Behold, a Christmas miracle!
In the summer of 2005, I thought my license was suspended. It wasn’t, and I don’t remember why I thought it was. Honestly, it’s not all that important. The essential thing for you to know is I was riding my bike to and from work every day.
I was working at the new, fancy mall, and ten lanes of traffic were between me and the place I wanted to eat lunch. I enjoyed my meal, spending a little extra for a collectible cup I could use at home, and then I started back to my retail gig.
The light turned green, but there was a long line of cars waiting to make a right-hand turn. I made the foolish decision of waving them past before I embarked across the ten lanes once again. Still green, I stood up on the bike, put down my head, and peddled hard. When I had picked up steam, I looked up in time to watch the light go from yellow to red. I was flying past the median by then and had no choice but to try and clear the intersection. I did okay. Even though I suddenly found myself in an unwanted game of Frogger, I made it across eight and a half lanes before it happened.
The mind is a funny thing. As the car came toward me, time froze, and my brain said to me, “Well, I guess I’m not immortal after all.” And then action! And bang! I’m off the bike now, flying onto the hood of the car. I see the look of shock and horror on the driver’s and passenger’s faces through their windshield. Time freezes again, and I think, “That wasn’t so bad. Maybe I’ll just be a cripple the rest of my life.” They slam on the brakes, and I’m flung off the car. I see the pavement blurry beneath my outstretched hands when time freezes a third and final time. My mind says, “Now, this is going to hurt.”
I gathered myself off the road and picked up the bicycle I had borrowed from my roommate. I remember being worried it might be damaged but thinking it was okay even if I couldn’t make it move by pushing it. The car bumper had hit my hip and bent the bike.
Realizing I had dropped my take-home cup, I turned to fetch it. Even in my state of shock, I decided better of venturing into traffic when I saw passing cars flattening the cup beneath their speeding wheels.
“Should we call an ambulance?” the driver of the car asked.
“No,” I said. “You couldn’t have been going that fast. Like – what? Five or ten miles per hour.”
“It was fast enough for you to break the windshield.”
“I broke the. . .?” I search my body for an injury, finding blood streaming down from my elbow. “Oh. Huh. I guess, yeah, probably call the ambulance then.”
I was starting to get dizzy by then. The world was pulsing in my head, and my vision was getting hazy around the edges. One of my friends from high school came running up.
“Dave!” Sarah Johnson cried. “I saw someone had hit a bicyclist. I can’t believe it was you! Are you okay? Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Could you go to my work and tell them I’m going to be late back from lunch?”
The initial injury was nothing more than a bruise stretching across my entire right side, a pain in my lower back, and a limp that lasted a few days. I got some X-rays, and they didn’t show any major damage.
I took the only sick day I had from my job for a stretch of five years. I’m dedicated, a workaholic afraid of being homeless if I don’t sweat my butt off and have near-perfect attendance for my employer.
That bit will be important later.
The Army Cot
At the time of the accident, I bounced back fast. I was young (twenty-four years old), and though I had always had a sore back, the accident only made things marginally worse. Yeah, I was seeing a chiropractor about lumbar and neck pains, but it was a manageable inconvenience.
Until 2011, which was when I introduced my girlfriend to my family.
Stella and I took a trip to Florida, where she met my father and spent time with my sister and nephew, and then we traveled to Ohio to stay with my mom in Buckeye country. Stella shared a bed with my mother, and I slept on an old Army cot. It was awkward, but I was actually excited about the cot. I’d loved sleeping on one back in my Scouting days, but my eagerness only lasted one night.
I woke up and could barely stand. I took another look at the cot and saw it was higher in the middle than it was at the head and feet. Something about sleeping that way made my back go from annoying to a mess.
The New Job
Despite more visits to chiropractors, physical therapy, the orthopedic doctor, and even amateur Youtube hypnosis, things just got worse. They eventually got so bad I had a few scary periods where my back made getting out of bed and walking nearly impossible. Suddenly, I’m taking all of my sick time for three years in a row. I even had to be taken out of the store one night in a wheelchair.
