Never Give Up, Never Surrender – Part 1

“As long as there is injustice, whenever a Targathian baby cries out, wherever a distress signal sounds among the stars, we’ll be there. This fine ship, this fine crew. Never give up… and never surrender.”
– Commander Peter Quincy Taggert (played by Jason Nesmith {played by Tim Allen})

Galaxy Quest isn’t my usual source of inspiration, but after a couple of bulging discs landed me in Alexandria INOVA Hospital for Veterans Day weekend, I feel like I’ve survived my own SciFi farce.   Don’t get me wrong: as individuals, the doctors and nurses at INOVA were great. They listened to all of my concerns and complaints, and did everything in their power to help me. Unfortunately, they had very little power, and had no idea how to get me in touch with the right person.

When I lifted up my almost-five-year-old daughter for a bear hug after she returned from a two week visit from grandma, I noticed two things very quickly: first, my little girl had gained at least half an inch in height and several inches in that short period of time; and second, my back was not happy about the increased weight and my poor lifting technique. Over the next few days, my lower back pain ratcheted up from moderate discomfort on Tuesday evening to oh-my-god-the-pain-is-killing-me-but-i-can’t-screaming-or-I’ll-scare-my-daughter-to-death on Friday morning.

My wife took my daughter to school, and when she came back home, since there was no way I was able to even crawl down the stairs, much less ride in a car, I called 911 and politely asked for an ambulance to take me to the hospital. It took four fire men and two paramedics to carry me down the stairs, and after the second time one of them dropped a corner supporting my head and banged my head into the banister, I realized braving the stairs may have been better for everyone.

In reality, I couldn’t have made it. My back had me completely immobilized. I could lay on my side and experience only moderately excruciating pain, but even getting up on my knees caused enough pain to make me nearly pass  out. Those firemen and paramedics carried my 412 lbs of dead weight down a flight of stairs and into the ambulance. I barely felt the little bump on my head when he lost the corner, and they supported my back so well I didn’t scream once on the way down. Those guys are awesome.

It’s amazing how much more quickly you’re seen in the Emergency Room when you’re brought in by ambulance and placed on a gurney. The ER nursing staff and Physician’s Assistant on call did everything they could to make me comfortable. Unfortunately, when it comes to back pain, the ER’s only focus is to stop the patient from feeling pain, not stop what is actually causing the pain. When the actual doctor on call in the ER came around to see me, she made it clear that her plan was to feed me enough pain killers to stop the pain and then send me home. She didn’t want to order an MRI for me because she felt my back pain is a “cronic” problem, not an acute problem, and she would only order an emergency MRI for acute problems.

I asked if the radiology might be able fit me in their schedule even though I wasn’t “acute”, especially since I was already in the hospital and could be there as fast as they could roll my bed to Radiology.

The ER doctor, getting a bit impatient with me, informed me that I would need meet with my primary care physician next week, and he or she could refer me to an MRI, and I could probably get on the schedule in a week or two. Besides, it was approaching 5PM, and Radiology would be closing for the weekend, except for emergencies.

While the doctor was sentencing me to a couple of weeks of misery, the PA who had been taking very good care of me up to that point,  politely excused herself.

I’ve had back pain in the past, but guidance from a physical therapist, regular exercise an an occasional over-the-counter ibuprofen was enough to relieve my pain completely.  Despite my pain, I tried to explain to her (with a lot of help from my wife, who I was ready to strangle the doctor) that I wasn’t experiencing run-off-the-mill back pain, and that I did feel I had an acute condition. I explained that the symptoms were similar to a back injury I had five years earlier: a bulging disk between the L3 and L4 vertebrae.

The doctor didn’t seem convinced, and insisted that she didn’t think an MRI was warranted, that I should be discharged (even though the pain was still raging in my back and I couldn’t sit up), and that even if she did recommend an MRI, I they couldn’t get me on the schedule until next week.

And at that moment, the PA stepped through the curtain and said she had walked down to Radiology, asked the technicians if they had an opening in their schedule. They said they could perform the MRI right away.

If there weren’t so may witnesses, I think the doctor would have murdered the PA.