God’s Grace in Adversity – it IS there; just look for it: the story of my wife’s back injury

I haven’t posted for a while due to the gravity of the situation here: My wife has been in hospital. But the darkness of the situation has never at any time dimmed the light of Christ’s promise in our lives:

“I never said it’d be easy, but no matter what, I’m always there with you”.

On April 3rd, we were out camping and our 78-pound ball-of-happy Golden Retriever was on his Flexi-leash next to her as she turned to get something out of the truck. He saw something and bolted. The leash hit the end, and the combination of 78 pounds moving at full speed and her always-firm grip on the leash flipped her in the air, to land hard on her back.

Her pain got progressively worse over the weekend, and she asked for an appointment ASAP with her GP as soon as we got back. Without even palpating the area or even any physical check-over, the GP just wrote a prescription for pain meds and said, “Call me next week”.

Meanwhile the pain got worse.

The next available appointment brought my wife to the GP’s office with the request to be scanned, checked, anything to look for the source of the pain. The response from the GP: “Here’s stronger pain meds.”

Meanwhile the pain got worse.

The second appointment brought my wife to the GP’s office with the request to be scanned, checked, anything to look for the source of the pain. The response from the GP: “You’re too claustrophobic to go through a scanner. Here’s stronger pain meds.”

Meanwhile the pain got worse.

The next appointment brought my wife to the GP’s office with the request to be scanned, checked, anything to look for the source of the pain- how about physical therapy, then?. The response from the GP: “Well, okay. I’ll set that up. Meanwhile, here’s more pain meds.”

The physical therapy appointments brought some relief, but her levels of pain were still trending upwards. And the physical therapist was doing his best, but he said, “I’m afraid to do more, because I need a diagnosis to know how to proceed.” Meanwhile he admitted to her that he could tell something was wrong, but to call the GP was to ask for a most severe tongue-lashing, to be frequently punctuated with the words, ‘I’m the doctor here; I know more than you’; even though this physical therapist has a full PhD in his field.

And the pain grew worse; my wife was now having trouble with walking, which she expressed to her GP, again begging for a scan of some sort as she was less and less able to move well around the house. You guessed it: Nope, here’s a renewal for those meds.

On the night of June 3, she had been waiting for me to come home so she could go into her spa; over the years it has provided not only physical therapy for her past broken ankle but mental therapy – she can sit and watch the wildlife just outside the sunroom; and celebrate the beauty of a sunset or even a driving rainstorm, along with me, the nut-case outside in it all. So she got into the spa, and it felt so good for her back.

But when it came time to get out, she looked at me in horror: “I can’t lift my feet to the step to get out…!”

We figured out a way for her to get out, and then she was well-balanced and stable at the top of the two steps down from the spa. She went to take a step, and her legs just folded from under her. I still recall the sheer panic of those few moments: She crashed to the floor, hitting the window ledge on the way down, and banged her head on a different window ledge.

Fortunately nothing was broken, although she would have a knot on her head for a while. She got stood up again, and made her way to the living room couch where she sat with a cold pack on her back for a while. She said, “I want to go to bed,” and then stood up. She was stable on her feet, so I turned my back to fetch the pillows from the couch and return them to the chairs.

She fell again.

So we called the paramedics for transport, and she was admitted to the ER at 0138. I locked up the house, called my boss’ work number and left a voicemail to apprise him of the situation, patted the dog goodbye, and roared off to the ER. There’s very little traffic on the highways at that time of night, and I am very glad I pay a racing mechanic who hobbies in ordinary auto maintenance to take care of my little work car. I arrived as they were unloading her. They’d had a six-minute head start.

She was admitted on Thursday the 4th, early in the morning, after some preliminary checks. The next few hours brought preliminary pain management, and the first visit from the neurologist. After palpating the area and making some checks, it was decided that she needed some time to stabilise and then they would run a scan. Exactly what she had been begging for, now to be done some 9 weeks later.

But let’s take a moment to notice God’s hand in this: I got there just as they were unloading her, so she was never alone. This neurologist on duty was the right guy to be on duty that early morning, as he recognized the symptoms immediately. The on-duty staff at the ER were patient and caring, exactly the right people at the right time. Although there was a mental case somewhere across the in the ER who was aggressive, loud, and contentious, the staff were most kind to my wife.

The rest of the days were a blur; I was able to work in the mornings and then to go to the hospital in the afternoons to be with her. Meanwhile, the MRI was done, and although she had few problems with the procedure, the scan wasn’t conclusive enough. They needed to do a myelogram, which meant a trip through the CAT scanner. It was also an uncomfortable procedure: they shoot contrast material in your back, then you roll from stomach to back a number of times ‘to mix it up’, then you go through the scanner twice: once almost standing on your head, the next almost sliding off on your feet.

