My Story of Sciatica and Surgery

This is the story of my lower back. If you have met or spoke to me within the past two years, I have undoubtedly told you of the woes of my back. Two years ago, when I lived in Egypt, I auditioned for a commercial for Egyptian tourism. It involved my riding full throttle on a horse for about five hours around the pyramids. Little did I know that this pounding hurt my back and was the beginning of a two year period of pain and recovery.

A few days later I lifted a very heavy oriental carpet in my apartment, I don't know what happened exactly, but I do remember feeling something pop in my back and then I keeled over in pain. For weeks I could not walk correctly. When I visited docotors in hospitals they doped me up on drugs and told me to rest. When I visited chiropractors they told me that I had hurt a joint, and in a few sessions I'd be okay. They did a minor test on me and at the time decided that the cause of my injury was not due to a disc being out of place. Finally, I visited a physical therapist, who diagnosed me with 'my sacroiliac joint coming out of place'. I then underwent therapy with him, but the pain was not relieved. I became used to living in pain, and began to use pain killers to ease it. It was not until months later, when my leg began to go numb that I realized I had a really big problem. Around this time, I was returning to the States, a place where I should have felt security in seeking medical treatment, right? Wrong.

After first seeking a doctor and fighting for an appointment I saw a rheumatologist, who basically told me everything I needed (MRI, bloodwork, testing, diagnosis) would put me into medical bankruptcy, therefore he would prescribe none of it. He also accused me of being a CIA operative, something I found quite amusing. His advice was to get medical insurance as soon as possible so I could properly be treated. He also told me I had to live in pain until this could be fixed. He wrote a prescription for the same pain medicine I had take in Egypt, which in Cairo cost roughly $10 US the States I could not afford it as it cost me about $200 with no insurance. Also, my doctor bill, for him to tell me he could do nothing, cost about $300. Rock on Medi Care USA.

My brother, who is a persoanl trainer, told me that my ass was weak and that if I strenthened my glutes and abs then I could alleviate the pain. After a session at the gym and him telling me what I needed to do I started to do that, and yoga. A month later, all my back pain went away. My entire time spent in Yemen was pain free. I always had the memory of the pain in my mind and long distance travel on buses/planes always involved emergency pain medicine in case it started up again. Funny stories getting the medicine include one time in an Ethiopian pharmacy where they absolutely refused to sell me muscle relaxers, saying 'we are not that kind of pharmacy, you must have a prescription'. Even though the assistant pharmacist then fished in her purse and produced a bottle with 100 pills of Vicadin in which she offered to sell it to me under the table. I told her I just needed enough to travel in which she just shrugged and gave ten to me free of charge.

I am currently living in Taiwan and am covered by the national health insurance which makes all medical bills super low...however, I just realized how low they really were as I just had surgery here.

I am known to be quite active, loving to do lots f outdoor things and as a result always jeopardize my injuring myself. Six weeks ago I was belly dancing, Dragon Boat rowing and then went for an intense hike with the local Hash House Harrier Group. That night and the following week my back was out. I thought it would get better, but no it got much, much worse. I had shooting pains from my hip down to my toes, sometimes part of my leg would go numb, the other excrutiating pain. I do not cry but I would often have tears streaming down my face because it hurt so bad. I could not sleep, I went for about two-three weeks with no rest becuase everytime I moved I would be jarred awake by pain I can not even describe.

I visited the emergency room several times being injected with pain killers and put on loads of steroids and anti-infammatory medicine. Problem is, that with nerve pain no amount of pain killer will take it away, it's always there.

I learned that I definitely needed a MRI, to see the soft tissue damage done to my body. When the doctor told me I had to be put on a three week wait list to have the test I burst into tears thinking of how I could be able to manage the pain. That's when he told me I needed to be admitted to the hospital.

Being an American, first thing that comes to mind is cost of health care, how the hell can I afford a MRI and hospital stay? He smiled and told me not to worry, with national insurance I would not have to pay for a MRI and the cost of the hospital stay would be minimal. I agreed and was put into the hospital. After finally receiving the long awaited MRI, the doctor told me I had a ruptured disc in my lumbar spine, the L5 portion. It was so far out that there was no way other than surgery to fix the problem. Because it was so far out, it was constantly hitting my sciatic nerve, the nerve that controls everything waste down in your leg...this explained the shooting pains and numbness I was experiencing and I was diagnosed with sciatica.

At first, I was fully against the surgery, but then after consulting with friends and family and other doctors...I realized it was the only option. I was scheduled for surgery the following morning. It was for a discotemy, the doctor would remove the material that had ruptured from my disc along with the inside liquid from my disc. Following surgery, scar tissue forms inside the disc...making it nearly identical to what it had been.

Following the surgery I found myself drugged and screaming in Arabic and Mandarin...but not English. I guess I registered that I was in a foreign country and could not speak English. I remember screaming 'I'm cold' and 'I need drugs' in Mandarin to the nurses. I was then given an easy pump medicine machine, in which I could inject myself with drugs when I felt pain. In my dazed state I looked up to see my school director and co-worker with me in the post-op room. Not one of my finest moments...I believe I now have a reputation for crying a lot at work :)

While I'm sure that I would have been taken care of on my own, it was with the overwhelming support and help I received from my co-workers, family and friends. I had enough Mandarin from what I learned to communicate my needs to doctors and nurses, but it was from my friends and co-workders where I got full on language translation...from expressing my needs to the doctor to translating every piece of paper that had my name on it. I have never been so overwhelmed with the care, concern and generosity that everyone had and gave...I really have no idea how to repay them all.

The first two days of recovery were pure hell. I was miserable and cried a lot, I remember people who I did not know coming to my bed and telling me in Mandarin to stop crying, and they dried my tears with a tissue. I was a complete invalid, and was not allowed to move my spine for three days. I was constantly put on 'ice pillows' to lower my fever and depended on everyone around me for help. A co-worker came and fed me fish soup with a straw the first day in the hospital...the nurses smiled saying that I had become Taiwanese. The next morning a nurse tried to feed me nasty smelling and tasting fishy I child I spit it out. She then tried to bribe me saying, 'if you want your pain medicine, then you have to eat it'. I told her fine, I didn't want the medicine and she then reluctantly gave it to me. Thankfully a friend arrived soon after to sort things out. As much as I hated this at the time, I believe that it sped my recovery. After the third day I was walking and a week later I am able to perform functions and I am building my strength up. I will have to wear a brace for 3-6 months, a very light weight one which keeps my spine straight. I will be able to do all sports, but none that involve deep stretches forward or backward. I guess yoga is out, but there is always pilates!

From my experience, Taiwanese healthcare is incredibly efficient, the doctors are very well-trained and the surgeon I had was amazing. I ended up spending ten days in the hospital with round-the-clock care from the nurses.

To give you an eye opening idea of how affordable the healthcare is here...
Cost of a MRI WITHOUT insurance: $300 USD
Cost of a MRI with national insurance: FREE
Cost of discotemy surgery, ten day hospital stay WITHOUT insurance: $1900 USD
Cost of discotemy surgery, ten day hospital stay with national insurance: $272 USD
Cost of life pain/debt free of medical bills: PRICELESS

So now, the story that first began in the desert of Cairo, traveled to America and Yemen and finally, and thankfully, come to an end here in Taiwan. I never did get the part for the Egyptian tourism commercial; however to this day I see it on CNN. Some memories live forever I suppose. Lets just hope there's not a sequel to the problem with my back!