Chapter 5: “The Storm Begins” (The Story of EmilySpeaks)

Chapter 5

“The Storm Begins”

Settling in: 

  • As I settled into working again, I began taking on an extremely large patient load. I was the ONLY prosthetic practitioner for an approximate 70 mile radius due to the office location being very rural. I began building relationships with the doctors and physical therapists in the area and I was growing tremendously as a practitioner in both my skill set and my experience with difficult cases. I was so happy and thankful for the opportunity! I quickly established a good reputation for the company I worked for and also for myself due to the fact that my patients were thriving and happy using the legs I made for them.
  • It was an exciting and rewarding time, but as I mentioned in Part 4, I was only 4 months post-op from my spinal fusion. Both my neurosurgeon and my physical therapist were concerned about me going back, but they knew that I had to try or I would lose my job. So, every day I had to wear a very rigid and supportive back brace while I was at work, and I was also supposed to take breaks to ice my back as much as possible. I hated having to wear my brace but I knew that I needed to protect my back-especially because the bone graft from the fusion was no where near being solidified. The reason I hated wearing my brace was because my patients would ask what happened to me. Although I know they meant well, as a medical provider, the last thing I want to do while evaluating/seeing a patient is talk about myself and my health. There were plenty of moments when I could sense that some patients did not have as much faith in my abilities based on the fact that I had a condition. Knowing they felt that way was very upsetting to me, but there was nothing I could do except to show them I was more than able to take care of them.

The Beginning of the End:

  • The “storm” began after I had only been back to work for one month-which equates to 5 months post-op. Due to the high volume of patients I was seeing on a daily basis, I ended up working between 10-12 hours-sometimes more-EVERY DAY. This, with a newly fused spine and in an office where the hours were “officially” Monday-Friday from 8am-5pm. On any given day, I would arrive at 7am and stay until 8 or 9pm working on legs and completing the never-ending piles of paperwork that every medical professional is faced with for each patient. After-hours work was “ok” to an extent because I always wanted to get patient’s limbs ready as soon as possible so they could get back to enjoying life. However, it was NOT ok for me to stay after EVERY night, but because I was expected to do whatever it took to grow the business for my employer, I felt that I had no choice but to practically live at the office in order to keep corporate happy with our “numbers”. There were nights that I would be seeing patients in the hospital after having worked a full day in the office, and I would not leave from the hospital until 10pm. It was absolutely ridiculous and I quickly became utterly miserable as my body buckled under the daily demands I was placing on it. The amount of stress placed on my body would have been too much even for someone who was at 100% physically…so in my fragile state, it spelled disaster-in the form of my condition deteriorating rapidly.

“The amount of stress placed on my body would have been too much even for someone who was at 100% physically…so in my fragile state, it spelled disaster-in the form of my condition deteriorating rapidly. “

  • Prior to my surgery, I had nerve pain that shot down like electricity into both legs and made my knees buckle. It was very painful, but it was intermittent (not constant). Before I went back to work, those “shocks” of pain had pretty much disappeared and I was elated when I did not have both my back pain and nerve “shocks” to deal with daily. The residual back pain, I believed, was mainly due to the fusion site still healing, so I expected that to continue for a while longer. In the month or so leading up to my return to work, I had actually gotten to a point where my back pain was almost completely under control. So, even though I was still in pain, I had hope that I would one day be completely healed. But, if that was the case, I wouldn’t be telling you this story. Alas no, my story was not meant to be tied up with a pretty little bow after I recovered from the fusion. At the one month mark, I began having a new form of nerve pain in my right thigh that burned and traveled down to my knee. At first, even though it was painful, it was a dull burn that I did my best to ignore. I was also trying to convince myself that it was “just healing pain” from the fusion. After two months back at work, it was time for me to get X-rays done to check the bone graft and to have my 6 month post-op appointment with my surgeon. In the weeks leading up to that appointment, the nerve pain had steadily worsened, so I was worried, but I still went into my appointment fully expecting them to tell me that it was completely normal because my body was still healing. Unfortunately, that was not the case. When I explained my symptoms to my doctor, the response, instead of “oh, that’s normal because you are still healing” was actually “hmm, that is not normal; the type and location of the nerve pain is not in-line with an issue at L5/S1 and you need to have new imaging studies (MRI)”. Excuse me, what? So, you mean to tell me that after ALL that I have been through-suffering through 5 years with the mess at L5/S1, having a spinal fusion surgery, and going through the excruciating recovery-I now have new and worrisome symptoms that do not stem from the surgical level? I was practically speechless.

