When a crushed vertebra is the least of your problems
Posted 02 Feb 2017 Edited 02 Feb 2017
Ever hear the nursery rhyme "Step on a crack, and you'll break your mother's back"?
Here's my theory: I'm gonna get sex reassignment surgery sometime in the future. I'm gonna hook up with a guy and get pregnant. Once the kid is born, he or she is going to step on a crack, and the nursery rhyme is going to run back through the sands of time to the seventeenth of July 2009 and bring down its wrath upon me. Cause on that day at about nine in the morning I broke my fuffin back.
Warning: this post contains graphic descriptions of gross and upsetting things.
The summer after I graduated high school, I got a job offer from my neighbor who runs an extremely successful painting business. Demand for his service had gone beyond his ability to cover it all, I guess, so he took me on. I started working for him Monday the thirteenth of July 2009. I worked Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday on a few different projects. On Friday, I drove with him to the Snow building at BYU-Idaho. The Snow is the performing arts facility on campus. My boss had been subcontracted by a construction company to paint and finish a new wood floor for the main stage in the performing arts center.
When we got there, the main contractor was just finishing up his part. His guys were clearing all their tools off the floor. As my boss got the low-down on what we'd be doing to paint, he sent me and another painter [his son] out to the van to bring all the supplies in that we'd need for the project. When I came back in, my boss left and there were still a ton of tools on the floor. I watched one of the contractor's guys picking saws and drills and stuff off this big sheet of plywood two-by-two.
I went over to him and was like, "Hey, do you wanna just lift up the whole board and carry all the tools with it?" He was like, "Yeah, if you're up for it."
He lifted up his end of the board and I lifted up mine. We started moving off the stage. We were going to take the board to the side of the stage that the other guy was closest to. He was walking backwards and I was walking toward him (I should say, I would have been walking toward him, were the following event never to have happened).
As I barely got my legs underneath my shoulders to start moving the board offstage, my feet gave out from under me. They had slipped into a square hole that the board was covering that I didn't know was there. As I fell, I dropped the board with all the tools onto the floor. I thought, "You idiot! You dropped everything, idiot."
my butt landed on the floor at the edge of the hole. I was just sitting on the ground with my legs in a hole staring down at my end of the board on the ground and the tools kinda sliding off it and the guy at the other end with his mouth slack-jaw open looking at me on the floor from his end that he was still holding.
I started to think, "Jeez, I've fallen into some weird little electric access cut-out in the floor and now I'm gonna have to climb outta this thing and clean up the fallen tools and apologize to this guy and look like a retard in front of all these people here," but before I could really finish that thought, I was moving again. My nice little "sit" on the floor was really more of a bounce farther down into the hole. Gravity continued to suck the rest of my body down.
My butt followed my legs. My belly and chest followed my butt. My head was watching this all happen from its top-most perspective and was also getting pulled down like the caboose of a train driving off a cliff. At a certain point, I wasn't looking down at the tools I dropped. I was looking at them eye-to-eye cause my eyeline was level with the floor. I kept falling down.
I experienced a brief moment of darkness as my head was totally surrounded by walls. No... Not walls: floor. A very brief moment later I was blinded by white light: I was now looking at a fluorescent ceiling light from about five inches away.
At this point, I could feel my body accelerating downward. I remember thinking, "If I've fallen through some kind of laundry chute and I'm gonna land on a pile of sheets, I might be okay." After continuing to accelerate for what felt like a significant amount of time I thought, "I'm free falling with nothing around me. This is not a laundry chute. I'm gonna hit whatever is below me going really, really fast, and I'm probably going to die." There wasn't any fear there that I can remember. Just a calm, accepting thought that, "This is the thing that makes it so you aren't alive anymore - this is the last thing in your life."
Having accepted my inevitable death, the ground came up at me. I landed kinda in a sitting position. So it felt like this
Except that the metal wall had been exchanged for my ass.
