In February 2023, I went to an osteopath to get my hips realigned, while on holiday in Melbourne (Australia).
Here’s a tip for you: Don’t sleep on camping mats on concrete floors when you already have a hard time picking shit up off the floor.
The osteopath was a lovely guy, although he kept telling me to breathe, which was hard when he lacked deodorant, and the room lacked air-conditioning.
All was going fine until he pulled my arm to settle me into position without forewarning. It wasn’t a sudden pain. It was something that would develop over the next few days, and something that would take months to recover from. (Just to note: I don’t blame him. If anything, this was the beginning of what was really going on…)
When I returned home to sunny Tasmania, I felt an ache behind my left shoulder blade, something I felt a good massage would resolve. I went to my physical therapist, explained my osteo visit, and she told me it was likely my costa-transverse joint was grumpy. Yes, grumpy. I love my physio and her explanations.
She massaged the shoulder and my back – although still not getting the particular spot – and suggested some stretching exercises. But the thumb thing had her stumped. She asked me if I’d had been tested for rheumatoid arthritis, especially since I already had knee and hip issues. I had not, despite her asking me this before. I’d already had my knees checked for arthritis.
So, off I went to my doctor. She told me it was menopause because joint pain is a major symptom, then blew off the pain behind my shoulder blade and chest altogether. She actually scoffed when I told her I went to an osteopath. She referred me for x-rays in my knees, hips and hands – none of which I was in for – and gave me a referral for the rheumatoid blood test. At the last minute, she gave me a sample for some anti-inflammatory medication. Seventy dollars, and less than five minutes later, I was out the door.
And then it all went to shit. The following week – the day before a five-day weekend – I did a lovely big stretch while having my morning coffee when something went PING!
The pain was more excruciating than childbirth – without the epidural.
I could not stand up. I could not lay down. I could not get my left arm comfortable any which way. And all too quickly, I had this burning pain firing down my arm and the entire arm was going numb.
And to make matters worse, no doctor’s office nearby would see me.
The doctor’s office less than five minutes away, wouldn’t see me because I wasn’t an existing patient. My regular doctor, the one who told me this burning pain was menopause, couldn’t see me because she was leaving early for the holiday.
I told my husband through snotty tears, to drive me to the Emergency Room, which is seventy-five minutes from our house. On the way there, I dropped more F-bombs than anyone would ever want to hear out of a fifty-three year old woman.
By the end of the day, I finally got the answer to what was causing all my weird pains. but until then, I was maxed out on opioids.
It wasn’t menopause. It wasn’t my costotransverse joint. The doctor told me it was cervical spondylosis. Woo-hoo … arthritis in my spine. My future looks rosy! NOT.
And if you think the story ends there, it doesn’t.
What was causing the pain in that moment was like the horrible twist in some drama flick. Two of my vertebrae had collapsed. One was pinching a nerve root going down to my left arm. The other was protruding toward my spinal cord. I needed surgery – and fast – and the ER doctor was on it. At least I thought she was.
Because it was the Easter weekend in Tasmania, where the entire state shuts down for five days, no neurosurgeon could be found. The ER doctor had called, texted, FAXED, and everything in between. Messages to the recommended neurosurgeon’s office received radio silence. Why she didn’t try another neurosurgeon? I don’t know and I was so shocked as to what was going on, I didn’t ask.
Without a response, she sent me home with five days’ worth of opioids and told to come back after the holiday. So, off we drove home, through three mountain passes and dealing with holiday traffic.
Ah, but for the joys of pain-relieving drugs!
When the weekend was over, we had one pill left, and I was saving it for the drive back into town. My husband was ‘on the horn’ at eight in the morning to get an answer, but the neurosurgeon’s office wasn’t open yet. So we got back in the car to drive back to the ER. On the way in, we learned the (recommended) neurosurgeon was out of the country. But he’d looked at my CT scan and asked if we could we go to Hospital B instead of the private hospital. They wanted to do an MRI to determine the next steps. I wanted to scream into the car’s phone app: “Stop fucking around and just find someone to fix the damn issue!”
We went to Hospital B. It was a zoo. The bathroom in the ER had a soiled pair of disposal undies lying at the base of the toilet. There was blood in the sink. I navigated it all as I tried to pee halfway through the day while we waited hours to get the MRI. Finally, at half-past two, they wheeled me down to the MRI. With shooting pain going down my arm, they told me to stay completely still for fifteen minutes. Right… sure. In the end, I was crying, begging for it to be over – and I was still very much doped up on pain meds.
I had not seen a doctor all day while waiting in the ER, but I’d been flat on my back, high to the hilt since I’d arrived. The ER nurses did a fabulous job keeping me as comfortable as possible until… well, I didn’t know what at that point. I wasn’t given any information either way. I assumed I was waiting to see a doctor again.
The only time I was close to losing my patience was when the old man across from me griped about the long wait. Apparently, he’d had an anxiety attack that morning and he’d had to wait three hours to see a doctor. He was probably the same man who’d left the dirty undies on the toilet floor!
At six o’clock that evening, the competitiveness between surgeons finally came through in my favour. A doctor arrived. A neurosurgeon. But it was not the neurosurgeon that had ordered the MRI, nor was it a neurosurgeon that was covering for Mr. Italy while he was away. They were still faffing around, working out what needed to be done.
This doctor, in his very expensive suit, had looked at my scans and announced he was admitting me for emergency surgery on my spine. However, because of a shortage of anaesthesiologists, thanks to a fresh wave of COVID-19, the surgery would be delayed a day or two. But not to worry. I was in the land of the excellent drugs, and they’d keep me comfortable in the meantime.
But seriously? Could it drag on any longer? I’d already been in extreme pain for six days by this point. The old man and his three hours? Pfft!
Oh, but wait. This was just menopause, remember?
Five days later, I was sporting two cages in my spine, and a lovely knife-fight looking scar, spanning three inches down my neck. I wore the cone of shame for a week and had to begin physical therapy two weeks after the surgery to being rehab. My physiotherapist shared with me what had actually happened (aka what the doctors had not): I had two vertebrae collapse. One vertebra was heading toward my spinal cord (which is what had the neuro jumping), the other inching the nerve root going down to my left arm (what was actually causing the intense pain).
But here’s where it is really shocking:
Ten days after the surgery, I returned to my regular doctor. I needed to get the stitches removed.
But there was also something I needed to say to her for my last visit to her practice.
When I was called into her office for my appointment, I gestured to my humongous bandage and said: “Yeah, it’s not menopause”.
But she left me speechless when she had the gall to respond: “It’s a good thing we caught it early.”
I won’t be returning to the doctor.