A New Reality:

  • At this point, it was mid-August. My doctor ordered the special weight-bearing MRI and had me scheduled to come back in another 2 weeks. I also had been seeing my pain management doctor during that time frame and he prescribed Lyrica to help combat the nerve pain. It barely made a difference, but at that point I would take whatever I could get to try and calm the nerve down, so I stayed on it. Friends, in the weeks following my doctor appointment, as I continued killing my body with the ridiculous hours I was working, the nerve pain became so bad that by 11am on any given work-day, I was doubled-over crying in pain, wondering how in the world I was going to make it through the rest of my day. I was coming to accept the devastating fact that after everything, I had only traded one living hell for another.

“I was coming to accept the devastating fact that after everything, I had only traded one living hell for another.”

  • Back in Part 1, I shared what my actual diagnoses were after my initial injury. To recap, in addition to the mess at L5/S1, I also have herniated discs at L3/4, L4/5, and traumatic arthritis throughout my lumbar spine and sacroiliac joints. Although we knew that L4/5 was herniated when we decided to go forward with the fusion at L5/S1, we were hoping for the best because even though it was herniated, it was a stable herniation that did not warrant surgical intervention at the time. Unfortunately, however, when I went to my follow-up after having the MRI done, our worst fears were confirmed…the disc at L4/5 had deteriorated and was now pressing on the nerves exiting my vertebrae, creating the horrendous nerve pain I was now experiencing. To say I was devastated is an understatement…I HAD JUST GONE THROUGH A MASSIVE SURGERY and now I am being told that the new, debilitating pain that reduced me to tears daily is stemming from ANOTHER spinal level.

“…the darkness of depression had already started it’s insidious take-over of my mind…sneaking it’s way in and blacking out every little ray of hope that my soul tried to cling to as I absorbed my new reality.”

  • As my condition worsened in the weeks prior to that follow up appointment, the darkness of depression had already started it’s insidious take-over of my mind…sneaking it’s way in and blacking out every little ray of hope that my soul tried to cling to as I absorbed my new reality. Now, with the confirmation of my fears complete, I began spiraling downward very quickly. In order to treat the nerve pain, we would have to begin a series of epidural steroid injections-a painful treatment modality that my body had never responded to throughout the years following my injury. So, I knew it was an option on the horizon, but I had no way to take time off from work to have the injection and allow my body to rest in the hope that it would work. In the meantime, my doctor had ordered a CT scan to get a better look at what was going on at L4/5 and I had another follow-up appointment scheduled. As I struggled through my daily life, the long hours and stress of work, combined with the constant hell of blinding pain from both my back and nerves at that point, was just too much to handle. My quality of life disappeared just as it had done before I had the fusion surgery. Every bit of my strength, energy, and pain tolerance was being used to get through the work week, and on the weekends I had to lay flat on my back in bed just so I could get up and go to work on Monday. Sounds familiar, right? I had regressed horribly in my ability to do life. At first, I did not realize I was depressed. I know some people say that depression is obvious to the one suffering with it…but as I mentioned above, for me it was insidious. I started to notice that something was wrong when I was at work and everyone was laughing about something one of my co-workers did or said and I actually had to force myself to laugh. It was a hollow, strange sound that I did not recognize and that never made it to my heart the way that genuine laughter does. I remember wondering what was wrong with me and chalking it up to stress. In addition to moments like that, I was now crying myself to sleep almost every night as Aaron rubbed my back to give me some relief from the pain. He finally told me something one night that made me realize how bad things had gotten. He recited the definition of insanity in reference to me continuing to work and thereby destroying my body. He said I was “doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result”. Wow. He really knows how to lay it out in black-and-white, doesn’t he?

“…I actually had to force myself to laugh. It was a hollow, strange sound that I did not recognize and that never made it to my heart the way that genuine laughter does.”

  • So, we had arrived at a point where I had two options: I could either keep working and cause my condition to deteriorate even more-risking permanent nerve damage-OR, I could stop working. I hated that moment…I was SO ANGRY that this was my reality. WHY!? Why after everything that I had already suffered through, did I now have to suffer some more and essentially give up the career that I dedicated my entire adult life to building? It just wasn’t fair. But, it had become the only real option if I ever wanted a chance at having some semblance of a life. It broke my heart into a thousand pieces…I tried to look on the bright side and think about the fact that I was going to have time to devote wholly to getting my pain under control and getting my body stronger, but by that time the depression had my soul in a choke-hold. So, after I consulted my HR department and found out that I was eligible for short-term disability coverage (for the second time in 1 year), it gave me the last little boost I needed to sit down with my office manager. Through my heart-broken tears, I told him what was going on with my spine and that I had to leave.

the-storm

Just like that…after only 5 short months back at work, it was over. Everything I had built and poured my heart into was now being ripped from my hands and I was left asking God WHY?

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