It was the most jarring, violent, breathtaking sensation I've ever felt. Literally, I couldn't breathe for about twenty seconds after it happened. I remember that, immediately after I hit the floor and kinda bounced up, I was half-lying, half-sitting on the ground staring into the open door of a classroom. A professor was standing in front of a class of about twenty-five students. He and everyone else in the room turned to look at what/who had just fallen out of the ceiling above them and landed right outside their door. After a few long seconds of awe the professor called out, "Are you all right?" As well as I could with zero air in my lungs, I replied, "Yep."
I really wanted to get away from that open door. I was thinking, "You look like such an idiot just sitting here. Get up and get away." I jumped to my feet and started randomly and anxiously limping around the hallway in which I now found myself. As I looked at several closed doors, I started to think, "You've just fallen down through some weird hole in the floor [which was actually a stage trapdoor]. You need to go back up now."
I finally found an upward-leading staircase. As I lifted my foot onto the first stair, some weird voice that came from my body and not my brain said, "You are not going to be able to climb this staircase." So, I just kinda laid down on the bottom stairs. I was starting to get my breath back a little. That felt good and relieving to breathe. But, now, I was lying very awkwardly on stairs.
I started listening to the weird voice again, now that I had a minute to be still. It wasn't saying anything like "pain." It sounded a lot more like "wrongness" or something to that effect. I think the professor was in my grill again. I couldn't really be sure who he was. I'd only got a look at him for a few seconds. But someone was standing in front of me asking if I was okay. He'd probably come out of his classroom to confirm my weak "Yep."
I was like, "I'm gonna have to prove to this dude that I really am okay," so I started climbing the stairs. I actually kinda just crawled. When I got to the top the body voice said, "Okay, it is time to really rest. Not like your rest on the stairs. I mean, like, a real good rest." I obeyed and laid down flat on my stomach.
I remember hearing a man's voice asking me, "Should we call an ambulance?" I couldn't see who it was or where he was in relation to me. I was about to say no, but the voice, without raising any signal of pain, was like, "Whoa, uh-uh. You need an ambulance right now. Say yes." I was like, "Yeah, that'd probly be a good idea..."
What seems now to have been a very short while later, some paramedics arrived and flipped me onto my back, and, simultaneously, onto a board. They started grabbing my feet and poking my legs and running their fingers across my belly and chest. They were like, "Can you feel this? Can you feel this? Can you feel that?" Then they started asking me to wiggle my toes and feet and stuff.
Once I was strapped down and they had asked me a hundred or so really subjective questions about my state, they started carrying me away from where I was. I watched the fluorescent ceiling lights entering the bottom of my view and exiting the top of my view - kinda like happened before, only now they were a good couple meters away, and I was facing them long-ways instead of short-ways.
To my right, the belly and chest and arms and legs and head of my father appeared. At the time, he was working at BYU-Idaho just a few hundred yards south of the snow building. Some quick draw phone calling had informed him of my accident moments after it happened, I guess. He started walking along with the paramedics and me. He didn't look worried, just really, really serious. He grabbed my foot and was like, "Can you feel that?" I was like, "Yeah, Dad." He disappeared from my view and I was loaded onto an ambulance.
Once I got to the hospital, I continued to be bombarded with people who were obsessed with how different parts of my body "felt." I was like, "Pretty good. Not really in any pain." They kept me on the board I had been strapped to initially, but started moving me to different places in the hospital to get x-rayed and stuff. I got an IV poked in my arm at one point.
About half way through an x-ray, I started to feel a sort of weirdness in my back. Not pain. But not anything good, either. After the x-ray I told a hospital person, "My back is starting to kinda feel not good." I was taken into a normal-looking hospital room where my mom and dad and boss's wife were waiting for me. I was in there for a long time. At this point, my back was really making me anxious. I couldn't feel sharp pain, but there was like a growing, intense pressure or something that made me very uneasy.
A nurse came in and asked what my pain level was on a scale of one to ten. I explained to her the quality of pain [as more of a pressure than a real pain], and she was like, "Okay, but what number would it be on a scale of one to ten?" I was like, "Uh... I don't know. Six maybe...?" She left the room and came back in a second later and said something like, "The doctor has authorized me to administer some morphine."
