I've lucked out when it comes to severe physical pain. Besides a broken jaw when I was 9 and a terribly sore throat from mono at 28, I've jogged along with little unbearable pain in my 50 years.
But when I woke up Nov. 11 with a bad ache in my left foot, I had begun a new adventure in misery. Back problems have troubled me for more than 20 years, and I knew a bit about sciatic pain because my 88-year-old mother had back surgery in Denver to alleviate sciatica the day before my foot became sore. The sciatic nerve runs from the back all the way down both legs.
My first episode with sciatica (pronounced Sy-AT-ica) went away in early December after three weeks. It returned, worse than ever, Jan. 18, hitting me in my left buttock and radiating down my leg. My battle with the constant agony of severe sciatic and back pain had begun in earnest.
Pain punches all of us at various times in our lives. Where it strikes, when it strikes and how long it lasts are things we cannot foresee and are better off not knowing. The older we become and the more misery we suffer, the more we savor the periods when our bodies and minds function smoothly, painlessly.
I write about my sciatica now because many people suffer chronic back problems. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons says 30 percent of Americans experience back pain on any given day. In 2004, it says, back problems led to 32 million visits to physicians and nearly 1.3 million hospitalizations. The academy says 80 percent of Americans will endure back troubles at some point.
My second battle with sciatic pain lasted about seven weeks. That is a long time if you're miserable, limping, can't sleep well, can't exercise. During that battle, I had two episodes in which a stabbing sensation struck my left buttock and simultaneously froze my leg and ankle with pain. At other times, my pain was a soreness or boiling in my ankle, which often felt like it was broken. Pain of some sort and severity was just about constant.
Numerous times, I limped around my apartment at 3 or 4 a.m., looking for a place to get comfortable. Sitting hurt. Lying down hurt. Standing hurt. In more than 17 years at The World-Herald, I've never been happier to see sunrise. That meant another night of minimal sleep was over.
During this period, I watched whatever movie happened to be on TV, including "Taxi Driver," "Mommie Dearest" and "Cop Land." I felt trapped, lost and desperate and thought more than once that if I had to live the rest of my life in this pain, I would kill myself.
My main reporting assignment at the time involved the annexation struggle between Omaha and Elkhorn. Work was the only thing that distracted me from my pain.
An MRI revealed a herniated, or ruptured, disc in my lower back with a fragment pushing beyond the disc and pressing on a nerve. If I decided on surgery, it would involve going into my lower back and removing the fragment. The fact that horrible pain can result in the leg and foot from a back problem says much about what a remarkable machine the human body is.
"Nobody ever died of pain," a doctor told me. I guess the point was that my leg was sound, my reflexes still worked and my back, all in all, was similar to that of many 50-year-olds, with the exception of the offending small fragment.
My surgeon, H. Randal Woodward, suggested we try a spinal steroid injection, which did not relieve the pain. He then recommended surgery.
I had lost weight and sleep and limped worse each week. I always had enjoyed the five-block walk to work, but now colleagues had to pick me up at my place and drive me home at night.
I've been somewhat obsessive and vain about fitness. Now I was completely hobbled and humbled. I cared not a bit about fitness. I just wanted the pain to go away. I realized how little control I have at times over my life. Eating your fruits and vegetables does not necessarily ward off the doctor.
If pain and sickness want to enter your life, they will find a way.
The day Elkhorn was officially annexed, March 1, I drove there in a blizzard. Almost blind from the blowing snow, I pulled the company Ford Focus off West Dodge Road onto 204th Street and up to Scooter's coffee shop. I interviewed a couple of middle-age men there for my annexation story and told them why I was limping so badly.
They asked me if they could pray for me, and though I'm not religious, I readily consented. They put a hand on each of my shoulders. As I sat there, I thought, "Sitting still is killing my leg." When Scooter's closed at 11 a.m. because of the blizzard, the employees pitied me with my limp and the snowbound Ford Focus so much that they drove me to Elkhorn City Hall in a sport utility vehicle.
My leg was especially painful that day. I could hardly sit at all, and my limp was worse than ever. That afternoon, I told Woodward over the phone that I was ready for surgery.
The March 9 surgery to remove the disc fragment - about the consistency of crab meat - has taken care of my pain and most of the tingling in my foot and ankle.
I woke up in the recovery room at Nebraska Orthopaedic Hospital, giddy that the sun poured through the windows and my left leg felt good. The nurses looked pretty, and I babbled about how great the Who were and how much I despised Justin Timberlake, who had just performed in Omaha.
I was lucky that my bout with pain, at least this time around, lasted only seven weeks and that medical technology and a surgeon's expertise could make me whole again.
A few years ago, a colleague endured two extensive leg surgeries, and not once did I consider the pain he must have been enduring. The fact is, the human experience involves suffering. We just hope our struggles are short-lived and that we emerge from them kinder, more grateful for good days and more understanding of those having horrible days.
An editor suggested I keep a diary of my recovery. Here are a few entries:
March 9 (post-surgery) - It is wonderful to be able to lie here with my left leg straight. Ate heartily - pork chop, green beans, breadstick, apple juice. Later, ice cream and cheesecake. Ice pack on incision. IV somewhat sore in my hand. A tiny bit of tingling in left foot. Nurse says that's OK. My sister (Bev) looks tired and bored, but she's hyper-helpful. She wants dental floss. She's going to sleep on the rollaway couch in this hospital room. I went for a short walk with IV attached. Felt good. The surgery went longer than expected (73 minutes instead of 30 to 60). Woodward told Bev it went OK, and I think it did. I'm quite pleased.
March 10 - Fully intend to go home today. Blue sky, sunshine out the window looking onto West Center Road. Good to be alive. Lower back is really sore where the incision was made. Want this damned IV removed. My appetite's good, and I've been able to urinate several times. I walk very slowly. Think it's truly going well, though. The worst is past. It's Saturday, and spring is coming.
March 16 - My sister went to the airport and back to Denver tonight. She was immensely helpful, but there's nothing left to do for me. My incision isn't nearly as sore. The left leg feels good. I took a couple mild painkillers this morning for a headache more than anything else. Having surgery was a great decision. Some of my friends felt I should wait it out. Their information about back surgery was dated, I think. My surgeon said all back surgery is complex, but removing a disc fragment is one of the simplest kinds. Besides, I had zero choice. The sciatica beat the fight out of me.
March 21 - Old guy and his wife were eating at the table next to mine at the Millard Roadhouse. The man said he'd been watching me eat my scoop of ice cream with hot fudge and was envious. He can't eat ice cream because he has diabetes. He also said that he'd just had foot surgery, and I mentioned my back surgery. He had a bout with sciatica 40 years ago, he said. He was a nice guy. We were linked by our physical woes. We all are.
March 27 - Had appointment with Woodward today, and he's satisfied I'm progressing nicely. I'll see him again in a month. Back to work tomorrow. Woodward suggested that I avoid particularly strenuous reporting assignments for a few weeks, such as traipsing through farm fields. "Do restaurant reviews for a while," he said.