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Pain Down Here

July 10, 1986|AL MARTINEZ

I was sitting in the office of a high-priced Santa Monica orthopedic surgeon as he gathered together the papers and X-rays relating to what he regarded as my affliction.

He had not looked at me for several minutes and I was beginning to wonder if he even remembered I was there when suddenly he looked up.

"I suggest," he said in a tone of importance honed by several medical degrees, "that you avoid sitting down."

I stared at him with a less-than-pleased expression. I was paying several hundred dollars to this clown to cure my bad back and he was telling me the answer to my problem was not sitting down? That's what they taught him at Harvard Medical School?

"Sitting compresses the spine," he said.

"Doctor," I said, "I write for a living. How in the hell am I going to write standing up?"

"Hemingway did it," he said.

"Hemingway did not have to hassle a word processor," I started to reply, but then I asked myself, what am I doing arguing the creative process with an orthopedic surgeon?

"Thank you, doctor," I finally said, "I shall try standing up for the rest of my life."

He nodded contentedly. Another triumph for medicine. Another soul set free.

"What did he tell you?" my wife asked when I got home.

"He told me to drink Glenlivet Scotch and go on welfare," I said, heading directly for my self-contained mobile booze cart.

She watched me fix a drink. Her expression was sympathetic. I am among 80% of American adults who suffer from lower back pain. I am her micro-statistic.

"Really," she said, "what did he say?"

"Not to sit down."

"You're never serious, are you?"

"Serious?" I said, plucking an ice cube from my drink and dropping it in the fish bowl. (Too much ice alters the chemical balance of fine Scotch.) "I'm deadly serious. So was he. Like the cow doctor, remember him?"

He was a grim old man who used to say that humans had spines built for cows and were not meant to walk on two legs. I stomped out and never went back when he suggested that the best therapy would be for me to crawl around the house on all fours.

"Exercise," my wife said. "Exercise and relax."

I hoisted my Scotch in salute. "Here's to swimmin' with bow-legged women." It's an old Marine Corps toast. I figured it covered both relaxation and exercise.

"Did it ever occur to you," she said cheerfully, "that perhaps you deserve pain?"

I have had an ache in the back off and on for about 30 years.

"At the top of the spine," a lady chiropractor once lectured me in an effort to help me understand pain, "there are seven cervical vertebrae, below that 12 thoracic vertebrae. The lower back has five vertebrae . . . "

I was lying on my stomach on her mechanical treatment table in West L. A. She was boring the hell out of me and I was about to doze off when she suddenly hit a foot pedal and the table fell open.

I dropped through a hole, roaring in pain.

"My God, woman," I said, trying to climb back up, "what in the hell are you doing?"

"Well," she said, observing me carefully, "I certainly won't try that again!"

I don't know what she was trying to do. It was perhaps the beginning of a therapy that fights pain with pain. I didn't hang around long enough to find out.

"Maybe have to cut," another doctor told me.

It was his way of suggesting surgery. I learned later that he often practiced with a scalpel on watermelons. He had the bedside manner of a street fighter.

"You're not cutting me ," I said. "Stay with the watermelons."

"Try putting you in traction then." He spoke in elliptical phrases, which somehow made his messages more terrifying. I could see myself suspended in midair by a sandbag counterbalance, like a pig in a meat locker.

"Either that," he said, observing my reluctance, "or reach the place someday where you'll freeze up."

I was in traction for 10 days. The man next to me had hurt his back falling off a camel in the Holy Land.

"But the Lord Jesus Christ looks after me!" he said bravely. "How about you, sir?"

"Blue Cross," I said.

We didn't speak for nine days.

The doctor wanted me to remain in traction for three weeks, but after about 120 hours of daytime television, I demanded to be released.

"Your back," he said with a shrug.


I have tried exercise, bed rest, yoga, deep heat, sonic therapy and hanging by my knees like a damned bat in order to ease the pain, but nothing has worked.

I even wore a back brace for awhile but gave it up because of the metal straps. Airport security guards kept insisting on stripping me to the waist every time I flew out of LAX.

"What you need . . . " my wife began, but I interrupted.

"Don't tell me to exercise and relax," I said.

She fixed us a drink and dimmed the lights.

"I wasn't going to say that," she said softly. Then, with a wink: "Here's to swimmin' with bow-legged women."


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