I told my orthopedic doctor the pain was reverberating throughout my body, including to my chest. I have a history of heart palpitations, so I was instructed to follow up on that symptom with my primary care physician. I ended up in a hospital for a couple of days after my EKG readings made it look like I was having a serious heart attack.
Look, that’s a whole other story. The take-away was the hospital bed was terrible for my back, and I was off work yet again.
Recently, I was asked to take on a new role at my job. I would be managing the external warehouse. It was in my best interest, but I was reluctant. They asked me about my hesitation, and I told them it was my back. The job would be physically demanding, and the irony is the day they called to ask me, I had actually called-out because of my back.
A couple of days before, I had attended a beautiful wedding at Disneyland and hurt myself dancing to Sir Mix-A-Lot. It was a regular “Baby Got Back Pain.”
This time, I was worse than ever and quickly declining from there. I couldn’t bend down without holding myself up. My right leg was twisted to the side. My right hip was jutting upward. My right shoulder was slumping a full two inches lower than my left. My left thigh was numb. I would have sharp pains in my right buttocks and down the leg.
I didn’t see a way to change any of this. When people would ask me how my back was doing, which they were doing with a greater frequency than ever, I’d shrug and say, “It’s just my back. It’s screwed up.”
I was scared. I figured this was how it would be for me from then on. I’d already sought help, and nothing worked. I was just going to get worse and worse until I eventually die.
While everyone I talked to, including my new boss, had showed concern, none of them were deterred by my back issues. The head of logistics, however, was deeply disturbed. He began to question my abilities, referring to the physical aspects of the job I had brought up as my own concerns on multiple occasions. He was right, but it didn’t make my situation any less precarious. He told me to go and observe the business needs and then make the decision whether I thought I could live up to his expectations.
At this point, the machine was already in motion. I would be taking over the warehouse in a matter of days. Someone else would be doing the job I was vacating. I didn’t see any good options. This was a no-win for me. It meant I’d either be agreeing to perform tasks I had already said I couldn’t do, absolving everyone else of guilt when I inevitably got hurt even worse, or I’d be demonstrating the fact I was becoming physically incapable of doing even the job I was leaving.
Stella had to help me get dressed. Doing my job was becoming more and more difficult. Even getting to work was hard. Not one for saying things of a religious nature, Stella said to me, “Maybe this is God’s way of telling you something.”
I thought I knew what He’d be telling me.
The day before I was to take on my new role, I couldn’t get out of bed. I called out and texted my new boss, letting her know I would be at the warehouse on Wednesday, “even if I have to crawl.”
Tuesday was my appointment to see my orthopedic. It was my third or fourth visit with them, and I expected to simply get another prescription for physical therapy. When they saw me come in this time, their shock was evident. They gave me an X-ray, and the results were the same as always. The bones are fine. But this time, the doctor decided I needed an MRI. He gave me a note for work, saying I would need to take three weeks off.
I went to work on Wednesday. I did my best. It was fifty degrees, and during that first hour, as I limped like a zombie behind my boss, I sweat through my hair. And then I had a total emotional breakdown. My worst fear: I would become so physically disabled by my back I could no longer earn a living, was coming true.
Of course, a lot of my worry was totally in my mind. Despite the terrible timing, I could take a medical leave. I didn’t want to let anyone down. I wanted to do what was best for the company. My back was forcing me to change. I had to realize my health was supposed to come first.
I filed the paperwork and followed my doctor’s orders. Things were bad. I was in excruciating pain. I’d lie in bed, getting up three times a day to use the bathroom. My sciatic nerve would cause me more pain than I’ve ever felt each time I got up. I’d shake, sob, and just want to return to bed, where I was trapped like a turtle on my back.
I sent Stella a few dark texts, informing her I couldn’t live like this anymore. I’d never contemplated suicide before, but this was pain I could no longer endure.
The Turning Point
The day I had my MRI was a turning point. I decided that morning my bed was a death sentence. I would do whatever I could to remain sitting as much as possible, and I would not lay flat if I could help it. Stella made me a make-shift Posturepedic bed on the couch, and we found the one chair in the house I could somewhat comfortably sit in.
We’d gone through so many chairs over the years, trying to make me comfortable. We’d even replaced the mattress. This had been a battle.