I was like, "Okay."
some other guy came in with a little box that had a syringe and needles and a little bottle in it. He filled the syringe with some stuff from the bottle and squirted it into the IV hose just above the point where it stuck in my arm. A woman's voice said, "Now, the first time a person gets morphine, the experience can be kind of intense." I was like, "Okay."
Three seconds passed.
Quite suddenly, I felt icky. More specifically, I felt like all the blood in my veins and arteries all over inside my body had turned into cold peanut butter with rust mixed in it. I know that's weirdly specific, but that's exactly how I would describe it. As quickly as that unpleasant feeling came, it left and made way for a new, better thing.
I imagine that anyone who's had morphine (or probably heroine, for that matter - the active ingredients are the same) can sympathize with the amazing experience I had next. I felt like every little part of my body had been turned into the Wal-Mart smiley face. It was like I had become happiness. I felt like the glory of every god ever imagined was smiling down on me and my salvation was guaranteed; like every bad thing I'd ever done didn't matter and wouldn't matter ever again.
One of my favorite comedians Harris Wittels (who actually died from a heroine overdose early this year) talked about what his first heroine injection high was for him in an interview with Pete Holmes. He had been abusing prescription opiates before this, but this was his first experience with raw heroine. He was like:
So the first time I go, I go home and shoot it. You put the needle in. You find the vein and put the needle in. You draw back so that blood goes into the syringe so that you can see you're in a vein; and then you push that back in; and within three seconds, you feel like there are a thousand dicks all over your body and they're all coming. Like, I've never felt anything like it... I was like, "Okay, I do heroine now. That's it."
I'm not in any way encouraging opiate use. If you think it sounds fun, listen to the interview with Harris. He got wrecked by it - I mean, it killed him. A little later, i'll get into some of the side effects I experienced that weren't as fun as the proper effects.
As I was enjoying the morphine, a short, round doctor lady with glasses came in and was like, "We can see from the x-rays that there's a break in at least one of your vertebrae, so we're gonna transfer you to another hospital for CT scans and maybe an MRI and stuff." So I got put on another ambulance and taken to a hospital about thirty minutes away. Once we got there, the morphine was wearing off and I was starting to feel uncomfortable again. They did some more scans on me and moved me to a room. I told someone I was starting to be sore again, and she was like, "We'll get you some more morphine in a minute."
Another guy came in there who was like a big football player who grew up to be an old, big doctor. He was like, "Okay, first of all, your back is broken pretty severely. You might have to get surgery. We don't know yet. We gotta consult the neurosurgeon. But, whether or not you have surgery, you're gonna have to get fitted for a cast, so we're gonna bring some guys in now to get a mold going for that, and you'll spend the night here to wait for the cast to get built. I'll bring a nurse in here to install a catheter so you can stay lied down for the night. Tomorrow morning, we'll tell you whether you need to go in for surgery or whether you'll just need to try the cast out for a while."
I was like, "Uh, what was that second-to-last thing you said? did you say catheter?" I had first heard what a catheter was just a couple weeks before that and thought, "I'd rather die than ever have to have a catheter". It's a rubber hose that goes all the way in through your urethra and anchors in your bladder and drains urine out your body into a little baggie.
He was like, "Yeah, you gotta have one. You can't move before we get a cast on you." I was like, "No, Doc, listen: I can just rotate onto my side and pee in a jar thing. I don't need a catheter." He was like, "This isn't negotiable," and he walked out of the room.
At this point, the morphine in me was dead. I was feeling and experiencing life without any filter. I was mostly feeling this strong sense of injustice. I was about to have something shoved into my peehole. That didn't seem right.
Someone came in and was like, "We found a male nurse to install your catheter so it's less awkward for you." I thought, "That doesn't make it any less awkward," but what I said was, "Okay..."
So this twenty-four-year-old-looking dude came in with the most heinous object I've ever seen. It was huge. I had only ever heard what a catheter was. I had never [before this critical moment] actually seen one.
