Occupational Hazards

categories: Cocktail Hour


Phew.  I’m still here.  I’m sore and at times very uncomfortable, but not really in pain ten days out.  I won’t paragraph this because that’s the way the pain meds affect my thinking, just big, strong blocks of prose and then a nap.  My sense is this all starts when I’m much younger.  Maybe the car accident at sixteen–telephone pole at probably 40 miles an hour, no seat belt, the impression of the steering wheel across my chest as a bruise for weeks, no medical or other treatment, my mother mad at me for calling my girlfriend first rather than her.  And I played piano and other instruments in bands, often violently, always bent to the task.  And I worked various construction jobs for 12 years out of college, all sorts of head bonks and working backwards and neck twisted this way and that under various pressures, once a leap off a five or six foot high wall with heavy toolboxes in both hands that left me feeling funny, nothing worse than that, just funny, like I was in a different person’s body.  And sports of all kinds.  And outdoor adventures with injuries you didn’t think of showing a doctor.  And then writing, the Dickensian scribe bent over his desk for forty years, or, like, Bartleby, and reading, always reading, always the struggle for the right position–the one that only works half the time till you get to the end of the page and have to shift the book, read a little faster, shift back, ahhhh.  And skiing, rather recklessly.  And rock-hopping in streams.  Endless pressures and shocks to the disks, finally the one big fall skiing back in the woods last December, not much snow yet, a face-plant off a ledge I’d forgotten wouldn’t yet be filled in and ameliorated by drifts.  So hit the rocks below both hands out but on both sides of a rock, which I hit chin first throwing my neck back.  Again, that funny feeling, like I’d been sprung.  And lay there twenty minutes or so collecting myself, almost literally collecting myself, ski home not feeling too bad, just sort of out-of-body.  Oh, and the new shed, a small barn I built with friends last November, one friend twenty-nine years old, one thirty-nine.  Neither seemed young to me, neither very different from me.  My body remembered how to do everything, all the carpentry stuff I was once very good at.  Numb hands at the end of the second day.  I lifted the rafter sets third day equal-equal with those guys, one set after the next, realizing with each lift that the sets, small by my old standards, were too heavy for me.  Bend, pick my end up, lift it cold up to shoulder, then over the head and up to the top man.  Body just does the motions expertly, but body is not 25 anymore, or even 35, or even 45, or even, um, 55.  The penultimate rafter set gets jolted, hits a joist due to my faltering aim, and bends my head over, bends my neck, sits on my neck, and the message from my brain is lift, but I can’t.  The other guys don’t even notice, pull the set higher, and up it goes, then the next.  Numb hands that night, but something else, too, that sprung feeling through my shoulders and chest.  A few months later the left shoulder is no better.  I’ve had various treatments for it, but not only is it not better, it’s worse.  And somewhere vaguely in the shoulder blades, that unsprung feeling and more and more the neck.  I go to Franklin Memorial Hospital right here in Farmington, which now has its own MRI unit, and I lie in the tube and listen to the clacks and clonks and clicks and thumps of that amazing machine as it virtually slices me, offers the most intimate views.  A couple of days later my doctor calls and says, “Your neck is a disaster.”  He refers me to a well-regarded spine surgeon in Portland, who agrees: disaster.  Two disks are not only herniated but broken, with a large piece of one of them stuck inside my spinal column, and all of it pressing on the nerves that go to my hands.  He can go in through the back, cutting neck muscle, and retrieve the disk fragment, risk of infection.  Or through the front, pushing the trachea and esophagus aside, no muscle to cut, remove the remains of two disks, replace with donated human thigh bone, fasten with a titanium plate and four screws, allow it all to fuse into one super-vertebra, sew-up a couple of things in there, glue the incision shut, a few months of healing and fusing, no more pain.  I go back to my trusted chiropractor, who suggests we wait, try conservative treatment, let the disks heal on their own if they can, let the disk fragment resorb, be eaten by my body’s defenses, avoid the risks of surgery.  I’m down for that.  So, traction, a neck collar for car rides, exercises, lots of Advil.  And over the summer it does seem to be getting better.  Feeling returns to my hands.  My arms don’t hurt anymore, or not so much.  But the neck–the pain is centralizing there.  I go to Alaska.  I go to New Hampshire.  I go to the coast.  I climb Kahtahdin.  If I can climb Kahtahdin, how bad can it be?  Well, pretty bad, the bones of neck forming spurs, bone growing in the body’s effort to compensate for the squashed disks, called stenosis.  The stenosis gradually fills in the ports that the nerves pass through, begins to irritate the nerves, will eventually saw right through them: already a numb thumb, numb patches of skin on arms.  Stray pains in back and shoulders and arms.  My disk fragment may indeed by resorbing, but other trouble is taking its place.  I go for another MRI, and this time the surgeon says there’s only one option, through the front, remove the stenosis, remove the disks and fragments, fuse three vertabra into one.  And I need to do it soon, or risk losing the use of my hands.  I like my hands.  I play musical instruments.  I use tools.  Hands important.  I would miss masturbation, for just one of then thousand examples.   I make the appointment.  To the surgeon and his staff, this is workaday stuff.  But I really want information.  I want reassurance.  They can’t really say anything in any definite terms–every case is unique, though most go fine.  You hear horror stories.  A high school friend I’ve found on facebook is now a neurosurgeon.  She calls around that small world and finds that my guy is top notch, very reassuring.  You read horror stories.  Death is one of the risks.  My friends Wes and Drew and Bob have a goodbye party for me.   I thought the idea was really funny at first.  Wes writes me a heartwarming poem, meant for signs along the roadside:  “If they slip/ take it with Grace / we can use you/ for third base/ Burma Shave.”  Drew drives me down to Portland a couple of days later and we have a really nice dinner at a fine, fine restaurant and stay at a cheap hotel near the hospital.  I feel like I’m in a raft in a canyon and you know there’s a huge waterfall ahead; everyone’s told you there’s a waterfall, for one thing, and now you can hear it roaring.  The guide says it’s all right, people go over it all the time, but he leaps out of the boat: he’s got a different route down that’s not for you.  6 a.m. January 10th and I report to ambulatory surgery.  Soon they’ve got me naked in a gown.  An orderly asks Drew if he’s my son!  That’s how good I look.  The doctor comes in and he’s very sharp and smart and I have total confidence in him.  He hands me a form that enumerates the risks, which he says are minimal, except for the first one: infection. The others are paralysis and death.  I sign it cheerfully and they poke me with an I.V. and pretty soon I’m having a surprisingly fast gurney ride through a vast warren of curtained-off spaces and people are rushing every which way and it would make a good Disney ride, all the way to Operating Room 5, a very interesting space all scrubbed and full of people and shelves and products not everyone gets to handle.  A woman shakes my hand and says her name.  Next thing I know nearly three hours have passed and a guy is sitting me up wielding a hard black “cushion” to shove behind me and he says, “You’re getting an X-ray.”  And I have plenty to say–I’m pleased to be alive.  And he says, “Don’t say anything you sound like Chewbacca,” and his helper laughs and I give a big smile that is actually nearly as big as the room, big revelations about smiles.  Next moment someone is telling me to slide over and I do that and it seems I’ve slid all the way over into a nice room with a view of the ocean and a kindly nurse and she says “Are you going to vomit some more?” and I say no and vomit copiously, trying to turn so she won’t have to watch.  Next blink Drew is there.  “Jesus,” he says.

