By: Jean Johnson for Back1
Part One | Part Two
Constance Smith points out that while she’s “learned so much about the healthcare industry, I’ve learned even more about me.” Indeed, going through what she did clearly takes the measure of a person.
“At first they thought I had a stroke, but after the MRI showed a spinal cord injury, the hospital didn’t know quite to do with me. Like I said, my hands were curled up like claws and my legs would not move. And I was in such extreme pain that they kept me medicated with a morphine pump. I was basically out of it for two days in a world of hurt and only dimly aware of my daughter and friends coming.”
| People suffering from a spinal cord injury often experience several types of pain. Some common types include: |
Generally described as sharp, shooting or burning pain. It is very common to spinal cord injuries since it is caused by damage or dysfunction of the nervous system.
Generally described as dull or aching pain. It occurs in bones, joints and muscles. The pain may get worse with movement and usually can be eased with rest.
Generally described as burning, cramping and constant pain in the abdomen either above or below the level of injury. This pain usually begins a short time after a spinal cord injury.
It was on the third day that the first of many unanticipated tests came for Smith. “They moved me to a nursing home to recuperate until they could do surgery on my neck. The place was everything you ever picture. A group of residents sitting around drooling. So degrading and my mental attitude just went immediately down hill,” she said. “And the care – their theory was that it was easier for them at night for me to just wet my diaper instead of getting up to the toilet. So dehumanizing. It was the same for the showers. Patients got two a week and no more even if they asked like I did.”
Smith also had trouble getting people to answer her call light. “My daughter had brought me a fan, and I put the light on to get someone to turn it off. I could hear them laughing and talking out in the hall, but no one came in, so I leaned over to turn it off myself and ended up falling out of bed.”
That episode cost Smith a late night visit to the hospital for stitches in her lip plus the dubious pleasure of being transported back to the nursing home at three in the morning once the ER crew had finished their business.
“Even though the nursing home was all awful beyond belief, I kept on going mainly because of my daughters and grandchildren. They are the love of my life,” Smith said. “And after four days my hands relaxed although they’re still stiff and feel like they’re asleep sometimes. Also, what I noticed is that when I got nervous, everything seemed to go – my foot started getting a little spastic and my hands wouldn’t do what I wanted them to. At night when I settled down, though, it was usually better.”
The good news was that Smith found a neurosurgeon that recommended immediate surgery, so after 10 days in the nursing home, she was re-admitted to the hospital. Nothing’s ever easy when your mobility is compromised, though, and the ride over turned out to be quite an experience.
“I was a mess when the medical van arrived to take me to the hospital. I’d begged the nursing home staff for a shower so they gave in and were drying me with bath towels when my daughter got there. Later she told me she’d never seen anything as pathetic as me sitting there with my legs sticking out and tears running down my face,” Smith said. “That was bad enough, but once we got going in the van we got caught in traffic, and I was afraid I was going to be late. Between all that, my body just went over the edge, and I had the most horrendous gas – worse than anything I’ve ever experienced. I was so humiliated. The driver was a young studly looking guy – the kind you’d like your daughter to bring home – and here’s mama farting her brains out!”
Smith’s sense of humor followed her to surgery as well and as they took her into the cold, sterile operating suite she was full of her usual pluck. “I asked if I would be naked with my fanny flapping in the wind, and they assured me I’d be covered, that it was my head end they were working on. When they wheeled me in I saw the metal table where they hold your head in place. It like some sci-fi movie or an electric chair with two metal bands, one across your forehead and the other chin to hold your head still,” she said. “If I’d been totally coherent, I’m sure I would have wiggled right off the gurney.”
Immediately after the laminectomy, Smith’s memories are a foggy patchwork of sensations capped by one big payoff:
“I talked the nurse’s ear off in the recovery room. Totally inappropriate questions under the effects of the drugs – asking him about his life and marriage and if he was happy.”
“Going up to my room after was eerily quiet because it was nighttime – just me being rolled down the hall in silence.”
“These male nurses – here you’re having your diapers changed by two of them, and they’re talking about mowing the lawn or something. I appreciated their attitude more than I can say. Sort of like, no big deal. Business as usual.”
“I was on the eighth floor and one whole wall was windows facing east. There were a lot of trees and a dazzling gold sunrise, and I remember laying there thinking about everything that had happened,” Smith said. “All of a sudden it dawned on me – I was tapping my feet on the bottom of the bed! Before the surgery if you even touched my foot it was like a burning, stabbing fire. Tears filled my eyes and I could feel something like a glow around my heart because I realized the operation had corrected the nerve problems related to my legs and that there was a chance I’d walk again.”
Continued in Part Three