A jolt of pain shot up my back. Oh shit! I immediately stopped rowing. I continued my “high intensity” work out with some modifications, not saying a peep to the instructor. Within a day, I had searing pain down my right thigh, like someone was tearing apart my quad with hot tongs. Every time I would try to stand, I would turn ashen white and collapse down. Me, the marathon runner; me, the active Ob/Gyn; me, the one who doesn’t know how to say no. Me, brought to my knees by overwhelming pain.
It’s Thanksgiving morning, I’m texting my partner that is on call. Prescribe me some steroids, please. I’m thinking it has to be a herniated disc. My 16-year-old daughter drives me to the pharmacy. I can’t make the walk to the back of CVS, I have to stop part way to breath through the pain, then when I’m close, collapse into a chair. My daughter looks scared. “Just ask them for my prescription,” I tell her trying to sound calm in my agony. I don’t know how I’m going to get back to the car.
The next few days are a blur of doctor appointments, steroids, Percocet, higher dose steroids, gabapentin, an MRI, and an epidural. I have no appetite, I can barely read let alone watch Netflix. When I find that one comfortable position in bed, I doze off and on, then wake up sore from not moving. I don’t shower for days because it is too hard to stand that long.
As the days pass, I start to anguish over not being able to work, needing to cancel office hours, and worse yet, getting coverage for a an upcoming call. I’ve never had to ask my partners for help for health reasons in 25 years. And I know how hard it can be to last minute cover another’s call. I’m asking them to possibly miss their office hours or their day off. I’ve helped others when such emergencies have come up, but for me to ask is a different story. I finally send an email profusely apologizing for inconveniencing others.
In the blur of gabapentin and steroids and finally sleep, I’m woken up by my phone. “It’s all in your head! It’s all in your head!” I hear my doctor yelling at me. “What? I don’t understand,” I answer. What is he saying? I’m in so much pain. “Your MRI doesn’t look that bad. Just get the epidural tomorrow. I have it scheduled for you at 11am.”
When I finally wake up fully, I feel so confused and embarrassed. I’m in so much pain, how can he say it is only in my head? I try to call him back, but the office is closed. I have his cell phone number, but I don’t think it is important enough to bother him.
While waiting in the exam room for my epidural, I’m afraid to meet that doctor, I’m afraid he will think I’m crazy. I can’t find a comfortable way to sit in the hard chair. I have to slouch and have my right leg off in a weird angle to minimize the discomfort. The doctor walks in and in the most gentle and warm manner he says, “tell me about your pain.” As I describe it, he nods and says, “oh yeah, that is definitely L3. Sounds pretty bad.” The epidural is so quick. The next thing I know I’m walking out feeling numb. Such a welcome relief!
He had told me the epidural will take 24 to 48 hours to work. After 24 hours, the truly agonizing pain has subsided. I can finally walk and stand with a pain level of 2 or 3, although I’m not sure how long it will last. I decide I’m good enough to go back to the office the next day. I don’t want to cancel any more patients.
My schedule is pretty full after being out of the office over a week. I try to concentrate on one patient at a time rather than looking at my entire schedule, but it’s so tiring to be constantly managing my pain. I just want to sit… no, I really just want to lay down. I ask my nurse practitioner to help me see some of my patients. When I’m finally done, I collapse in my car. I need a few minutes before I can drive home.
After 2 weeks of constant pain, albeit more low grade, I feel it is getting the best of me. I find myself crying in a parking lot after trying to grocery shop. I find myself cranky after a restless night of disturbed sleep and discomfort. I find myself discouraged after realizing this may take a long time to resolve.
I call a colleague. “I just need to talk this out and figure out a plan,” as the tears stream down my cheeks.
“No,” he says, “you need to stop fighting and surrender yourself to receiving help.”
What? No… but, I know he is right. I think I should have all the answers, but I don’t. I think I should be in control, but I’m not. I think I should know what to do, but I can’t seem to figure it out by myself.
As a physician, I’ve learned to plow through fatigue, hunger, and discomfort to care for my patients. But now as a patient, I need to learn to shed my doctor coat and "in control" armor. I realize I have to allow my care givers to see my vulnerability, my fear, and my pain. But more importantly, I have to face my own vulnerability in needing care, my fear of being seen as “weak,” and my pain as it limits my ability to function and be active.
It is the only way I will ever begin healing.
Andrea Eisenberg has been an obstetrician/gynecologist in the Metro Detroit area for nearly 25 years. Through her many years in women’s health, she has shared in countless intimate moments of her patients, and shared in their joys, heartaches, secrets, losses and victories. In her writing, she captures the human side of medicine and what doctors think and feel in caring for patients. She has documented these stories on her blog. She has been a contributor to Intima, A Journal of Narrative Medicine and Pulse, Voices From the Heart of Medicine. Andrea is also a contributing author at BBN Times and a guest rotating blogger on KevinMD and Doximity. She is currently in Doximity’s 2018-2019 Authors Program.