagus). My back is now what we used to refer to as a “glass back” – a back that is prone to injury and debilitating pain. (If you try to look up that term now, it’s urban slang for laziness. I’m not lazy.)
Some of us are just unlucky that way. We try to do the right thing (according to EVERYONE) and we work out. Things can happen, though. Working out can be dangerous even in the best of circumstances. For some, working out makes the body stronger and more resilient. For some, it spells disaster. One size does not fit all. Had I known some things about my body, I could have stuck to cycling, walking, and gentle weigh lifting. Swimming, even. Working with a trainer made no difference for me, because the trainers try to get you to gradually work up to the same types of activities that others can do. In at least one case, I really messed up my knee doing steep inclines on the treadmill and heavier tension on the cycle – while working with a trainer. That resulted in me getting cortisone shots in the joint.
I have a recumbent cycling machine at home, and when the back is better, I’ll get back to using it. I have also ordered a sit/stand desk that my son said he’ll assemble for me. I’m giving my heavy, wooden desk to one of my son’s friends. It’s a damned nice desk from a furniture store, but sitting at it 8-15 hours a day has wrecked my back. Last year I bought a new desk chair that has a very padded seat – all because of back pain. At times, I stand during long meetings, but that means I can’t see the screen well. I’m hoping that this desk purchase is an investment that keeps me able to work and stay healthier. I’ll get more steps in and will engage my core muscles as I stand and move about.
Some sources say that having a sedentary job is as bad for you as smoking, so I’m really hoping that alternating standing and sitting will get me more years on the job. I need to work, because first off, I like working. Secondly, my 401k has survived several recessions and a couple of moves, but just barely. I laugh when I hear the TV people say you need about $2 million for retirement. HA! So what they’re really saying is that most of us will never retire. I’m putting as much as I can into my accounts, but I’m also working to pay off my home earlier. As I’ve learned, real estate is a great investment, and if your timing is right, you’ll make money when you sell. Of course, these accommodations that allow me to keep working aren’t cheap. I’m impatiently awaiting the hydrotherapy, walk-in tub install (in less than 2 weeks) so that when my back starts to cause me problems, I have one more tool I can use to feel better.
Listen, I know how lucky I am. I have my education. I can still get around alright, even if I can’t do a lot of the things I used to do. I survived cancer. I have a son who loves me. I have a job I love on most days. Compared to many people in the world, I have it great. But when your back hurts, all those things don’t comfort you. All you can think about is getting some relief.
I admire those young athletes who run along the sidewalks in town or run through my neighborhood during their daily workouts. I admire people like a friend of mine who, in her fifties, is still playing soccer and hiking mountains. I also admire people who, when hit with an injury or tragedy of their own, claw their way back to the best normal they can find. And I save a little of that admiration for myself, because I found meaningful work that (on most days) doesn’t require a strong back and pays me well enough that I can afford to accommodate my changing needs. Aging isn’t for sissies, but I kind of feel like a sissy today!
Wishing you a healthy life and a healthy back! Here’s a funny song I found, which gave me a chuckle.
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