This is where we begin my story of over 7.5 years living with chronic pain. I am here to share with the world the real, raw truth about what it is like to live in debilitating chronic pain…yet still hold onto HOPE, to never give up, and rest in my faith in God!
I hope my story resonates with your heart. I will be publishing it eventually! In this entry, you will find Chapters 1-2 of my story detailing my journey with a severe spinal injury, chronic pain, spinal fusion surgery, depression, recovery, and losing everything to my condition. You are not alone!
Chapter 1: “June 6, 2010”
- The Fall: June 6, 2010 is a day I will never forget as long as I am alive…this was the day my life irrevocably changed; this was the day I fell down a flight of concrete stairs. “How did you fall?”; “How does something like that even happen?”–these questions are typically the first ones out of someone’s mouth when I tell them about my fall, and to this day, I cannot tell you how exactly it happened. You walk up and down stairs your whole life and you think nothing of it until something happens. When my feet went out from under me, I fell directly down onto my bottom and then slid on my back down approximately 7-8 large concrete (stadium style) stairs and collapsed in a stunned heap at the bottom of the stairs. The fall occurred at my place of part-time employment–a grocery store I worked at while going through 6 years of college. My tumble was so loud that employees standing outside of the stair well heard it and came rushing in to find me about to slip into unconsciousness from the pain. I snapped out of the shock and they carefully helped me up and into a chair while they made the worker’s compensation report and then got me to the closest ER.
- My new reality: Before my fall I was a gym junkie! I was the most physically fit I had ever been in my life and I was in the gym 5-6 days/week for 2-3 hours at a time. I went from that to not being able to tie my own shoe laces….so, not only was I hurting tremendously physically, I was emotionally destroyed and had to deal with my first bout of depression during that time. Life as I knew it had completely changed…and it was only the beginning of many changes that would occur over the many years leading up to today.
- The Diagnoses/Treatment/Chronic Pain: My diagnoses were the following: bulging and herniated discs from lumbar level L3-S1, traumatic arthritis through my lumbar vertebrae, and traumatic arthritis in both sacroiliac joints (SI joints). So, I have lived with some level of chronic back and nerve pain since that fateful day. During the subsequent years I underwent so many pain management procedures and tried so many medication regimens that I have lost count. I had multiple trigger point and epidural steroid injections along with one attempt at facet joint injections in my desperation for any relief from the pain. To this day, none of those “conservative” pain management procedures provide me with any relief and instead-only cause me to suffer through more pain during and after the procedures. I finished my 6 years of college in May of 2011 and began my 2 year residency for my medical profession in June 2011. However, as the years progressed, my condition and quality of life deteriorated to a point where on any given day, I could barely make it through my patient load at work and I was in constant, mind-numbing pain. Throughout my work day I would experience horrible “shocks” of nerve pain that would cause my back to seize up and my knees to buckle out from under me-causing me to have to grab onto something to prevent a fall every time. As my condition deteriorated, I kept going to doctors who told me there was nothing they could do even when I was falling daily. I refused to accept that answer. I KNEW something was seriously wrong with my back due to the debilitating pain, but also due to my medical background and intimate knowledge of the human body/orthopedic and neurological conditions. We felt helpless, angry, and at the mercy of merciless, uncaring doctors.
