Just Call Me Pisa…
by Elena Greco
September 23, 2015
Herniated Disc Day 7
Welcome to Pain! This is your new life! That was the message I got when I woke up a week ago today.
It seems that lifting something a little too heavy while stooped over a barrier was the final straw for a particular nerve in my back. I woke up the next morning unable to stand up, with the most unbelievable pain I have ever experienced. Attempting to walk made me scream. Any movement made me scream. I went back to bed, curled up in fetal position until the pain subsided to a bearable level.
I discovered that the only positions that did not make me scream were (a) lying on my side with my knees pulled up or (b) sitting on a wide, soft bench in front of my computer with legs splayed. Unfortunately, sitting at the computer made the pain WORSE when I attempted to stand once again and resulted in stabbing nerve pains and spasms in my leg – and more screaming – so back to bed I went. I eventually worked out a schedule of 30 minutes in front of the computer, 5 minutes of screaming pain, 30 minutes in bed to give the back and my nerves a rest, then back to the computer, until I could get a little work done. I assumed this would all go away or get better in a couple of days, as most injuries do.
After several days of this routine, the left leg was very weak, I had unbearably sharp pains down the front of the left leg whenever I tried to stand up, which I still couldn’t do, and the inner quad on that side often had a rhythmic twitch in it. I couldn’t walk more than a few hunched-over steps without agony, and often had pain even while lying down or trying to sleep.
At that point I began to feel alarmed. What had I done? In order to heal myself, I needed to figure out exactly what had happened to me. I knew that it was connected with the lifting in the odd position. What could I have pulled or injured that resulted in the worst pain I have ever known in my life? I did some research online and learned a lot about the sciatic nerve. Nice to know ya, sciatic nerve! I also learned that it could be caused by a herniated disc or something else that resulted in a squashed or pinched nerve.
With over 100 knee dislocations to my credit and surgery for a broken kneecap (I have trick knees), as well as a few other injuries, I thought I had a high tolerance for pain, but I have to say that nerve pain is just the worst. I never know when it’s going to grab me, the constant pain is exhausting, and pain at Level 9 or above makes it very hard to think. Nerve pain is unlike any other pain.
The pain is teaching me a lot, though, such as where I’ve been compressed or slumping unknowingly, because every time I go to one of those places, presto! Electroshock! And I realize now that there are four separate things I’ve been doing in my life that contributed to having a very tense, misaligned spine that was ripe for an injury. One of these things is unavoidable, but the other three are things I can change, and I shall do so! I hereby commit to perfect posture, freedom of movement, a relaxed carriage! This will be me soon.
The one thing that has become crystal clear to me, in an organic, now-I-really-know-this-and-don’t-just-believe-it kind of way, is that my health, ALL areas of health, must be primary in my life if I am to be of any use to others and contribute something to the world, if I am to manifest my potential as I am meant to in this lifetime, and if I am going to be the singer I am capable of being. I don’t know about the other creative artists out there, but when I’m focused on my art, I don’t care very much what’s going on with me – my body, mind or spirit. All that is in the background while I follow the creative drive, or really, am driven by it, and allow it, along with my instinct and skill, to manifest my creative work. I have long been a proponent of fully manifesting the creative drive, and I practice what I preach. But I am coming to see that there has been a slight cost, because I allowed my intention to be fully creative to push my health needs to the background at times. Clearly, it is time to change that!
I am also a holistic healer, one with a great deal of knowledge, research and experience under her belt. I know better. And yet, here I am, in agonizing pain which is seriously getting in the way of my creative work, to say the least, and in the way of my health and well-being. I am a singer, so my entire body and mind are my instrument, and I am unable to sing because my airflow is unable to support the voice because I can’t stand (or sit) up straight or breathe into the back. My priorities need reevaluating. This is definitely a call to wake up and smell the organic coffee, to resolve always to listen to the needs of my physical body as well as mind and spirit and take care of them first. I will spend whatever time or money is required to be supremely healthy. I hereby declare that my health comes first – before any other commitment, motivation, drive or desire.