I was scared before, but now I was panicking. I was like breathing erratically and my eyes were darting all over and I was freaking out. I felt like my mind was looking for a way to escape. I thought to myself, "They said they'd give me more morphine. It makes sense that they'd give me some the second before they do the worst thing ever to me." I asked the guy if I could have some more. He was like, "I'm sure they'll give you some in a minute." Uggghhhhh...
Don't read this.
He was like, "Okay, this is a lubricant before I install the catheter." He grabbed the end of my weiner. I reached out with both hands and clutched the railings of the stretcher I was on.
Now, I would never say that I know how it feels to be tortured. I know that getting a catheter is nothing like getting shocked or beat up or having your fingernails ripped out or anything like that. Not even close. But... I know what it feels like to be about to be tortured. I know how you feel when you're naked taped to a chair in a basement and some guy speaking Russian is attaching electrodes to your nipples and another guy is across the room talking back to him opening up a toolbox full of pliers and stuff. Cause that's how I felt.
With the tip of my Johnson in one hand, the nurse butted a syringe up to my urethra with the other hand and squirted this stuff in me. I felt like he had stuck a dry pine needle in there. It was acute pain coming from a part of me that was sending those kind of signals for the first time. My urethra was losing its pain virginity.
That was bad, but the trouble was just beginning. He started to fish this rubber tube in toward my bladder. At what felt to me to be about a tenth of the way into the journey, he mumbled something and pulled the catheter back out. Back. Out. He mumbled something else and stuck me with it again. He got a little farther than the time before, said "Shit," and pulled it out again. He did this three more times before he finally admitted, "I don't know how to do this." So much for making it less awkward.
He left. A middle-aged chubby lady nurse with frizzy long hair came in, commandingly grabbed my junk and the catheter, and installed the shit out of it in like eight seconds. I breathed a sigh of relief and just kinda sat there, feeling equal parts violated and exhausted.
The next person to come in the door was like, "Would you like some more morphine now?" I was like, "Go to hell."
I stayed in the hospital over night. I got this awesome clamshell-style cast the next day that I was able to take off to shower. It was kinda like a plastic bulletproof vest. I met with the neurosurgeon at some point. He said that we might have to do surgery, but that we should wait for a few months and see how things go with just the cast.
So I went back home. The medication [plus the two hits of morphine I had in the hospitals] gave me constipation. I had to drink this magnesium citrate drink. I'm not a hundred percent sure, but I think it is the same stuff that Dumbledore had to drink in Harry Potter Six to get that Horcrux. It was pretty bad. But, it got me going again.
I decided that since I couldn't really work in any of the manual labor jobs I had been doing before I should probably go to school or something. I enrolled in classes at BYU-Idaho and started in September. About half-way through that semester, I had a check-up with the neurosurgeon. His x-rays showed that the break in my vertebra was getting a lot worse, and he recommended an operation. The next week, I bought a laptop, dropped out of school, and got ready for back surgery.
Cut in Half
Back surgery was insane. The neurosurgeon did this thing to me called a thoracic lumbar corpectomy. It basically involved cutting open the side of me, cutting one of my second-to-bottom ribs out, drilling out the crushed vertebra, putting a metal cage in the empty space, and then installing rods and screws in the vertebrae above and below the cage to keep everything stable. One really cool thing they do is they take the rib they cut out of you and put it in a bones grinder thing. They take the bone pulp from that and stuff it in the metal cage. The body recognizes the bone pulp as broken bone [which I guess it technically is] and repairs it to make a solid bone structure through the cage.
I remember kinda waking up from the surgery in the ICU [intensive care unit]. I saw some lights and shapes and a blurry person then I fell back to sleep for a couple days. After I woke up the second time, I stayed awake like normal. I was in the ICU for one more day, and then they moved me into a regular hospital room. I had my cast on and I got to walk a tiny bit, but mostly I just kinda sat around like a slug. I was heavily medicated so I didn't feel much of anything.