- “The straw that broke the Emily’s back”: Finally, in November of 2014- I stood up from resting on a bench at Disney World (we used to be able to go walk around occasionally) , took two steps, and completely collapsed and would have hit the ground were it not for my hero and love of my life-Aaron-catching me and holding me up while he flagged someone down for help. He literally had to hold me in a bear-hug style grasp until they brought a wheelchair for me because I could not put any weight on my legs and I was in the most intense, blinding pain I had experienced since my original injury date. That night was terrifying…I was screaming and crying in pain, unable to move, and utterly terrified that this was going to be the end of me being able to walk…that I would become paralyzed. He rushed me to the ER where eventually they gave me enough medication to get the pain controlled enough to send me home. I still could not stand up or walk without Aaron bear-hugging me to transfer my weight to him…and for a full week, I had to stay home from work, in bed, hardly able to move. This was the last straw for us with my injury being ignored by my doctors. I had settled my worker’s compensation case in the summer of 2014 because we were tired of all the worker’s compensation doctors telling us that there was nothing wrong with me, that I had to deal with the pain, and that “my pain level is not justified by my radio-graphic evidence”. They consistently told me that surgery was not an option for me–EVEN AFTER I COLLAPSED!! It wasn’t that I wanted surgery or that I thought surgery would fix everything, I just knew that there was something very wrong with my spine and I needed help! So, I searched for a neurosurgeon with my new freedom from the worker’s compensation regulations and found the doctor who stepped in and changed my life.
- Dr. Robert Masson, Jr.: What do you say about the neurosurgeon who saved you from being paralyzed? Dr. Masson is sincere, compassionate, empathetic, and world-renowned! His surgical methods are being adopted world-wide! What an amazing blessing to find this incredible physician…this man who stepped in, reviewed my case and my years of standard, non-weight bearing MRI/CT imaging, and immediately ordered a weight-bearing, flexion-extension MRI. This form of MRI was necessary to diagnose my condition due to the mechanism of my injury being a weight-bearing, crushing/pancake impact to my lumbar spine. With this one, simple order for a specialized MRI, Dr. Masson found that my L5/S1 inter-vertebral disc was completely “pancaked” with material spilling out on all sides causing my L5 and S1 to be essentially bone-on-bone, and the L5 vertebral bone itself was dislocated backwards toward my spinal cord (this is called a retro-spondylolisthesis). With this newly discovered information, we met the culprit behind the vast majority of the debilitating pain that I had been suffering with for four and a half years at that point. I was FINALLY justified!! I finally had a doctor tell me: “yes, you are justifiably in severe pain and here is the reason…I believe you and I WILL help you”! I’ve said it a thousand times and I’ll say it a million times more..GOD led me directly to Dr. Masson for a reason and I am SO VERY thankful for him! Within a couple of weeks, Dr. Masson provided the answer to four and a half years of searching. All of the nights I spent crying myself to sleep because of the severity of the pain and the helplessness I felt as I watched my life slip out of my hands were now justified.
Chapter 2: “From Zero to Spinal Fusion”
**NOTE: I know I currently have and will have more readers in the future who are preparing to have a spinal fusion surgery and I am not trying to scare you…I am only sharing my experience. Each person’s case is different and you must take into consideration that I had already been living in excruciating pain for almost 5 years at the time of surgery. My core musculature was extremely weak and I also had involvement of other spinal levels.**
- From zero to fusion: Dr. Masson informed us that the only way to correct and stabilize the massive damage at L5/S1 was to have a spinal fusion. I was suddenly standing face to face with one of the biggest decisions of my life. I had been told by countless doctors for four and a half years that even minor surgery was not an option for my condition, and now I was being told that the only way I would be able to move forward with some semblance of a life would be to go through this MAJOR spinal surgery…I WAS TERRIFIED! Friends, I cannot fully explain the feeling of sheer terror that gripped my heart as I absorbed this information. You see, I grew up my whole life watching my amazing saint of a mother suffer daily with debilitating back pain and go through multiple surgeries and pain management procedures just to end up having a spinal fusion after years of horrible suffering. I knew after watching her as well as patients from my own medical practice that the surgery and recovery would be an excruciating process. I remember the days after that pre-operative consult with Dr. Masson…Aaron and I, as well as a few close friends, talked about everything until we came to the irrefutable conclusion that we had nothing to lose and potentially everything to gain if the surgery was a success.
