A total pain in the neck

Barbara Lawlor

I push a cart through the aisles of the grocery store and know I won’t make it to the dairy section before someone stops, frowns at me and asks, “What happened?”
Some looked concerned. Some are curious. Some almost afraid to hear the answer, and some have this smile on their face as if they know they are going to get some strange story, and sometimes they do.
Why do I have a Darth Vador-like gadget gathered around my neck and below it another sci fi implement that ticks sometimes? How about a double black diamond run the opening day of skiing? A trip over my St. Bernard, who then rolled on top of me? A squawking chicken landing on my head while I searched for eggs and me levitating to the top of the shoulder high coop?
A desire to be taller? An upside down trip on the Gilpin County water slide?
Nah. None of the above. Just the gradual aging process, me being one of the unlucky ones whose discs and vertebrae decided to fall apart before their time. There are many of us out here, suffering from bone degeneration which results in encroachment on the spinal cord, the pinching of nerves, chronic pain that can be eased by many forms of therapy, but not really cured. At least in my case.
I remember first noticing the symptoms about 10 years ago on a cross-country drive to Wisconsin. Entering Nebraska, I found I couldn’t get comfortable, no matter if I sat forward, leaned backward, curled sideways or put a pillow behind my neck. There didn’t seem to be a good place to put my head. People don’t think much about where their head is supposed to go. It’s just there, resting on top of the shoulders, the end of the spine, the thin, vulnerable discs that make us flexible.
It is wonderful when a neck works. It is hell when it doesn’t.
During my stay in Wisconsin, the pain became more determined. It wouldn’t go away and it made me angry. When I returned to Nederland, I went to see Dr. Fauvel who sent me down for an X-ray. When he put up on the scanning board, his, “hmmmm,” said it all. Apparently my neck went the wrong way. It didn’t curve like other people’s necks and; therefore, everything else was slipping and sliding out of alignment and my poor nerves were being tortured through the obstacle course of my spinal cord.
Okay, so what do I do? He said the surgery involved would be multi-leveled and complex and iffy. Therapy could ease the muscular pain. Pain medications could help me sleep, and strength of character would help me get up every day.
Four years ago, the strength of character flew up my chimney. It was becoming difficult to sit during a basketball game; climbing the steps at the high school was a boot camp course. Walking up a steep trail to a wild land fire made me hazardous. Another trip to the doctor and this time I was sent for an X-ray on my lower back. This time Susan looked at the results and said, you need surgery immediately and referred me to Dr. V.  That is Dr. Allen Villavicencio, known for his non-invasive work of the spinal column and nerves.
It turned out that some lumbar discs were not stacked properly and I was in danger of losing some major functions. It was an in-and-out procedure. It hurt. It limited my actions for a few months that summer and then it was fine. I felt strength returning.
All was fairly fine until last spring when everything I did became difficult. I played tennis with my friend and threw the racquet along with the ball, unable to hold on. I couldn’t make my arms work when I swam. It was hard to stay upright for long periods of time and, once again, my head couldn’t find a resting place. I went to see Dr. V in the spring and when he told me what had to be done, I chickened out and decided to live with it, manage pain and ignore the rest.
A couple weeks before Christmas, I had stabbing jabs in my arms and legs. I couldn’t sit, couldn’t sleep, pummeled my muscles, trying to stop the deep-set ache that plagued me. I went to Dr. V and told him to do whatever it took. Get rid of the pain in my neck. He and his associates conferred and approached me with the idea that all of my neck pieces were compromised and they could fix some at a time, but there would always be the next batch that needed fixing. We agreed to do the whole thing. In layman’s terms, they took all the bad neck stuff and replaced it with titanium plates and many screws, putting my neck in a straight line and protecting the spinal cord like it was supposed to.
I spent a couple days in ICU freaking out because I didn’t have a window to look out of, but that’s just me. Everyone did their best to make me comfortable and I got to come home and heal. I was given medications to help with the inevitable pain and I was given neck collars, one hard plastic to wear most of the time, probably for about three months, one soft collar, for a break, and another looser collar that I have to wear for four hours a day, that is a bone growth stimulator so that my real body stuff gets together with the titanium and makes me immune to further neck deterioration.
So I am slow these days and it is hard to focus on stuff, but each day, it is easier to get out of bed and in a couple months I’ll be good as new. People say that Peyton Manning had the same procedure and look what he did this season.
We all have choices to make and I am an impatient, pain intolerant person who would just as soon get something over with than spend years trying various alternative therapies that might or might not work. It is just a matter of months before I have my quality of life back and will be chasing around the mountains looking for adventures and stories of our courageous mountain people and accomplishments of our youth.
In the meantime, you can laugh when you see me. After all, it’s just a pain in the neck.