July 22, 2012

Spinal Wars, Part I: Back Down


When the guy on the gurney next to you in the emergency room is strapped down, handcuffed, and screaming for someone to remove his shoes, the half-naked elderly Chinese man a few feet away is moaning, sweating, and trying to get to his feet, and the cops behind you are joking about the drunken gunshot victim around the corner, you feel a little stupid complaining that your back hurts. After fifteen hours in that same emergency room, though, I started to get a little fed up.

            It all started the night before. When I went to bed, I noticed that my lower back was a bit more sore than usual. Then when I woke up the next morning, I found that I couldn’t walk, or stand, or sit upright. This was kind of a bummer, as it was the Fourth of July and I was all set to celebrate American Independence in some way or another. This is hard to do, though, when you can’t move. It wasn’t that I was paralyzed, it was that every time I tried to move, searing pain rocketed through my body like nothing I’d ever felt before. Something had clearly gone all sproingy in the lower spinal area.

            I wish I had a dramatic story for why this happened—falling down a well or being run down by a Mr. Softee truck or something—but unfortunately the reason was all too banal. I’ve always had chronically and comically bad posture, especially when I’m working. Seems it finally caught up with me. There had been another episode about six months ago and you’d think I learned my lesson. But nope. That one was nothing compared to this, and it cleared up after a couple of days of gobbling aspirin and slathering myself with Ben-Gay. Once it went away I was back to my old slouchy ways again. I’m an idiot that way.

            I managed to drag myself off the bed and over to the phone, where I called Morgan and whimpered into the phone like a puppy. Then I dragged myself back up onto the bed and waited. The effort of getting from the bed to the phone and back again had taken a long time, and had left me completely immobilized. I knew I wouldn’t be going anywhere for awhile.

            That’s when I recognized another problem. The AM news radio station had come on. It was on a ten-minute loop—some news, the weather, traffic, sports, entertainment, more weather, over and over and over again, very little of it changing with each pass. It was going to take Morgan a couple of hours to get herself together and get out to Bay Ridge, and there was no way I could turn the fucking radio off. It was turning into a very bad morning.

            When she did show up and let herself in, my first words to her—before hello, before any whimpering—were “please turn that fucking radio off.” I was exhausted, in unbelievable pain, and a little frightened. I was, however, extremely well informed.

            “Okay,” I said, once the room was blessedly silent again. “Let’s try this. See if you can grab my legs and pivot me around until my head faces the door. Then we’ll see if we can get me to my feet.”

            She gingerly grabbed my ankles and slowly began trying to turn my body.

            “Okay,” I said after I stopped shrieking, “that didn’t work. I’m starting to think that maybe we should call in a professional.” I’d known a guy once who ruptured a disc while trying to pick up a friend’s kid (that’ll teach him). It resulted in six operations and five fused vertebrae. So far as I know he wears a back brace to this day. I tried not to think about him.

            As embarrassed as I was by the prospect—so my back hurt, boo fucking hoo—Morgan picked up the phone and dialed 911. I didn’t really know any doctors, and lord knows I wasn’t going to be walking anywhere, so what the hell do you do?

            When the ambulance showed up a half hour later (I’m glad I wasn’t drowning), two burly and friendly female EMTs walked into my room and surveyed the situation.

            “Yeah,” I said from where I lay, “I’m real sorry about this.”

            “What are you talking about?” one of them replied. “You wouldn’t believe some of the calls we get. People with colds, or mothers who need to get their seven kids to the doctor for a checkup. This is fine—you’ve actually got a real problem.”

            That made me feel a little better. At least until they hoisted me up and dropped me into a contraption that resembled a director’s chair with wheels and no back.

            They tilted me up and rolled me backwards through the apartment, making sure to hit every bump and corner and chair and bookcase along the way.

            When we got out the door, there was still the problem of the steps to contend with. There are five high, curving steps that lead to the basement. This makes it very difficult to move large objects (and me, apparently) in and out. But bless these two, they decided to give it the old college try, dragging and bouncing me up one step, then the next while I bit my lip until it bled.

            “You wanna have one of those Camels before we move on?” one of the EMTs asked, having noted the pack in my breast pocket. It was a kind and tempting offer, but I foolishly decided to pass.

            Then there was the problem of getting me from the street into the back of the ambulance. It always looks so easy on TV. Just roll the stretcher up to the back and it goes right in. But I wasn’t on a stretcher, I was sitting in some kind of backless director’s chair monstrosity that had to be hoisted by hand while I began to sweat profusely from the effort of trying to remain upright. In the end I think the process of getting me from my prone position in my room outside and into the ambulance did much more damage than all my damned slouching. I was beginning to think that maybe calling in the professionals wasn’t such a hot idea after all.

            Morgan climbed in after me, the doors slammed shut, and we slowly pulled away as I wondered if the neighbors just assumed I’d gotten into more of my drunken blindo shenanigans.

            “What kind of insurance do you have?” one of the EMTs asked.

            When I answered honestly, I swear I heard the wheels screech as we suddenly changed course. Now instead of the nice hospital with real doctors and electric lights and everything, they decided instead that I might be better served by the slum hospital without all those extravagances. Next time I’ll tell them I have Blue Cross or Oxford or something and see where I wind up. Still, though, the EMTs were very nice.

            A few minutes later we pulled into the slum hospital, where they got me on a real stretcher and wheeled me into an emergency room that sounded like something you’d find in a war zone or following a catastrophic natural disaster. People all around us were screaming and crying and yelling, and it sounded like there were hundreds of them. They wheeled me over to an empty space against a wall, and left. Only later would I learn that there had been an unprecedented spike in the number of shootings in the city around that time. And all the victims, it seems, were in that emergency room with me.

            Morgan stood over me and did what she could while a few feet away two cops were telling the handcuffed man strapped down to the gurney that if he didn’t shut the fuck up, no one would help him.

            “But you gotta loosen these bracelets—my hands! Look at my hands! They’re turning all pink and red! C’mon man, I’m thirsty! Can I get a soda or something?”

            Then he apparently noticed Morgan and me.

            “See? No one’s petting my head! No one’s doin’ nothin’! Miss? Miss? You hear me? God, I gotta get these fuckin’ shoes off. Won’t someone help me get my shoes off?”

            What had been a very bad morning was starting to become much more interesting.


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