I have begun this new journey to health already and have charted a path to healing for myself. In addition to using aspirin (Western allopathic medicine) for intense pain and homeopathy (Western alternative medicine), heat and Indian herbs (Ayurveda, Eastern holistic healing) for pain and to promote healing and balance, I am regularly making use of an electromagnetic coil which reduces pain and induces healing (alternative medicine). And now that I can hobble slowly a half block to hail a cab, I will be utilizing the healing skills of my chiropractor, as well as massage at a fabulous, cheap Chinese massage center (Eastern holistic healing) in my neighborhood. These things will relax the muscles around the damaged nerve, allow it to heal and cause less pain, as well as correct the postural and movement problems that caused the injury in the first place. So I will be utilizing the best of all healing modalities based on my knowledge of them and their interplay, all in a manner that is suited to my unique constitution.
You know, this melding of healing traditions in a knowledgeable, practical manner that is unique to you is something I very much want to teach, and will be offering workshops on this very subject in the near future. It’s funny – I had planned on doing exactly that after my current musical production is over. Now I have an even better motivation to do so, and with added knowledge from experience.
I am sharing this small piece of my own process in the hope that it will resonate with someone else out there and give them ideas about their own healing. Because we are here to help each other, aren’t we? This is a theme in the show I am producing right now, so it seems particularly à propros. And it’s something I really believe.
I find that I am able to sort of stand up now by leaning sharply to the right, and to walk a bit by taking tiny, shuffling steps while leaning on a cane. Hey, I’m mobile again! Just call me Pisa (as in Leaning Tower of …)! You might see me around the neighborhood, listing to one side, shuffling to my next healing adventure. Feel free to join me!
Herniated Disc Day 14
Progress is being made! Today I am able to stand up straight for a couple of minutes at a time. Pain is down from constant Level 9-10 to intermittent Level 4-5. I can finally walk a bit, shuffling from side to side in tiny 90-year-old steps while leaning on a cane. This might not sound impressive, but it is SO much better. My chiropractor says I will for certain be able to walk normally again eventually, which is a big relief, and I’m seeing progress every day. And I’m looking forward to making some changes in my life that will leave me healthier in all respects.
Aside from the obvious physical difficulties, this experience has alerted me to some human experiences that we might not often think about, and how I might use this experience to help others. I was alone, unable to move, for the first several days. Not having family or close friends here, and being unable to leave the apartment or really to move at all, I could not figure out how I could get myself to someone or some place that could help me. I figured I needed an MRI to determine what had happened to my back, but, aside from the $60 roundtrip cab fare required to get me to the Hospital for Special Surgery, how could I do the walking required to first get me to a doctor there, and then to the MRI (they are the only place that has an open MRI, required for claustrophics like me), assuming I could schedule them on the same day. This looked impossible. And I know that HSS and its doctors don’t provide official “emergency” care. And having severe pain left me unable to think very efficiently and reason my way out of this.
Fortunately, after about a week, I was able to shuffle slowly around the corner to the chiropractor, problem solved. But I’m sure there must be people who live alone who have even fewer resources than I have, particularly elderly people, and I wonder what they do and how they might be suffering. The biggest problem was the feeling of being totally alone in this and not knowing what to do to help myself recover. I wonder if there is a service for people in this sort of predicament? My next concert addresses all aspects of human experience, and offers some resources, and I’d like to find some resources that address this.
Herniated Disc Day 21
Well, the healing is still progressing, slowly (emphasis on “slowly”) but surely. The pain level is down to about 4-5, and is periodic or motion-related rather than constant, which makes it tolerable and not nearly so exhausting. Walking is not improving as quickly as I’d like, but it is at least much less painful, and a bit quicker. I can now make the three-block walk to the chiropractor in 15 minutes, instead of the 25 minutes it took me two weeks ago. I’m still shuffling from side to side while leaning on a cane, but I think I look less like Frankenstein and more like a duck! I have more functionality in the leg in general, but I still can’t lift it well enough, or put enough weight on it, to do stairs. That’s my goal for next week.
