Growing up I had a very high pain tolerance. I could just ignore most pain if it was intense as long as I knew it would be short lived. Chronic pain is another story. Knee surgery and a broken collarbone were not fun for me by any stretch of the imagination. Being an idiot I used knowledge of this fact to “impress” people. If there was a fight brewing someplace it was not a big deal for me to smash my fist into a brick wall to let everyone know what kind of fun was about to ensue. In my head this was also a way (along with head butting stop signs) to impress the girls. Maybe smashing my head against stop signs helped lead to the foolish notion that any of this would impress a girl. Headbutting stop signs could explain more and more of my thoughts and behaviors now that I ponder it, but I digress. I became familiar with true pain after I broke my neck.
To stabilize the neck after an injury where vertebrae have been shattered they screw tongs into your head and suspend a 5 pound weight to keep everything in place. They want no movement which might cause bone fragments to do more damage until they can take out the fragments and reconstruct the spine. So on March 26th, 1982 I found myself first in a stryker frame with a weight stretching out my neck.
There are straps that run across your body to hold you in place. On this bed and the next, when you are facing down there is a strap that runs across your forehead. In both cases I would beg them to make the flip before the allotted time had passed. You alternate between resting on your stomach and your back. So the dangling weight is either pulling the back of your head against a strap or pulling your forehead INTO a strap. The forehead is raw and it’s a headache that I simply cannot describe.
However the real pain is yet to come. On April 2nd 1982 I underwent surgery to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. The 1st 6 hours were spent picking out the shattered remnants of my 6th and 7th cervical vertebrae. The next 6 hours were spent carving a piece of bone out of my right hip and the wiring it into the bones to fill the gap.
With the neck now stabilized I didn’t need to be in the circo-electric bed and was moved into a bed that rotated from side to side rather than front to back. The nurses explained since I wasn’t going to be up and around I would need to avoid pressure sores. I heard none of this because I was still in denial. Acquiring a disability and coming to terms with it is similar to Kubler-Ross stages of death & dying: Denial, Bargaining, Anger, Acceptance and finally Depression. I’d find out soon enough, however, since I learned shortly thereafter that I had developed a pressure wound on my posterior (ass) during the 12 hour surgery. I was going to have another surgery where they would carve an adjacent piece of skin and fold it over to patch the hole that had developed (called a skin flap).
At some point after I was in this new bed I looked at how my arm would sort of “flop” as I rotated. They brought in a portable xray machine and discovered that I had a broken right arm. I was put in a full arm cast that sort of flipped back and forth with every rotation. The rotations were constant as I recall. The next milestone and the beginning of my experience with pain was when they decided I no longer required the “cocktail” of morphine, demerol and thorazine they had running through me. Morphine and demerol for pain. Thorazine is a mood stabilizer. I was put on 2 codeine every 4 hours. I’m not sure what the dosage was, but it wasn’t enough. As the cocktail left my body a white hot pain in my shoulder became apparent. Since I have no memory of my car accident I can only piece together a notion of what happened from my injuries. I saw the tree coming and put my right arm up to protect my face. Upon impact I cracked my ulna and wrenched my arm further across my face, tearing the shoulder socket, and re-injuring a torn rotator cuff problem I had playing football in 11th grade. My right eye socket hit next and the impact shattered a couple of vertebrae in my neck and the sharp bone sliced diagonally into my spinal cord. So the re-torn rotator cuff was untreated and had been flopping back and forth with the added weight of a full arm cast, turning it into hamburger. It hurt.
Knowing now the medicines they could have used to alleviate the pain I was having makes me furious. I get they removed the “cocktail” because they didn’t want me hooked on morphine. However, there’s a LOT of options between codeine and Morphine. Any movement in my casted arm caused agony. They began using Ace bandage wraps to tie my arm in place when they finally found a position where I was somewhat comfortable. Unfortunately with the bed rotating 180 degrees every few minutes the position would eventually slip and I’d be screaming for the nurses to help all over again. I literally begged for my next dose of medication. I could make about 3 hours and I was forced to wait another hour before I could get relief again. I viewed the nurses who would cheat 10 minutes as angels. They tried a “tens unit.” This is a device that sends electrical impulses through your body by attaching sticky nodes on either side of the shoulder. The pulse stimulates the release of endorphins, the body’s natural pain killers. I was incredibly frustrated with this intervention, as I never experienced any relief, and the nodes would constantly fall off.
At some point I decided that this was no way to live. I was begging and crying and watching every minute tick by in agonizing slowness. The next time the nodes fell off I said nothing. The next time my medication was due I refused it. The doctor actually ordered a psych eval fearing I had given up hope or become suicidal. I calmly explained that I couldn’t live this way and it had to stop. Today I have no recollection of the next events. Back when I could remember I described a sensation of “white pain” where everything was just white hot. Then it was gone. No more pain. Or no more pain allowed.
Sadly it didn’t disappear forever. The next stop on my journey was Sunnyview Rehabilitation hospital, where I had a Swedish physical therapist named Hans. Hans had the job of getting me used to using a paralyzed body. His other job was to restore the range of motion in my shoulder. This was my introduction to sadism. I saw for the first time a person who enjoyed making another human experience pain. But that’s a post for another day….