The day I’ll never forget

by Ken Malloy

Just like my childhood, my adult life has been, for the most part, disease, injury and pain- free. A few sports related broken bones healed quickly. Colds came and went with no particular fanfare. Good health and feeling good were constant companions. I was quick to repeat the common wisdom: “If you have your health, you have everything,” and I meant it.

I’ve always been an athletic guy. I played starting left wing on my high school varsity soccer team. I had a regular running regime in college. After graduating and joining the full-time working world, I still made time for regular visits to the gym. I worked out hard and ate healthily.

Some days we remember well. The day my back pain started is one of those days for me.

A luxury hotel in downtown Los Angeles was the site of a five-day business seminar I was helping to produce. It was the fall of 1996 and, as part of the team staging the event, my job was to set up the public address system. This included laying audio cable in various places about the room.

As I lifted a large box of cables, I experienced a moment that changed my life forever. The sensation ran like electric shocks up both sides of my back with such intensity that my entire body shuttered and I fell to the floor. I’ve searched my memory for other moments in my life when I’ve felt such profound fear and helplessness. There are none.

My colleagues carried me to my room where I spend the next ten days in bed. Somehow I had traded a socially active and intellectually stimulating seminar for a week and a half of four white walls, room service, inane daytime television and teeth-clenching crawls to the bathroom.

But what HAD I done to my back? The pain was constant, increasing when I made the slightest movement and sore to the touch. Phone calls to family to inform them of my accident reinforced the harsh truth, which I struggled to face. I was injured and helpless like never before. “If you can move at all,” my primary care physician told me on the phone, “it’s probably only soft tissue damage. Get back to New York, we’ll take an X-ray and see what’s going on.” Soft tissue damage? I had heard about people with “bad backs.” Even met a few. Did theirs start with soft tissue damage? I traveled back to New York negotiating my body from standing to seated like it was made of glass.

When the long-awaited moment came, I held my breath. The doctor slapped the black and white transparency up against a lighted box attached to the wall of his tiny, dark examination room. Glasses on. Glasses off. Glasses on. Glasses off. “No structural damage to the disks or vertebrae. I would say… based upon the tenderness in the area….you have a lumbar-sacral strain/sprain.” “What’s that?” The words came out before I realized I had said anything. The doctor examined me. “You have micro-tears to the muscles around your sacrum and lower lumbar spine. You see, when I palpate here…”. “What does palpate mean?”. “It just means touching you. It’s how we measure the degree of pain which generally relates to the degree of injury.”

I really didn’t want to know that. I didn’t want to be someone who needed to be palpated. I didn’t want any part of this. I was so very sad that whatever had happened to me had somehow change my ability to function. As an aggressively active athlete, the mere thought of any permanent limited use of my body was unthinkable – “Is the damage permanent, doctor?” “No way to determine that right now. Let’s wait for the swelling to go down and we’ll see.”

I went to bed that night with new companions I would get to know quite well: Fear, sadness, uncertainty, anger and pain of varying intensity that would test my will and try my soul.