With regard to the issue I brought up in my last post about services available to provide transportation for someone who is alone and/or not mobile enough to get themselves to a place where they can flag a cab, I did some research on that matter, and also utilized the very helpful information given by some Facebook Friends in response to that post. If you’re ever in that position, I recommend that you first call your health insurance company, which might be able to provide a service to get you to medical help, or, depending on your type of insurance, to give you numbers for public services that might be available for that purpose in your area. For travel for other purposes, I recommend that you call a local car service (first make sure they take credit/debit cards, as some of them are cashonly, and make sure they will help you into/out of the car) or a local public transportation service, such as Access-A-Ride here in New York (which requires prior authorization).
One thing I can say for certain is that we should all probably have an emergency contact list that includes much more than, for example, Police and Fire Department numbers. I suggest that the list include not only health insurance and home insurance, but, in addition to things such as car services, that it include contacts for physical and mental health, such as doctors, healers and people you might call for seemingly mundane things such as loneliness or depression. Mental health is just as important as physical health in its contribution to our well-being!
Recovering from this injury has been a learning experience in so many ways, and a time of great inner exploration. I was unable to move at all for the first several days, could not leave the apartment for a week, and now that I am able to walk very slowly, doing so takes all of my energy and focus, so that other things in my life have receded into the background. Such a dramatic physical change results in life literally stopping. The usual programming and personality cease to exist for a time.
It has also been eye-opening in altering my view of other people and of our human nature. I have been totally astonished at the indifference to suffering that seems to exist out there on a much wider scale than I had realized in many people – and have simultaneously been moved in the extreme by the decency and compassion that exists in others. I have been amazed that I have not heard from people I had thought to be friends, or friendly acquaintances, throughout this experience – and simultaneously been moved to tears that an old friend has continuously checked in on me. I have been shocked when people have physically knocked me aside or almost toppled me as I made my way slowly and painstakingly balancing on my cane on trips to the chiropractor – and just as shocked when a stranger offered to lend me a hand, hold a door for me or inquire if they could help, totally unbidden. Our humanity moves me – and our indifference to it terrifies me.
This experience has offered me a deep well of thought and contemplation, and a deep change in me. While I am unhappy at the amount of time that is seemingly being wasted while my body recovers, I am also strangely grateful to have had this experience, which is opening my eyes in so many ways. It is hard to imagine that being immobile, in pain and alone would be transformational, but indeed, maybe that is exactly what it took for me to realize what a gift health is, and how much I value the kindness and decency that does still exist in some people. It has also opened my eyes to what it is like to be disabled in some way and to deal with chronic or severe pain, as well as other issues this experience has brought to light that I know I will address in some way in the future. Now on to stair climbing!
Herniated Disc at Week 6
Well, I no longer resemble the Leaning Tower of Pisa – I’m in the final stretch of healing! I am now upright, walking rather well with the aid of a cane, and finally – climbing stairs! It’s hard to have a normal existence in Manhattan without climbing stairs; subways and walkups are part of life here, so this was an important step for me.
Earlier this week, I attempted my first stair climbing since the accident. It took me forever, given that the affected leg is still weak and the other leg is actually my “bad” leg (resulting from a broken kneecap and not enough articular cartilage left in that knee) – but climb I did. On this first stair climbing trek, I made it up all three flights, but couldn’t figure out how I was going to get myself back down. Then Richard Gordon – my musical collaborator, and also a talented bodyworker – suggested I go down backwards. It worked! (A good trick to remember if you have knee or back problems.) I am the Bionic Woman! OK, not quite. But soon I will be. I am determined to rebuild this body so that it functions freely, effectively and without stress or strain so that it supports my endeavors for another three or four decades.
The only thing that is still troublesome is sitting in a chair (though I can sit cross-legged), and that is getting better every day. Otherwise, six weeks after the event, I have little pain unless I move suddenly, bend over, put weight on the affected leg when stair climbing, or change positions. Now that I’m able to climb stairs (yes, backwards, but I will take it!), my next goal is to sit in a chair without pain. Then I will be able to use the subway again, and I’ll be back to New York speed, i.e., full speed ahead.
