Twenty-Two and Toothless: A Personal Account of Injury and Recovery
I’m on my way up to the top floor of the faculty tower. At ten stories, it’s not only the tallest building on campus, it’s the tallest building in the county. I have a meeting with my thesis advisor, an impressive woman who got her career started teaching writing courses to prisoners. In the middle of one of her lessons, a riot broke out and a group of prisoners banded together to make sure she was safe. We’re going to discuss ritualistic imagery in a story I wrote.
The elevator is notoriously slow and normally packed with people. This time, I am joined only by an older man. He’s well dressed in khaki slacks, a dark green button up shirt, and a beaten up brown fedora. He looks like a combination between Leonard Cohen and the Professor from Futurama, his back bent forward at an almost perfect ninety-degree angle. I can feel him looking at me.
The elevator stops at the fifth floor and before stepping out, the man looks at me and with sad resignation says, “You look like me,” and slowly steps out.
At the age of twenty-two, one month before graduating from college, I suffered a back injury. It took a few days for the cold reality that something was wrong to settle in. The pain didn’t go away after a night’s sleep. It hurt to lift anything. I felt a sharp, searing pain running down the entire length of my right leg and into my foot. I couldn’t stand up straight.
What I couldn’t see, but could definitely feel, was that a disc in my lower back (L5-S1) had become herniated, the disc bulging out and pinching the sciatic nerve, the longest nerve route in the human body. Herniated discs are common things and most do not require surgery, but as I found out from two back surgeons and a general practitioner, mine did.
Being injured is many things, it’s painful, it’s intimidating, and it’s incredibly inconvenient. I was in the middle of two thesis papers and an overly pretentious short story, plus I had a million things to complete so I could graduate on time. Who has the time to be injured?
I was quite the sight limping around the campus, cringing any time I sat down or stood up from a desk. The guys I played hockey with did not take the news of the injury well, but understood that if I could have played, I would have. I even slowed down the entire procession on graduation day to a crawl.
The pain was terrible. It was a constant shooting pain that would jump in intensity whenever I would sit down, stand up, lift anything, or sneeze. Getting into and out of a car became a terrifying task, one that I avoided when possible.
I had always been physically healthy and the idea that I would never be able to work a labor-intensive job again or lift anything over fifteen pounds greatly troubled. My dreams became filled with images where my strength would fail me. I saw myself striking at a punching bag with broken fingers. I was only twenty-two and I had no strength.
The only relief I found came in the form of physical therapy, which I attended three times a week. A few minutes using a TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) device, a heating pad, and a massage brought me back to some semblance of normality and effectively relieved my pain. I didn’t like using prescription pain killers because they make me groggy and I like being cognizant of my surroundings at all times.
What I came to realize is that healing is a process. My journey to wellness incorporated a few different components: I had the tens therapy to help me manage pain, gentle stretching to promote healing, surgery in the form of a laminectomy (shaving down of the injured spinal disk), and exercises to improve core strength.
Now, almost five years after the initial injury all I have left is a tiny scar from the incision for the surgery. I feel healthy and it’s thanks to good habits. I’ve kept up with my stretching and exercising and I am determined to do everything that I can to prevent another injury.