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The Journey Takes a Sharp Curve

The porch project completion was joyfully in sight.

This was a sign: I was almost ready, again, to continue my journey.

Or was I?

I dressed in the dim light of my basement apartment, listening above me to the arrival of the crew and their daily process of setup – unfolding ladders, moving buckets and toolboxes across the floor, the sweet sound of Spanish as they planned their day.

They’d been at it for just shy of three weeks. Their productive presence was a comfort to me as I crouched down, wincing with pain, to lace-up my shoes.

Emerging out of the basement holding my lower lumber, stepping gingerly up the stairs, I checked in with Ambrosio, the crew lead: today they would finish sanding, apply the primer, reinstall the shutters, stain the ceiling and seal the floor.

“Muy bien,” I grinned through the needling in my left leg and, quick, checked my phone: 8:10 am, traffic would be picking up.

I felt my adrenaline rise. “Tengo que volar, gotta run. Back this afternoon, hasta la tarde.” Though I had no idea when I’d really be done.

I got in the car and drove myself to the emergency room.

I couldn’t take the pain any longer.

Over the past month it had gradually worsened to a debilitating point. I couldn’t walk a block anymore, much less take my daily yoga hikes through the park. My running days were (for now or maybe forever) over. I couldn’t stand at the sink to wash dishes or at the counter to cut vegetables without breathtaking pain. My left leg had gone numb and would not come back to life. I couldn’t sit comfortably in any chair – certainly no chair in my makeshift basement apartment – definitely not at a desk in front of a computer.

My crooked scoliosis spine, a condition with which I’d lived my entire life and did my best to keep in the background, was lunging to the foreground screaming: Pay attention to me!

The first time I noticed, I was 45; unbelievably,12 years ago. I’d just run a 10-mile road race. The GW Parkway Classic started in Mount Vernon and rolled up and down along the river to Old Town. I placed fourth in my age group, just shy of a medal. But I’d run my best race and felt it. The following week I’d glued myself to the desk to meet a deadline. By week’s end, I could not stand up. I'd never experienced such pain; and it wasn't the good kind that told you you'd exerted yourself well. Forced to visit a chiropractor, forced to view X-rays of my spine for the first time in my life, I was aghast. That was not me, I winced. Couldn’t be.

The doctor was aghast that I’d never known about my scoliosis. He said I should really never run again. “Take-up yoga.”

I did take-up yoga; eventually, I became a certified yoga instructor. But I did not give-up running.

Until three months ago in Vermont. Along a halcyon farm road, scent of cow manure wafting on the breeze, I hobbled four miles to the covered bridge and back before collapsing. I’d been running since I was 12. That was the end of it.


I’d been to an emergency room only once before and, that time, for a raging case of poison ivy that had spread into my eyes. I was reluctant that time, years ago, too.

I entered the hospital through the sliding glass doors and stood there contemplating an about face. Why not ignore it, as I had done for the last four months, four years, a decade? I could head to Starbucks for a coffee and muffin and pop a double dose of Ibuprofen.

But the greeter drew me in and over to the admittance desk. I gave my name, date of birth, symptoms.

Within minutes, much faster than I’d expected or was prepared for, my name was called. My adrenaline shot up as I stood and followed the attendant nurse to an emergency cubicle.

“The only reason I’m here – I don’t like to use emergency rooms – you know, burden the system with trivialities…” I rambled nervously as she stood with her clipboard. “… but the orthopedic doc I was scheduled to see yesterday, cancelled, and I’d waited a month. He’s not available again until November. I just didn’t think … I thought I should get some X-rays or an MRI. I’m in a lot of pain. Well, normally, except today I feel okay. White coat effect, I guess.”

The nurse efficiently took my vitals and, within five minutes, shooed me out with a folder of materials about back care, a prescription for a dose pack of steroids, and a referral to an orthopedic surgeon. As a treat to myself, for what I was surely about to go through, I drove to Starbucks.

Fast forward five days.

Based on the insistence of friends, against my body-pure nature, I took the dose-pack of steroids. The 6-day regimen did help. I had enough energy and pain relief to hang pictures and unpack some storage boxes of linens and clothes.

Now I’m staring at a set of X-rays on the spine surgeon’s screen, tears welling up in my eyes.

“It’s serious; a Cobb’s angle of 44. See here, rotates at T2 and T3, not only curves. That’s where you get the pinching and also some compression, though you’ve got it throughout.” He drew a plumb-line from the center of my scull down to my sacrum. “Often I see an S in the thoracic. But in your case, the upper spine has jogged over and runs left of center – to counterbalance the lumber curve.”

“At least my back and politics align,” I joked, to ward off the terror.

“Needless to say,” he cleared his throat. “You’re a candidate for surgery. Better sooner than later. Recovery is easier when you’re younger. You’ve got lots of years left.”

My feet went numb. I glanced over at the counter at the spine model adorned with gleaming steel rods and bolts and felt a shiver shoot up my crooked spine.

“This is why I got yanked back,” I mumbled, in an adrenaline rush daze.

“Excuse me?”

I refocused on him, his blue eyes gazing over his aqua mask, the red tuft of hair swept over his forehead. “Oh, nothing.”

It was unlike me not to ask a million questions; I wasn't ready to know what I didn't know.

I knew this much, though: my journey wasn’t thwarted because of the porch mess or burst pipes anything to do with the house, or a consulting project gone south, either.

I came back to deal with my body, my spinal column – the structure that holds me up, the superhighway that carries the brain’s signals to the limbs and vital organs to do their thing, to keep me alive.

I came back to deal with me.

Continue the journey ==>


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