But they had a diagnosis: inflamed nerves in her back, and spinal stenosis – a narrowing of the channels in the spine through which the nerves run – likely many years old, but now a concern due to the fall; and a compression fracture of L5, along with a herniated disk in L4-L5. The first therapy to use is strong steroids, injected into the back, to try to bring down the inflammation. This has to be done in the CAT so that the needle (not a small one) can be positioned precisely and then the meds delivered to each site. And there were several. She got an epidural for the pain.

When the epidural wore off, then aggressive pain management was to be applied. The neurologist left specific and literal instructions that she was to be awakened for pill dosages; as this is contrary to the normal practice where they let the patient wake up and ask for meds.

However due to staff not reading these instructions, she awoke with pain the next morning that was a full ten steps above anything she’d had before. In her pain, she picked up the phone before she’d picked up the CALL button. The shared agony wrenched at my spirit, as I had made a promise that I would be at work this morning. I got her to press the CALL button and keep pressing it until someone showed up. She hung up when someone showed up to give her the meds she should have had SIX HOURS EARLIER. I called back in five minutes, just to mentally hold her hand. I prayed with her and stayed on the phone for a while until she sensed it was beginning to ease up. Then we disconnected, and I began to call back at intervals, just to check on her. Finally, about an hour and a half later, all was under control again.

But again, let’s notice God’s hand, day-by-day,  in all of this:

The charge nurse on duty that morning was Iris, a Southern gal from Alabama, and it was her last day after 60 years of nursing. And she had that old-fashioned touch: She clucked and said to my wife, “Aw honey, let’s dry those tears…” and she got a hot washcloth and washed my wife’s face and hands… and tenderly took care of her as the pain meds finally took firm hold. Meanwhile, the more urgent items on the floor were minimal, allowing Iris to spend extended time with my wife.

Or how about the right people in the right place who listened to her trouble and knew exactly what was wrong: she needed a special bed because of the location of her injury – the support bars were pressing across her back. They ordered the bed, and as the driver was delivering it, he said, “I just happened to have this particular one in stock, I think it’s what you need.” And it was the perfect bed for her stay.

She has continually commented on how God brought her the right person as a nurse every day: like the little fireball of a nurse that had the great idea for helping her ‘get scooted up’ in bed – she couldn’t do it herself because of her back. Or the wonderful gal from Guatemala who lectured her: “Now you listen! This! (pointing to the bed) is the worst enemy of your recovery! You! Have! To! Get up and WALK!”

Or how about those very long days when I had Wheaton, our Golden Retriever, in the car. The days were warm and sunny, so I prayed for a good spot to park so he’d be cool in between times when I could get down to take him for ‘walkies’. And there, on each of those days, was the perfect spot, in deep shade. The exact same spot. All those days.

So let’s get back to the story:

On Thursday the 11th, the “Hospitalist” (a term I’d not heard before, but I understand is a new staff position) assigned to her for these days, wanted to send her home. Now, there are those times when you question the wisdom of professionals, and this for-sure was one of them: When my wife was in the hospital earlier this year for a heart condition, her roommate also had this same person who wanted to send her home – even though that person’s heart condition was not yet anywhere near controlled. It was at this point we began calling her ‘Doctor Ejector’. Doc Eject began to set up my wife’s release.

And again God’s hand intervened: It was later that afternoon that the Neurologist PA came to visit, and assessed my wife’s condition. She said that the improvement they’d been hoping for hadn’t happened, so my wife would be scheduled for surgery; meanwhile we informed her of this intended release. The PA colored a bit, then excused herself and left the room. After a few moments, she re-entered and said, “You’ll be staying here the weekend. It’s stupid to send you home, then have to bring you back in and prep you to this state.”

Surgery was scheduled for Monday afternoon, the 15th. As ER always has first-call on all services, it ended up being about 4PM when they rolled her down to Surgery Prep, and I got to walk along. Should have had a Fitbit: The distance had to be in excess of a mile and a half. While sitting in Surgery Prep, I texted family and friends; and both my wife and I prayed together. Although I was twanging-tense and deeply anxious with the gravity of the situation (she could easily be paralysed or have loss of bladder and bowel functions if things went wrong), I had a certain indescribable calmness, without any dark forebodings.

And at 8PM, she was rolled out of Recovery and on her way to a different room. There was a phone in Surgical Waiting, and I called to get her new room number. After dialing the wrong desk twice, I finally  realized there was a reason for the number-sticker on the phone. I got her new number, and as I started to walk in that direction, I saw the Transport team rolling a bed – my wife’s bed! So I got to accompany her up to her new room.

She came home in my hands on Thursday, June 18, two weeks and 15 hours after she left on a stretcher in the hands of others.

In the background during these nights and weekends, a number of people came together to help get the house ready for her return. I am deeply grateful and humbled by the selfless service of all those who prayed, helped, packed and shipped, baked, and whose hands were a part of gently, nearly invisibly, transforming our house to a safer place for my wife’s recovery. Thank you to my wife’s great friend, who sat with her on the first full day she was home. Thank you to my wife’s sister, who generously gave of her time to be with my wife during the first full week of her recovery.

And thank you Lord, for returning light, life, and warmth to our house again.

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