Spinal Tap

a spine

Awakening with a start, I became aware of the pain returning. Burning up my legs, unbearable and breath taking. Searching for the button I shot opiate through my veins. Numbness crept through me, but not enough: my desire was anesthetisation. The dread returned when I realised the opiate merely muted the scalding sensation.

It was three am. Maybe the television would be a distraction; but the only available channel was the shopping channel. Who would watch this at this time of the morning? I tried to concentrate on the range of gaudy rings advertised by briefly clad women but was pulled back by the burning. Should I try the bell? Was the competent friendly nurse on tonight?

Several days ago, I had undergone five hours of back surgery, thinking it would relieve years of chronic pain that countless drugs were unable to contain. My spinal nerves, some grey and lifeless, were handled and rearranged; now they screamed. My shattered disc was removed; repairs made to a tear in tissue surrounding the spinal cord; a plastic disc and my own soft hipbone fused into the gap; and then my spine pushed back into line. Four titanium bolts were inserted to secure the spine.

In the first days after the operation I was in and out of consciousness, tearful and apologetic about the dominance of pain and need for stronger analgesics. My surgeon didn’t seem to know what to do. Burning pain controlled me, then anxiety and depression, clear thinking became impossible: an old but familiar state of being.

Several years ago depression had engulfed me after a diagnosis of breast cancer and the necessary two lots of surgery, radio and drug therapy. At that time my children had grown and left home, my husband was preoccupied with work and I was making a career change. This involuntary confrontation with my own mortality led to an unexpected reaction-life became meaningless, not worth living. Therapy helped to the extent that I decided to risk having the back surgery. Now flung back into a powerless state with no sense of ending, tortured and immobilised the only escape seemed to be suicide.

That would serve everyone right. The hospital would be responsible for their lack of care. They had ignored my other pleas; they disapprovingly reminded me that pain relief was four hourly. The nurses seemed oblivious to their mistakes when they jolted the catheter causing my bladder to bleed; nor when they knocked the intravenous needle in my arm and the resultant swelling destroyed the vein. There was no apology or pain relief as the emergency department doctor was called to try and insert a substitute intravenous needle into my foot.

Suicide would end all this, but how to do it in a hospital? There must be a way. This occupied me for some time whilst deciding how to get the drugs or cutting device. Then I remembered the razor in my toilet bag. Cutting myself now seemed the ultimate irony but energised me: all that was required was to cut along the vein. My mood lifted. I now had a choice and some control over what was happening to me.

Then I noticed the flowers and cards, a reminder of my family and friends. Pondering this ultimate choice and remembering all I’d gone through I felt a growing resistance to the idea of being defeated. How could I allow this operation and those incompetent medical professionals to defeat me? Drawing on that anger and my own courage I began to question my decision. At that moment the friendly nurse appeared; ‘Are you OK?’

I was recently listening to a program about the use of morphine for pain relief for nerve damage. The research found that the morphine could make chronic nerve pain worse. I looked up the research article and realised it explained my six months of excruciating pain after spinal surgery. I had taken ever increasing amounts of morphine which appeared to aggravate the pain.


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