Getting to the appointment proved to be difficult, I ended up in a wheelchair after struggling in agony through the parking garage, across the street, through the lobby, up the elevator, and down most of the long corridor. The things I had taken for granted as a young man were now impossible. Not one to give up, it was becoming a growing habit nonetheless.
I was told my results wouldn’t be ready until Monday since it was a Friday, but not long after I got home, my orthopedic doctor called. It was his day off, and he was out of town. He had seen the MRI and wanted to know if I was okay. He told me to go to the emergency room if I couldn’t make it to my appointment on Tuesday. He told me he could see me on Sunday night, even with his office closed, because he would be back in town then.
I’d had a lot of people tell me to get a second opinion, to do anything I could to avoid surgery. I have heard the horror stories about people who had worse problems after their surgery.
The orthopedic surgeon who had always prescribed me physical therapy and suggested I see a chiropractor, told me there was only one option: surgery
I had a severe hemorrhaged disk, seventy-five percent of which was pinching the nerve in my spine solidly against the bone. He said it was fortuitous the nerve had found a way around the obstruction, because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to walk at all. I would have just fallen down like a rag doll. He’d need to remove the obstruction surgically, but afterwards, my back would be as good as new.
The advice for a second opinion – the terrible stories – everything crossed my mind, but they couldn’t dismiss the relief I felt. I saw an end to my suffering.
You see, this issue with my back had grown steadily worse. It made me feel old and weak. It made me wonder if that thought which popped into my head as the car was hitting me – I would “be a cripple the rest of my life” – was true. It made me seriously consider whether my life was worth living if it was going to continue down this road. How could I ever act again? How could I tell my stories? How could I make a living? How could I do anything if I couldn’t even get off my back?
Dr. Finkenberg’s prognosis brought me back to life.
I was thinking about how I could best describe the sensation in each leg in writing, when I awoke in a total state of disorientation. It gradually came back to me. The last thing I could remember, I was on a gurney in the operating room, staring up at the faces of the people who were going to work on me. I had been wondering how I was going to get on the operating table, and now here I was, in the recovery room. I’d already had my surgery.
I’ll never know how they got me on that table. I am not a small man.
The sciatic pain in my right leg was totally gone. My foot no longer bent to an angle, and my knee could lay straight without an electric twang bending it back. I was already walking more upright, even if the wound from my incision was going to take time to heal. My body, which had contorted to accommodate my sore back, had to readapt, and my left thigh still buzzed with numb tension. The nurses suggest that last one could be permanent nerve damage, but it wasn’t.
It’s amazing a procedure as savage as carving into my spinal column could be an outpatient visit, but I got to go home that evening, only about eight hours after I arrived.
I left with some nausea, a bottle of Percocet, and – thanks to my ready susceptibility to the Florence Nightingale Effect – a crush on about a half dozen nurses. I also left with new hope, long term goals, and a short-term mission.
I think of one of my favorite authors, Laura Hillenbrand. I adore everything she’s written, and my absolute favorite – even more than Unbroken and Seabiscuit – is the story she wrote about her own struggle.
Laura suffers from a very rare form of vertigo which can make her bedridden for months at a time, and she has overcome a lot to get where she has.
In Unbroken, Louis Zamperini is shot down over the ocean and spends 47 days adrift on a life raft. In Hillenbrand’s book, the struggle of being stranded at sea is riveting and is given an extended, thorough retelling in a way no other author could have written it. She absolutely brought it to life, and you can almost smell the salt air and feel the sharks bumping against the bottom of the raft. Her strength lies in being able to describe a moment in minutia, bringing us with her into the events of history with unflinching, visceral observation, and I truly believe the long periods of sensory deprivation she faces due to her illness is some of what informs her incredible writing.
Laura Hillenbrand inspires me, and I was determined to take a page from her book during the time I would spend recovering.
My back stole my thirties, but I also feel like it has given me a future. The experiences I have gotten from this will help me write my stories with more depth, and the eight-week medical leave I had to close out 2016 literally gave me the time I needed to finally finish Home Street. It’s time to start the next chapter of my life.
All of this. . .
This was just my backstory.