“I had been told by countless doctors for four
and a half years that even minor surgery
was not an option for my condition, and now I was
being told that the only way I would be
able to move forward with some semblance of a
life would be to go through this MAJOR
spinal surgery…I WAS TERRIFIED! “
- At this point, I had no quality of life and I could barely make it through a day at work. Every last bit of energy and pain tolerance I had was used up for work days, so I was heading straight to bed to lay flat on my back as soon as I got home and then having to stay in bed each and every weekend JUST so I could have a chance at surviving the next work week. That is absolutely no way to live. A lot of people do not realize that when you are faced with such a massive surgery, you actually go through a grieving process. It started with denial and fear; then anger, lots of tears and prayers…and ultimately ended in acceptance. Through prayer and seeking God’s direction, and discussion with those who knew and loved me the most, I had decided. At only 28 years old, I was looking forward into a very bleak and excruciating future if I opted to not have the fusion. If I opted for the fusion, I had the chance to get my life back…and that was a chance I was willing to take.
- February 6, 2015: I woke up from surgery screaming. The sweet, grandmotherly nurse who was assigned to watch over me as I came out of anesthesia told me afterwards that I was the worst case she had seen coming out of surgery. When I screamed out in pain, all of the attending physicians/anesthesiologists came running to my bed and immediately gave orders to get my pain under control by using the strongest medications on-hand. As soon as they accomplished this, I was able to drift back to sleep until I woke up later in my hospital room. The morning after surgery, Dr. Masson came to check on me and tell me what he had found when he opened me up…and it was horrifying. In Part 1 of my story I referred to Dr. Masson as the man who saved me from becoming paralyzed…here is why: when he went in to fuse L5/S1, Dr. Masson found that the segment was so unstable that he could WIGGLE my L5 vertebrae freely! He also found that it was BROKEN in an area that was not even detectable in the advanced imaging he had ordered! I do not even want to imagine where I would be if we had not decided to go forward with the fusion. More than likely, I would be paralyzed at the L5 level due to one last little jolt, slip, or bump of my spine from normal daily activity. The gravity of what my life could have been was shocking. I was of course relieved that Dr. Masson had stepped in to help me, but we were also filled with anger at all of the other doctors who had let me walk around like that for almost FIVE YEARS by the time I had the surgery! What gross negligence of their duty to help a patient who was clearly suffering…as a medical professional myself, it disgusts me. A lot of people I come in contact with express the same outrage and many ask if I took action against them and the answer is actually “no”. I guess the reason we didn’t take action boils down to a mix of being so exhausted from fighting the system for so many years and just being thankful that the problem had been stabilized and I could now move on with my life! It was time to focus on my recovery! My mom had come to stay with Aaron and I in order to help him take care of me, our two fur-babies, and the house during the week of the surgery. Well, between Aaron and my mom, they made sure that I was NEVER left alone during my three days at the hospital! What an incredible act of love by both of them! My beautiful, amazing mom took day shift and Aaron–an amazing, selfless picture of true love in the midst of this nightmare–took night shift. I honestly do not remember a lot from those days in the hospital due in-part to the medication, but also in-part to my mind blocking it out as our minds mercifully tend to do with traumatic experiences. Once I was stable enough to be discharged, Aaron and the nursing staff helped me into a wheelchair and two teenage girls who were volunteering at the hospital pushed me while Aaron walked alongside the wheelchair carrying my belongings and discharge paperwork. We got to the exit and Aaron left me with the volunteer girls so he could get the car and bring it up as close as physically possible to the curb in the patient loading zone, and while he was gone the two girls spoke up and said, “you can tell he really cares for you”…and I answered, “yes, he is amazing and don’t you girls EVER settle for anything less!”. Aaron’s love for me was evident to not only the nursing staff, but to the volunteers who only came in contact with us for the five minutes it took us to get from my hospital room to the exit and into the car…WOW. I am so incredibly blessed to have a man like Aaron…and the days in the hospital were only the beginning of many grueling weeks where I depended on him for EVERYTHING.