This post is going to be a little different than my standard fare. Over the past several years, I have never taken the time to write about the struggle that I face on a daily basis just to get by. So here is my medical odyssey in narrative form, and the impact it has on me now.
I suffered a serious spinal injury in December of 2012. For the next six months, I did injections, physical therapy, and even saw a chiropractor for a few months (he made things worse). Finally, I had to acknowledge the writing on the wall and retired from the fire service in August of 2013. I immediately started the fall semester teaching part time for three different colleges. I’d been teaching for one of them part time since 2004, so it made sense to keep on with it and it gave me something to do.
Over the next year or so, I continued with injections and began seeing a pain management specialist since I am not a good candidate for surgery given the extent of the damage. Going into the spring of 2015, I began to suffer some strange joint pains, extreme dry mouth, extreme fatigue, and I stopped being able to swallow solid food without choking. It took around six months, but I was diagnosed with something called Sjogren’s Syndrome. It is a somewhat rare auto-immune disease that typically only effects menopausal women, so as a male who was in my 30s at the time, I definitely didn’t fit the demographic. It isn’t curable and “treatment” is really only to help manage the symptoms.
I kept plugging away at life, despite everything. Then, in the late summer of 2016, I started getting a lot of pain/discomfort in one of my unmentionables. My doctor sent me to the Urgent Care place to get an ultrasound. They told me I had epididymitis even though it was not shown on the ultrasound. Anti-biotics didn’t make it any better, so my GP sent me off to see a surgeon. A CT scan indicated a hernia was the cause of the problem. So I had a bi-lateral laparoscopic inguinal hernia repair done in November of 2016. Recovery wasn’t too bad. I was able to walk a third of a mile the afternoon of the surgery. After a month, the surgeon released me back to normal activities.
My back injuries continued to give me problems, as they always do, and I remained unable to eat solid foods, but I was still trucking along. In November of 2017, I was offered a temporary full time position at a community college, which I accepted. The next week, my latest medical nightmare reared its head. On Thanksgiving Day, I developed severe stomach cramps which, as the day progressed, turned into projectile vomiting. Thinking I just had a stomach bug, I went to the ER expecting to be sent home soon. Wrong. A CT scan showed I had a bowel obstruction in my small intestine. The stuck an NG tube down my nose and drained two liters of backed up fluid from inside my stomach. They let me go home six days later as the blockage cleared, but without knowing what caused it, we didn’t know if it would come back or not.
As you can imagine, it did. The night before the start of classes at my new temporary full time job, the symptoms returned. Another ER trip showed it was another obstruction. I stayed there for 18 days and had a surgery around day 8. The recovery in the hospital was tough, but I made it out of bed to walk around as much as they’d let me. They kept me pretty comfortable and weren’t stingy with the morphine. But I felt sick as a dog, even after the surgery. I got home on a Friday and started my semester on Monday. Throughout the month of February, I dealt with bouts of nausea and bloating which I assumed was just my insides calming back down. Finally at the end of that month, I felt almost normal again.
Three days later, on our tenth wedding anniversary, another obstruction developed and I spent another week in the hospital. I needed another surgery, but the doctor said I could try and wait until the end of the semester. While in the hospital, I had a phone interview for the permanent position at the college where I was teaching temporarily. Later I had an in person interview and ended up getting the job. The rest of the semester passed slowly with me panicking every time I had the slightest twinge in my stomach, but I made it to the surgery date.
The second surgery went fairly well. I was discharged after 8 days and went home to recover. It was slow, but steady. I felt well enough to teach a couple of classes during the Summer 2 semester. But I still worry that the obstruction will return one day. There’s really nothing I can do to prevent it, other than just stay as occupied as I can. As the summer drew to a close, my back injuries decided to flare up in a big way, which brings me to where I am today. So here is what a day in my life is like:
When I first wake up, for a brief, flitting moment, it’s as if I am the old me, before disease and pain ravaged my body. For a second or two, I feel no pain. Then it slowly starts to settle in and I’m reminded of what I’ve become. I log roll out of bed and stand up for a few minutes to let everything settle and to figure out where the pain will be coming from that day. I shuffle into the kitchen and start a cup of coffee while I eat a small bowl of cereal. Since my bowel surgeries, I can eat solid foods again, albeit in moderation. With breakfast finished, I take a muscle relaxer, grab my coffee, and shuffle outside where I sit and drink my cup for 30 minutes or so while I let my medication kick in.
If it is during the week, I then go inside, slowly get dressed, and drink my liquid vitamin mixed with orange juice. I pack a lunch, walk outside, get the heating pad adjusted in the car seat, and then set out for work. I have a 50 minute commute which my back does not allow me to do all at once, so I have to stop at the halfway point and get out and walk around. Once I make it to work, I’m usually okay as being in the classroom is a nice distraction and so I don’t notice the pain as much. But it hits me like a sledgehammer as soon as my last class gets out. I have to sit down in the classroom for ten minutes or so and collect my breath, steadying myself to make the hike out to the car and the drive home. Just like during the morning commute, I have to stop halfway to get out and stretch.
When I get home, I have just enough energy left to walk to the front porch where I have to sit and rest for twenty minutes or so before I go inside. I then eat my supper, check my emails, and do any other tasks that need to be done before I get in bed. At precisely 6pm, I take a hot shower for around 20 minutes or so to try and ease the stiffness before I settle in. At six thirty, I take another muscle relaxer and get in bed. I spend the next hour and forty minutes rotating ice packs (20 minutes on, 20 minutes off) while I watch TV with Anastasia, my cat, and read a book. At 8pm, I get up and take my pain medication (which I only take at night) and then sit on the front porch and talk to my wife while we listen to a baseball game on the radio for about an hour. At 9pm, I return to bed and repeat the icing until 10:30. I turn out the light at 10:30 and try to go to sleep. Some nights I sleep very well. Other nights I toss and turn until my alarm goes off at 6:15 and I start the routine all over again.
I no longer remember what it was like to not live in constant pain. I don’t remember what it was like to be able to jump in the car and go do whatever I wanted to do, without worrying about the drive or if it might cause me more pain. It has robbed me of my career. It has placed occasional strain on my marriage. It has taken away my ability to be “normal”. I’ve lost so much that I can’t even begin to list it all out. But at the same time, it has made me a stronger person since I have to deal with it on a second to second basis. It has helped me find happiness in a second career. And it has taught me to take whatever joy I can get out of the small things in life.
I finally had time to write a novel. I’ve gotten to work with some great colleagues at the colleges where I’ve taught. I’m even going to be on TV here in a couple of weeks. I don’t think any of this would be possible were it not for my injuries and accompanying health woes. Yes, life for me is a constant battle against pain and my own body, but it is a battle that I am, for the moment, winning. (Or at least, I’m not losing.) Everything happens for a reason, and this is my cross to bear. I may not be thriving, but I am surviving. One day I might know the reason why all this has come to pass, but I no longer question why it happened anymore. It took a few years, but I made my peace with it. My only goal now is to live as full a life as I can with the limitations I have on me. I can look back on my public safety career and say I have no regrets and I’d do it all over again, even knowing how it would turn out, and there’s a certain victory in that.