I had these two tubes that were running from inside my chest to a little container, draining pleural fluid and blood away from my lungs. After a day in the normal place, the neurosurgeon came to see me. He was like, "How are ya?" I was like, "Good." Then he laughed. He said, "I've got this big, huge bodybuilder type guy downstairs who I did a really minor surgery on yesterday and he's crying like a baby. And here you are happy as a clam."
The next day, the regular doctor came in. He was like, "Hey, it's time to take these chest tubes out." I was all, "Oh, okay. cool." My family was visiting and he asked them to leave the room, but he played this off like it wasn't going to be the worst imaginable pain of my life so far, and I totally bought it. He and a nurse turned me on my side, and then he was like, "Okay. Take a deep breath and hold it." I said, "Okay [loud breathing-in noise]."
For a brief moment, I was pulled out of the drug haze. It felt like the doctor had stuck his fingers in me and was tearing me in half. A hot poker of pain seared my brain. I saw white light for a second.
When they rolled me back down and my vision came back I could see a line splatter of blood that ran across the ceiling and onto the wall my feet were facing. I guess he'd really yanked the shit good.
The rest of the time in the hospital was boring but I was so drugged up that it was actually really pleasant. I just sat there relaxing. When I got home and looked in the mirror for the first time, it was not good.
In the week and a half I spent in the hospital I'd lost about fifteen or twenty pounds. I also got weird acne on my face and head. The worst thing, though, was that I was constipated again. This time I was uber-constipated. Like and a-week-and-a-half after surgery constipated.
Every day not shitting was a day closer to death, in my mind. I knew if I tried the Horcrux juice again I could wind up hurting myself with the muscle contractions so I buckled up for enemas. I didn't allow anyone to help me. After the whole catheter debacle, I really wanted to regain control of things being shoved in my body openings.
Seriously, don't read the next part.
So I was on the bathroom floor [literally crying] on my elbows and knees with an enema bottle in one hand.
Looking back at my whole life, I'd say that was a low point.
I finally worked up the courage to get the enema solution in me, and held it as long as I could - which turned out to be like thirty-five seconds.
You know when you throw up and your whole body kinda heaves and your abdomen really crunches up and you kinda make a noise like, "Uhhhh ahhhhh uhhh"? Yeah... So that happened, but, instead of barfing, I violently shit out a week and a half of little turds in like three seconds. So many turds, in fact, that the turd mountain I made below me was high enough that its peak reached above the toilet water line. And a stormy cloud [which was actually my torn-up butthole] rained droplets of blood onto the summit.
The suffering wasn't over, but the worst was now behind me. I was in bed at home for about a month. The medication made it difficult for me to read anything [and it made me think I was dying once - that was sorta scary] but I watched a lot of good movies. I listened to music and talked with my mom [who took really good care of me] and I even did some indexing [a cool service that everyone can do to help make old records available for online genealogy searches. You can read more about the mormon indexing I did here]. I had to listen to rap or other music with a heavy beat to stay focused on the indexing, but I uploaded quite a few records during that time in bed.
The last bad thing I had to do in a hospital was get pleural fluid drained through thoracentesis [which you can learn/skim more about here if you want].
The last bad thing I had to go through at home was the period of withdrawal from the medication. I stepped off of it wrong and ended up lengthening and intensifying the withdrawal effects from a few days to two weeks. I was sore and suicidally depressed for a while. Looking back, I was actually in a funk for a long time after that; two or three months of just feeling kinda crappy, but two weeks of real intense badness.
A couple months after surgery my back kept getting better and better. Doctors started telling me I could do more and more things. Nine months after surgery, my vertebrae and the cage in me were fully fused and I was able to take off the cast. In the year and a half after surgery, I completed two semesters of college and was cleared to serve a full-time mission for my church in a foreign country.
When You Break Your Back
You learn more than you might think when you break your back: you can enjoy life even when other people tell you it should suck; regulating your shitting is worth a significant investment; and, pain has a limit - not really that it has a physical limit, but there's only so much it can do to make you suffer.
A lot of people told me it was unfortunate that this happened but I wouldn't take it back.