THE LUMBAR EMERGENCY

When you’re alone and gripped by sudden, incapacitating agony, what else is there but your purse?I have been mocked by more than one man for the variety of things I find necessary to stash in there. The wisdom of always having something to read, a notebook, an umbrella, a wad of napkins, an extra bus token, gym pants and a piece of fruit, in addition to keys, wallet and cell phone, seems to escape most men.

I gathered the aforementioned items (and really, that list only scratches the surface – or unzips the pocket, so to speak) in preparation for a double-shift Saturday downtown. As I bent over the couch to stuff a clean work polo into the purse, there was a pop in my lower back like the crisp, tender snap of a raw string bean.

My next conscious thought was worry that the upstairs neighbors would hear the incoherent howls of pain and call the authorities. I suddenly knew, without a doubt, that life as I knew it was over. I would forever remember this bend over the couch as the moment when I went from an active life of work and gym, theater and feeding the fish and scribbling borderline inappropriate blogs to a life of total, excruciating immobility right here on the arm of the couch.

Could I bend forward a bit? NO. Could I arch my back a bit to relieve the blowtorch fixed on the muscles of my lumbar region? NOOOOO. Could I just…get…onto…my…knees…in preparation for someday, somehow, lowering myself onto the carpet? YAAAHHH! I think I’m crying, yes, I’m crying.

What do I have at hand? Well! Everything, it turns out. There, in arm’s reach, is my purse. Phone. Dial my boss. Gasp something about not being able to work today. Still on my knees, I cling to the arm of the couch like a shipwrecked sailor. What else is in my purse? A bottle of Advil! Can’t take that on an empty stomach…Aha! An apple! I crunched the apple between spasms of anguish and swallowed a few pills with the last bite. What else? Ah, William Makepeace Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair”. That is thick enough to support my head, if I could make it down to the carpet…

I could tell you how I finally made it into bed, and how, later, I picked up the laptop and brought it to the bedroom, but why recount such a blubbering odyssey of pain? Everything more than one foot away might as well have been at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I brought a few apples into the bed, along with Thackeray and the cell phone. Fortunately I stash novels all over the house, and I also had my pick of Stephen King, Charlotte Bronte or Arthur Golden. By 3pm the apples were eaten. I updated my Facebook status, pecking at the keyboard as best as I could flat on my back, so friends could infer how my life was hanging by a thread. I accessed my Netflix account and found BBC’s “Pride and Prejudice.” It’s a testament to the depth of my pain that I was unable to enjoy it. A lonely girl in possession of a large back pain must be in want of narcotics…hang Lizzie and Jane and Bingley and all the rest.

My mother called. My puling refusal to request any help from local family only resulted in a call put in to my aunt in Willow Grove. Who knew such wracking, searing pain could follow an attempt to sit up? The torture of standing up can’t be decently described herein. My ears rang, a cold sweat dampened my shirt, and I grasped the sink in acceptance of my fate: throwing up, and then a swift, undignified death on the bathroom rug.

I did not throw up, nor did I die. I staggered back to bed. My aunt Judy arrived, bearing a sandwich, a smoothie, and an ice pack. Since these things never happen on a day that the doctor’s office is open, we were soon off to the hospital.

Intake. I thought my feet looked stupid on the angled footrests of the wheelchair, but it was too painful to shift them. The intake technician typed that I “claimed” not to abuse alcohol or drugs, handed me the paperwork, and wheeled me to the blood pressure station. I saw the young woman who had had her blood pressure taken before me – nothing obviously wrong with her but a cough. Great. On top of everything else, I’ll catch Swine Flu. Then to a bed whose curtains seemed designed to puff out with each passing doctor, offering everyone at the nurses’ station an excellent view.  And of course, the final humiliation of donning a faded, gap-reared hospital gown with haphazard, unreachable snaps and a front pocket advising everyone to “wash your hands.” Forget high emergency-room co-pays. That gown should be enough to deter anyone from seeking medical help.

“Well well, I see by your paperwork here that you injured your back when you bent over your coach,” the bald doctor giggled as he threw back the wafting curtain. Addled by pain and having escaped part of the awful day in the early 19th century with the company of Becky Sharp and Miss Crawley, and Austen’s husband- grubbing ladies, all of whom undoubtedly schemed in coaches, this seemed sensible. “There’s a typo on your paperwork,” the doctor crowed. He made me stand and poked energetically at my lumbar vertebra. “Ow. OW.” “Well, you expected that to hurt,” he said.

“I see you hurt your back leaning over your coach,” quipped the next arrival, who made me roll on my side so he could poke my back. The nurse was more sympathetic. “Is the pain shooting down your legs at all?” she asked. She returned with an orange pill and a cup of water. “Can I go home now?” I whined. “You’ve got to wait twenty to thirty minutes, to see if the diazepam works,” she said, shoving the scanty curtain briskly aside as she left. I made an agonizing progress to the ladies’ room, during which the humorous bald doctor handed me a cane. I wish I had told him that it wouldn’t fit in my coach.

I sat on the edge of the bed, unwilling to bear the spasms of any further motion. Were my eyes just closed? Gosh, that felt good. I wanted to lay my head down. I yawned and yawned again. Where could I put my head? Why, there’s a pillow. No horrific spasm as I scooted down until I was prone on the bed. Yawn. YAWN. Bring me my coach. Or was that couch?  Now Judy had sheets of paper authorizing bottles of Vicodin, diazepam, and 600 mg pills of Advil. Two sensations on the ride home: gratitude to Judy, and a powerful wish for a beer. It was hard to get the key in the door handle of my apartment. Right side up or upside down? How does it fit? Into bed again, broad ice pack cool under me. The cell phone rings. What is it you say when you pick up the phone? I’m floating. Or am I asleep? Does it matter? Not a bit. I might, just might, be able to stand up tomorrow. There is room for a few extra bottles in my purse.

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3 Comments

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  1. Ah the agony of bad back genes… expressed so vividly. So SORRY you had to endure a blowout lumbar spasm.

  2. Very lively account. I read it eagerly without noticing I did so. So sorry! Glad to have discovered your blog.

  3. I’m so sorry about your back! I thought they had super strict rules on Vicodin these days…you lucky gal you. (haha, just kidding)

    Your purse reminds me of the “Barney Bag”. “Oh, we’re looking in the Barney bag and we’ve found a lot of things. Gizmos and gadgets, odds and ends, even some old string…” (I don’t know why I remember that, I just do.)

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