  1. Jenny Ruth Yasi writes:

    Okay, so this might be better than testicular cancer, not sure. Glad you are on the mend. Reality sucks. But also, it’s awesome! I love you Bill! You might not really remember who the hell I am, but I am forever your fan!!

  2. john harvey writes:

    Hey Bill,

    I really appreciate the list of contributing factors — I was really worried it was my fault — I think you were with me when I drove an elevator into a roof (not easy to do — elevators apparently qualify as “machinery not to operate while drunk”). This was at some party you invited your writers group to down at a friend’s place in SoHo a billion years ago.

    Christ, even I’m getting old.

    Anywho – Glad you’re doing well with the recovery thing. Keep blogging.

    john e. harvey

    • Bill writes:

      That elevator was in my (shared) loft on West Broadway… where we had some very serious parties from time to time… and that was where I lived near Meryl and Daryl…

  3. Tommy writes:

    I dunno, Bill, smacking telephone poles, leaping off high walls (in a single bound), and hoisting A-frames just sounds like a lot of fancy talk for what it was Dr. V was tellng us about! Ha!! Hindsight’s better than no sight at all – keep up the speedy recovery, your latter posts sound a little like, “Fear and Loathing in the Short Story Ward”, and your nurse is Meryl Streep?? Wow!@! Who’s your health care provider!!!?

  4. Susan Pearsall writes:

    Bill, it’s better to have stretched your physical limits for decades than to have lived a life of boring indolence. Best wishes for a speedy recovery and many more adventures in the woods and at the desk.

  5. Valerie Lane writes:

    Wow Bill. That sounds terrible. I’m sorry you had to go through that. How good of you to write about it. Isn’t it great to know that you have so many friends who love you? That should make the recovery go well. Sending my love and best wishes for you to feel better soon.

  6. Richard Gilbert writes:

    Bill, so glad ya made it through! And gave us this wonderful account, which having gone through the same surgery, through the throat crease and all, I can say is painfully accurate.

    Age and injuries happen. Time comes to be more gentle with yourself. And beware of young (under 50) workout coaches, yoga and pilates teachers, and even physical therapists. Because they always really think, deep in their hearts, you are just out of shape, when, yeah, there’s that too, but it’s really that you are old, or at least not young anymore. Exhibit A: my 60 yoa wife with a 20 yoa personal trainer. The girl just about killed my wife, who’s pretty tough, once ran a marathon. Exhibit B: Four years after my neck surgery I had to have lower back surgery—hurt myself with weighted leg lifts trying to get in shape . . . so I wouldn’t hurt myself any more.

    So take it easy on the comeback, big guy.

  7. nina writes:

    Bill, so glad you’re back at the keyboard. You were sorely missed. When’s the Hello party?

    Keep feeling better. xo Nina

    • Bill writes:

      a hello party is a really good idea, and I will get to work on it, once the ok is issued…

  8. John Jack writes:

    Occupational hazards of spinal fusion too? In other words, complications upon complications. Life and literature’s mainstay for not letting our heroes ride on their/our laurels and lauds.

    Degenerative disc disease. Aging, I’m afraid, is the main cause. As we age our intervertabral bodies dessicate. They’re the shock absorbers of the spine and they dry out over time and loose their resilience. There’s no avoiding it.

    Adjacent disc disease, related in part to degenerative disc disease, as one or more discs are compromised, by trauma and/or resulting fusion surgery, adjacent discs take up more load bearing. They’re already degenerated, and now they’re being asked to do more work? Damn gravity pulling us down.

    Guarding affect is a consequence of major traumatic events and an outcome from therapies to treat them. It’s a good thing, but othewise outwardly healthy looking specimens are expected to be healthy and pull their weight by those around us. It ain’t happening because, related to the above two, the old mainmast ain’t up to it no more, thus guarding affect.

    By the by, Mr. Bill, you look and sound like you’ve been taking showers with a flamethrower and a sandblaster. About burnt and worn down to the nub, eh?

  9. Donna writes:

    Hey, Bill. Thanks for sharing. Seriously. I’m pretty sure you did the right thing.