By Ramzy Baroud
I opened my eyes to the sound of my children, so innocently unaware of what had befallen their father: "is Daddy going to die?" asked one, in a voice engulfed with a worry that transcended her years; "no, but I think that he will have to use a wheelchair for the rest of his life," answered the other, the older of the two. In fact, I was neither dead, nor dying, however, the second possibility was not completely ruled out.
I tried to speak but couldn’t. The post-opt room at the University of Washington Medical Center was decidedly cold. My gown provided an insignificant degree of warmth. All I could feel was the painful tubes and needles and other medical devices penetrating my veins on both sides in so painful a manner. The wound in my back was numbed by the anaesthesia. Its untold pain was yet to haunt me, though once it did, the nightmare resumed.
My journey with chronic pain began nearly a decade ago; "typical back pain", it was then decided by my doctor; she found it extravagant to bother with an MRI or even X-rays. "Do you know how many Americans will suffer from back pain at one point of their lives?" she asked me in a reprimanding voice. I wasn’t interested in her statistics, nor she of wasting her time hearing me insist that my pain is too real to shelve or to serve as a further validation to her theoretical figures. The 5 minute visit was abruptly over, so was my faith in the government subsidized health care system. I simply tried to live with my pain.
A few years later, I left Seattle, and moved to the Arabian Gulf for a position at Aljazeera Satellite Television that left me both disgruntled and disillusioned. Two years later, I left my high paying job to work as a media lecturer at an Australian University branch in Malaysia, before heading to London to claim a new post as a human rights advocate in a London-based NGO. During these years, I grew accustomed to my back problems that worsened beyond the most pessimistic expectations.
My back hunched so badly that it defined me. It embarrassed me. I could no longer participate in any activities that required me to stand up for two long. God only knows how I managed to put up with standing at podiums all of these years. Walking became a chore and an unbearable one at that. My children became resigned to the fact that I would be spending most of my time lying down, sedated by pain killers and their detrimental consequences. I became so obsessed with securing the future of my children, for I was left with no doubt that my own looked so rapidly bleak. As depression moved in, my hope of recovery petered out, and when one can no longer feel hope, he can spur none.
It was not until a few weeks ago when my body decided to endure no more. A 10-hour non-stop flight from London to Seattle exposed the long hidden fragility. I stepped out of the airplane to realize that I could no longer walk. Numbness pervaded my lower back and right leg. The level of weakness was quickly diagnosed by doctors at the emergency room to which I was quickly rushed, to have reached a perilous level.
An MRI and a few days later I was lying face down as a group of neurosurgeons congregated around my haggard back and began a most intricate surgery. I fought the surgical option with all my might until I was told it was my only hope. The fact that I had no health insurance in the US (the government-subsidized health system dropped me and my family for leaving the country for more than three months) meant that I had to bear the high costs alone. So much for securing the future of my children, for much of what was carefully saved throughout the years was to be squandered in a few hours; although resentfully I had to succumb before the upsetting diagnosis: you have a ‘monstrous’ disc that has herniated so bad, it’s entangled around the root of the surrounding nerves, which will render you immobile if not freed at once.
As I opened my eyes to the welcomed site of my children, one carrying a ‘get well’ balloon, and another clinging onto a bunch of roses, which I later discovered were not roses at all, but chocolates that she happily consumed afterwards, I was still too anxious to ask the question: how did it go? What if the answer was not to my liking? What If I had to embrace my trusted crutches once more? Worse, what If I had to resort to a wheelchair? Comfort was soon to follow however, as a kind nurse greeted me with a smile as soon as she heard my moans of pain: "Your surgery was a success; the nerve root was so entangled that the doctor had to do lots of tugging; the recovery might take longer than expected, but you will be okay." I also learned later that the disc was so large that the hospital sent it to pathology ‘to be documented.’ It was not exactly the type of achievements with which I wanted to be associated.
Just as the affect of the anaesthesia began to fade, my journey with narcotics was soon to resume. Hours and days seemed like fleeting moments, although I insisted to write my weekly article, skipping a dose of pain killers that allowed me to dictate the article on to my wife, my faithful editor for the last 13 years. As I laid on me left side, as I have for many days, I day dreamed for the simplest things: being able to walk again, to walk straight, to hold my newest child, Sammy, to play hide and seek with my children as we once did.
I also thought of the things that we take for granted. I thought of the unnecessary pain that many people are forced to endure for no fault of their own. I thought of Iraqi school kids, many of whom return from school or a trip to the market limbless, to live every remaining day of their life coping with disability. I thought of Palestinians and their seemingly endless plight, one of which the innocents always acquire the lion’s share. I felt so strong a resentment of President Bush and his most recent, reckless decision to beef up the US military presence in Iraq. How many of those combatants will die? How many will they kill? How many lives will be ruined by untimely maiming of hundreds of those young men? Will the lies of defending ‘our freedom and liberty’ suffice before the dejected looks of one’s children when they learn that Daddy will be using a wheelchair for the rest of his life? For what purpose? For what price? I thought of the numerous American families without health insurance, disowned by the same system that finds it prudent to spend over $350 billion on a few years of unnecessary wars and have the audacity to ask for more.
I thought of all of these things and more, thoughts that were always cut short when my pain killers kicked in. It took me a few days to brave my first attempt at standing up and walking. After a few disheartening failures, I finally managed to stand up, to walk straight, to the cheers of my children, and the tears of my wife, a gift of health that I shall never take for granted.
-Ramzy Baroud is the author of The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle. He is also the editor-in-chief of PalestineChronicle.com. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org