NICK, give mommy a hug," said my husband, Frank. "Nick, give mommy a hug."
My son, Nick, was being a temperamental 8-year-old. He sat at the edge of our bed pouting. When he heard his father's request, he stood up on the bed and began to walk gingerly toward me, picking his way across our legs. He lost his balance, fell forward and threw himself on top of me, wrapping his arms around my body in a loving hug.
Suddenly, I couldn't move. The fall caught me lying in the wrong position. The impact stunned me. It was as if someone had plunged a steel rod into my lower back. "Something terrible has happened," I whispered.
I was injured.
Slowly, I began to turn. I sat up. I told everyone it was nothing, just another mild setback. And I wanted to believe what I said, too. I lied to them and I lied to myself. All chronic back sufferers do. We deny our pain. We feel guilty because we look OK, because no one can see where we hurt. There is no crutch, no bandage, no wound.
I was scared. I got dressed carefully. My 3-year-old daughter, Megan, helped me put on my socks and shoes, since I couldn't bend. I drove to a breakfast meeting at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Half an hour later I excused myself to call my doctor, Robert Watkins. "Don't worry," he said. "Just go home and stay in bed for a few days."
It was like being sentenced to prison. Two years before, when I was carried into his office, Bob Watkins gave me the same advice--stay home for a few weeks. But a disk in my lower back had disintegrated, and no matter how many times I was stretched by a physical therapist or pricked by an acupuncturist, no matter how many painful spinal-nerve blocks I endured, the weeks drew into months and the months became a year.
My back is made of glass.
You can't imagine what it is like to lie in bed hoping that the next week will bring an end to the pain. You read books at first, like a good soldier who is supposed to catch up on all those best sellers. You promise yourself you will finally write that novel. But then you turn to television. Gary Collins and Phil Donahue became my best friends. The videocassette player became my neighborhood theater.
I couldn't go through the horror of that isolating ritual again. It wasn't fair. Hadn't I just recuperated from a five-hour spinal fusion in which Watkins had rebuilt my back with bones from my legs and hips? Hadn't I had enough?
I began to fear what was happening to my family. My son was devastated by guilt. My little girl was crying all the time. She wanted me to take her to the park. And what about my husband? How much more could he take? I wondered what would happen to my marriage. I wondered about my career. I felt threatened by other journalists who were whole, who were healthy. One friend tried to reassure me. "Isak Dinesen," she said, "wrote lying on her living room floor when she had syphilis." It didn't make me feel any better. Nothing did.
On Nov. 23, the day after my daughter's fourth birthday party, the pain was so acute that I was admitted for tests to Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood. Centinela is known as the hospital for athletes. It was an official Olympics hospital, and my doctor and his associates at Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic are the team doctors for the Lakers, Rams, Dodgers, Lazers, Angels and Kings. It was there that I was to learn what the jocks already know--how to survive and thrive in pain.
The next morning, the tests began: a bone scan, a CAT-scan, a myelogram and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to photograph the spinal column. They did not hurt. But the Spanish Inquisition would have enjoyed administering an EMG (electromyogram). A neurologist sticks needles into damaged nerves and waits for you to scream when the injured area is penetrated. Three days later, the day before Thanksgiving, Watkins came to my room with the results: The news was bad. Nick's hug had torn another disk, the one below my spinal fusion.
I was devastated, frantic. "Can you do something?" I pleaded. "Please help me."
He was straightforward. "You have two choices," he said. The first one was surgery--but this operation was more dramatic than my fusion; steel rods with hinges and screws would be drilled into the lower part of my spine.
"Oh God," I begged him. "No, not another surgery." I didn't know if I could take it again. The risks are enormous. I might lose all my flexibility, my nerves could be severed. I was afraid I would be paralyzed for life.
Watkins is a Southerner from Memphis. He is a tall, good-looking man who exudes confidence and Southern charm. But this morning, his face was full of pain. He held my hand.
There was one other alternative, he said. It was risky, difficult and agonizingly painful. But it was a chance, perhaps the only chance, to avoid surgery.
"I want you to stay in the hospital for six weeks," he said. "And go to the pain clinic."