I am very fortunate to have had the best healers imaginable helping me to recover, and I feel very grateful to live in a place, and a neighborhood, where such quality care is available only blocks away. Such a speedy recovery from what turned out to be quite a serious injury (herniated L4 spinal disc) has been possible only because of their amazing care.
Richard Gordon (midtown Manhattan) – pianist, conductor, arranger and vocal coach – is my musical collaborator. Not everyone knows that he is also an accomplished bodyworker and is well studied in Feldenkrais, Alexander and other bodywork and movement modalities, as well as anatomy, in addition to considerable innate intuitive skills in working with the body. When he returned from a recent trip to find me unable to walk normally, instead shuffling Frankensteinishly from side to side as I walked, he offered me a bodywork session. When he learned that I could not yet climb stairs (he lives in a walkup), he made a housecall! This is compassion in action (also known as service). After Richard did some deep tissue and fascia work on my legs, I was able to walk normally again, a huge relief. It seems that during the three weeks in which I could not straighten out the affected leg due to severe pain, some hip and leg muscles became frozen in a contracted position and simply would not work normally – until Richard came along. After our session, no more Frankenstein! And I could sing SO much better with a strong foundation under me.
I continue to use a magnetic coil that I believe speeds up healing; at the very least, it feels wonderful. It’s a large ring that, when plugged in, generates a magnetic field. It’s large enough to step into, so I can pull it up to my lower back. It was created to help horses who had leg injuries, which are very hard to heal; I’ve always had an affinity for horses, so it’s no surprise that it works for me, too! And of course I’ve continued to take herbs and nutrients which promote healing. All of these things and the work of the professionals above have worked in tandem to get me back on my feet pronto.
I was recently measured in a doctor’s office and discovered that I had lost almost an inch! This let me know that my posture has deteriorated, and that is likely one of several factors that contributed to my herniated disc (others are genetic and work-related). As you begin to slump, it causes tension in every part of the body, and parts of the spine are forced to misalign to compensate. As I said in my first post about the herniated disc, I am now committed to “perfect posture, freedom of movement, a relaxed carriage” – no more slumping! I plan to gain that inch back.
So in addition to continuing with bodywork, I will be adding some Alexander work to the mix with an amazing Alexander practitioner, Daniel Singer (Upper West Side, Manhattan). I’ll also be adding some Chinese massage, as well as exercises to strengthen the lower abdominals, since using those muscles correctly protects the spine. I hope to return to my practice of Gyrokinesis as well, as it specifically addresses fluidity in the spine.
I’m not usually inclined to put SO much attention on my body (there is only so much time in a day!), but this injury has been a strong message to change that. I’ll check in here in a year to see what changes have transpired. I look forward to being the Bionic Woman!
The moral of my story is, “Don’t take your back for granted!” Be nice to your back, and it will be nice to you….
I realize my last post about my herniated disc recovery was a bit LONG! I wanted to make the point, though, that the AMA type of allopathic treatment is not always the best (and is sometimes the worst) method of treatment for soft tissue injuries. In addition, the methods I am using are very inexpensive compared with the typical allopathic treatment. I don’t have health insurance that covers chiropractic, so had to pay out of pocket, but my chiropractor offers a discount when you buy sessions in quantity. That was the only major expense, and it was not much of one. I avoided habit-forming painkillers, instead using aspirin and Aleve only as long as the pain and inflammation were severe. I have opted to have some private Feldenkrais and Alexander sessions, which are just a bit pricey, but I am doing only a few, following them up long term with Feldenkrais, Alexander and Gyrokinesis classes, which are quite affordable. Herbs and supplements to promote healing of the damaged tissue and reduce inflammation are extremely inexpensive. And all of these things support continued health in the future and are a preventative for further injuries because they address the body as a whole, rather than an isolated part. In my view, the most important thing in health care is to do no harm, don’t you agree? The second is to promote healing as efficiently and effectively as possible, and the third, to do so as economically as possible, avoiding unnecessary expense. Kind of the opposite of our current primary method of healthcare in this country, isn’t it? I want to shine a light on the many ways in which we can keep ourselves healthy in the best possible way!