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Forbes remembers a real pain in the back

By Edward A. Forbes / The Bulletin

There is much to be said about the marvel of the human back, about the people that suffer from chronic back pain – and disability insurance.

I have a chronic back problem, but it only jumps all over me at infrequent intervals. I have seen people in my professional life that have to deal with chronic back pain. At its worst, it invades every aspect of your life. It affects your mood, attitude, ability to concentrate, your relationship with others.

It was 1980. I had purchased a home in 1978 and was dating the future mother of my children at the time. I had experienced some back problems and was referred to see Dr. C. E. Baker, an orthopedic surgeon (he has since then gone to his greater reward). Dr. Baker was a good doctor and a good man. He did the conservative approach.

He gave me some literature on how to exercise on a regular basis. “You shouldn’t lift anything over 20 pounds or stretch to reach things over your head. Come back in a month, and we will see how you’re doing,” he said.

I continued to suffer from spasms, and on one fateful day while taking a shower, the pain became unbearable. I couldn’t lift my leg to get out of the combination tub shower. I would have fallen and laid in a fetal position, but the spams prevented this. Fortunately, I had help in the house, and with assistance, I got out of the shower, got dressed and made it in the car.

We rushed off to Houston, and Dr. Baker’s office at the Park Plaza Professional Building. When we arrived, we were met by a nurse with a wheel chair and a shot of Demerol. They somehow got me out of the car and into a wheelchair and took me to his office. He examined me and told me he was admitting me into Park Plaza Hospital.

The hospital stay was long and boring. I was in traction for 21 days. After 10 days, they would unhook me from traction and treat me with a hot pack, followed by deep tissue massage. Television was still in its pre-cable existence, and in those days, the only thing to watch in the daytime were the soap operas. I, for some reason, watched “General Hospital.”

This, on occasion, would lead to a therapist watching and not wanting to leave until the program was over. A 30-minute massage was excruciating, and I finally negotiated an agreement to re-apply hot packs until the soap was over. Luke and Laura, as I watched briefly 30 years later, were still doing their thing.

I refused pain medication and would only take a pill at night so I could fall asleep. I feared all the opiates and had seen too many people trapped by the opiate nirvana. I arrived at a compromise of muscle relaxants and buffered aspirin during the day and one pain pill at night. My greatest problem I had was boredom. In those days of two-lane highways and a lot of traffic, a trip to Houston was considered an outing.

I told my girlfriend that a visit every three or four days was great. I had friends working in Houston who came to see me, a brother in Houston and my cousin, Judy. They all visited occasionally, and that helped. I still had to invent my own distractions.

In these distant days, hospital stays were somewhat different, especially at Park Plaza Hospital. They actually had chefs that prepared the food, including a pastry chef that prepared rolls, bread and, yes, desserts for lunch and supper. I was advised I needed to lose weight, but evidently this didn’t affect the cuisine from which I was allowed to choose.

The best surprise was what was called a “love offering.” This little supper was served on a silver place setting. Friends Robert and Gretchen Shelley surprised me with this meal. It consisted of Filet Mignon, asparagus in hollandaise, salad with blue cheese dressing, half bottle of red wine and cheesecake for dessert. The best diet I’ve ever been on.

On day 28, I was informed that I would be released the next day. I was to remain in bed with an over-the-bed traction device with 10 pounds of weight. I could get up to go to the bathroom, but it was total bed rest until Dr. Baker released me.

I developed another hobby to pass the time - disputing the hospital bill. It was frightening, and all legitimate, except for the pharmacy portion. They were charging me for pain medications that I had refused. I called the hospital billing department and protested around $600 in charges. I, fortunately, had disability insurance which, at 30 years of age, most us would consider as nonessential.

Another month had passed, and I went to the office to pick up the mail (which after more than 90 days was an impressive mass). The insurance agent called my house while I was at the office, and my girlfriend told him I was at the store. They stopped the disability payments.

I argued that I wasn’t working, and in fact was not able to work at all, to no avail. Fortunately for me, the corporation had been taking the disability payments and maintaining my normal pay during all this. I don’t know what would have happened if it had been otherwise, but it wouldn’t have been pretty.

I returned to work part-time, gradually increasing my shifts until I could handle the 10-hour days standing. As bad as this seems, I have seen and known people with no disability insurance and who were out of work for even more extended periods, and then those who became totally disabled.

I hadn’t suffered a bad back problem in over 2 years. I was able to treat with muscle relaxants, naproxen, heat (patches or heating pad) and back brace. I was spasm-free in 10 days. I like to think I was blessed.

The spine is an engineering marvel and, as long as it is structurally sound, performs admirably. The problems it can cause can vary from annoying to disabling. I consider myself fortunate.

(Send comments by email to editor John Toth at john.bulletin@gmail.com. Or send regular mail to The Bulletin, P.O. Box 2426, Angleton, TX 77516)