Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Update on my back injury

It has been about a month since I first hurt my back. Last week I thought I could return to work. Boy was I wrong. I worked half-days in the office, then returned home to work in the afternoons. I was not very productive, and I managed to undo much of the progress I had made in physical therapy (PT).

Lots of friends and colleagues thought I was nuts for trying to go back to work. Here's why I wanted to try: My goal is to be able to return to work full time. That's where my road to recovery is supposed to end. When I began down the road, I made gradual progress at home until I was finally able to move around and to sit awhile without pain. It seemed like I had made all the progress I was going to make on this part of the road. The next step towards that ultimate goal would be to head back to work, and gradually make progress on that new part of the road. It turns out that I was simply not ready. My first day back was not too bad. The next day was harder. By the 4th day I wished I could stay home. The last day I called my doctor and told him I couldn't do this anymore. I had expected to find each day a little easier than the one before, but when that didn't happen I knew it was a mistake.

So now I've returned to disability and my full time job is to get better. I have PT three times a week, and until I went back to work it had delivered vast improvements for me. If I continue making progress like that, I shouldn't need any aggressive treatments. No injections, no surgeries... that's what I'm hoping for. I'll always have to be careful with my spine to avoid re-injuring it, but I really hope this will be an acute injury that won't become a chronic pain issue.

In addition, my company has agreed to buy whatever office chair my therapist recommends. Our standard office chairs are perfectly comfortable for healthy people, but not for injuries like mine. My mom suggested a great comeback for the smart remarks that are sure to come from coworkers who are sure to envy my new groovy chair: "I'd gladly trade you my chair for your healthy spine." So there. Remind them that this is not a luxury item -- and that it's not what I would have chosen. I'm totally planning to use that line.

Right now, without causing pain, I can do light housework, or sit with regular posture for about a half an hour, or sit in a recliner for about 3 hours (in 45-minute chunks), or stand for about an hour. If I do more than that, I become very uncomfortable and I have to lie down and rest for several hours. If I'm somewhere that I can not lie down, like when I was at work or if I'm driving, I have to take a painkiller to sustain me until I CAN lie down. Most days I don't need painkillers. Which is good for many reasons, one of which is that alcoholic beverages are contraindicated. Heh.

Friday, September 12, 2008

One thing I learned from Discovery Channel

I was watching a show called Destroyed in Seconds on Discovery Channel, and they were discussing a fog-related pileup crash in California last year. I lived in California for eight years during my childhood. I knew that kind of weather - that thick fog that's thicker than any fog you've ever seen. But I was a kid, so it was fun in the fog; I didn't know how dangerous it was. By the time I was a driving teenager, we had moved out of California. So until I saw this TV show, my brain had never had the occasion to put my fog experience together with my driving experience. It was an odd experience to feel those memories touching each other during that TV show. How strange that many separate memories could put themselves together and produce anxiety in the present.

Tule Fog (photo credit: Flickr) I also learned for the first time that this fog is so unique that it has a name: tule fog. Pronounced "TOOL-lee." Most of the photos I found, although they claimed to be tule fog photos, seemed like they were just regular fog photos. The photo here is more like what I remember. We always called it Merced fog, because Merced is the town we lived in.

One night in particular sticks out in my memory. Mom was driving, and my little brother and I were about 6 and 9 years old. We had all been visiting a friend's house that evening, about two miles from our house, and it was time to leave around 8:30 or 9:00. The roads were very familiar, very residential, and never very busy. During the day we were frequently allowed to ride our bikes to this friend's house. That drive took about a half an hour because we had to drive so slowly, and because we couldn't see any landmarks or street signs. At one point along the way, we stopped because my mom couldn't even see her hood ornament! The best part was when my brother had to climb up a street sign to find out whether this was our street. My mom couldn't see that sign from the ground, even though she got out of the car and walked over to the signpost. So she asked my brother to climb the pole and read it. It was unbelievable.

I remember having fog days from time to time. Schools would have delayed openings to wait for the fog to burn off. One of those mornings I asked my mom about it, because I didn't understand the danger. I could see enough to walk to the bus stop, what's the problem? She explained that cars wouldn't always see a little girl walking in fog like this. I had thought that as long as I could see them, I would know when it was safe to cross. Mercifully, she didn't dent my implicit trust of the bus driver's abilities by explaining that the drive itself was dangerous.

Fast-forward to the day I saw this Discovery Channel show. Again since the idea of driving in Merced fog was so new to me, I asked Mom what I should do in a situation like that. First, she said, DON'T DRIVE. If you're already driving, slow WAY down, but don't do it suddenly because the drivers behind won't detect the change in speed until it's too late.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Heavy Lifting

A couple of weeks ago we had a septic backup into the basement. It was disgusting, and probably worthy of an entire blog post all its own. It was suddenly very important to get stuff out of the basement - stuff that is already wet and stuff that will soon get wet if it's not moved NOW. When boxes are soaked with yucky water, you tend to hold them away from your body. As everyone knows, this is not proper lifting technique. But it's exactly how I lifted those boxes.

I only carried a few things, because I hadn't been feeling very well that day. I had had breakfast and went back to sleep for half the day (I even missed the meeting), I woke up to help organize a few visits from the septic repair people, then ate dinner, then slept soundly all night again. The next morning was Monday, and without a working septic system, nobody got showers so we all stayed home from work. As soon as the repairman got it working again, I raced upstairs to bathe because I still felt filthy from the previous day's cleanup efforts. I sat on the shower floor to shave my legs, but that small stretch was the straw that broke the camel's back, though it was my back that stopped working.

I stayed in bed all day Monday, in pain but not emergency-room-level pain. The next morning the pain was equally bad, so I went to the doctor's. The problem was that I was home alone on Tuesday. I wouldn't leave my bedroom because it's the only place in the house that allows stair-free access to the toilet. In this condition I would need a ride to the doctor's office. I got in touch with someone from my congregation and the help swooped in quickly. Not only did I get a ride to the doctor in the middle of a weekday afternoon, but I got eight other visitors besides.

The doctor prescribed muscle relaxers and narcotic painkillers, and instructed me to take LOTS of Advil. Four times more than the labeled dosage instructions. The next day I got an x-ray, and an MRI a few days later. Results: two herniated discs in my lower back. Ugh. L4L5 and L5S1 will never be the same.

I have applied for short-term disability benefits (80% of my salary, wow!) and physical therapy has started. The therapy is exhausting. It doesn't hurt exactly, it just wipes my energy. In fact at this point, almost three weeks since the injury, I am free from pain most of the time. In order to return to work, I need to strengthen my muscles to permit longer periods of sitting. Right now I start feeling uncomfortable after sitting for 45 minutes. And "sitting" is a relative term these days. Really what I mean is leaning on a whole bunch of pillows with my feet on a stool. It's recliner-like sitting.

Right now, the plan is to visit the doctor tomorrow, regale him with tales of my astounding progress, and return to work on Monday. Let's see how it goes.