After five months without a chronic back-pain incident, I wake up this morning with slight, tender stiffness. Clock in at 7 a.m. Twenty minutes later my back begins to throb a little. I grab cafeteria breakfast at 7:30. Five minutes and three bites after sitting back down at my desk, the throbbing promotes itself to full-on spasms. Waves of pain roil outward from my lower back, on and off for thirty to forty minutes. So much for this week’s overtime.
Back pain and I are no strangers. It’s a recurring issue for me caused by, I’m told, years of poor posture plus the weight I’ve regained over time in the years after my diet. Some bouts last a day or two; some, only an hour before the pain dissipates at the mercy of ibuprofen. Not every incident requires a medical intervention.
I soldier on like a stubborn dummy and try to settle into a back-and-forth pace. Spasm 1, then take a bite. Spasm 2, then process another client request. Spasm 3, then take a bite. Repeat until food is gone and pain hopefully abates so I can concentrate on clients’ needs. Most such incidents pass after a few minutes and self-medicating with ibuprofen is all I need to survive the next day or two until the stabbing fades into the background. By 8:30 the spasms cease but I’m still wincing and adjusting and readjusting and failing to find a single comfortable position that will let me concentrate on anything else. My ergonomic chair is helpful in times like these, but today it does nothing for me.
I call the nearest clinic, a thousand or so feet away, to see if an immediate appointment is possible. I was just at the same clinic two weeks ago to pick up antibiotics to stave down my nagging “con crud” sinus inflammation. The nurse who answers the phone says she’ll give my name to the person in charge of scheduling and have her call me back.
I pass some more time grimacing and tending to work matters at an elderly pace while waiting for that Samaritan’s callback. After twenty minutes agony trumps patience and I abandon work with my supervisor’s blessing.
I head straight home with the intent to try getting some more rest first, before escalating it to trained medical care. Three minutes after I walk in our front door, the clinic scheduler calls and tries to be helpful by slotting me in anytime except today. Her initial offer is 4 p.m. Thursday. I shut down bargaining, thank her for the gesture, and proceed to nap for the next 5½ hours.
I can tell as soon as I wake up that the nap, the lying down, and the meds on hand weren’t enough. Ow ow ow ow ow ow ow.
Last time my back put me through this in April, the local Immediate Care Center gave me three medicines that teamed up and fought together in the name of healing. I still have leftovers from two of those meds, but the third was the lynchpin to transitioning back to wellness. In a perfect world where regulations aren’t needed because everyone’s agreed to live saintly lives, I could swing by the drugstore, grab a pack off the shelf, and begin the necessary self-medication regimen in minutes. Unfortunately for me, that third med contains some kind of steroid that disqualifies it from the OTC class. We wouldn’t want weightlifters or muggers buying back-pain medicine by the pound and illegally bulking up with it or cooking it into a strongman’s super-meth or whatever.
I don’t like visiting doctors’ offices if I can handle the issue myself, but in times like this their pharmaceutical gatekeeping is a necessary crutch. THANKS, AMERICA.
I suit up in comfy clothes, go to Immediate Care Center, recap the April events, and try pushing for a quick resolution with, “This drug worked for me last time. Can you just prescribe that one again?” I walk in, make my case, I’m out of their hair in five minutes and they can go back to health-caring for patients whose diagnoses need more legwork than mine does.
HA. If only. That’s now how The Game works. I quietly go through the rigamarole of the waiting-room wait, the basic vital-sign check, the answering of all the April questions with the exact same answers, the exam-room wait, the doctor trying different movements and positions on me to rule out vertebral damage, spine cancer, surprise heart attack, vindictive tumors, or whatever.
The diagnosis: exact same thing as last time. The treatment: the same three meds as last time. The solution arrives some eighty minutes later than it would’ve arrived if I ruled the world and they’d taken my initial proposal at face value. They transmit all three prescriptions to the nearest pharmacy, disallowing me to opt out of the two for which I still have leftovers. I’m not a fan of product bundling when I already own part of the bundle, but our insurance minimizes the costs to my satisfaction and this means I’ll be even more stocked up whenever the next incident hits me from nowhere.
The pharmacy is running behind, a normal operating mode for this chain. My wife and I have a friend who’s a pharmacist in the same chain and has told us enough cautionary tales that we respect what they do and we back off when we can tell they’re overwhelmed. Seriously, she has plenty of those cautionary tales.
I’m told they’ll take fifteen minutes. While I’m waiting, my petty stomach reminds me I had a long nap instead of lunch and I’m starving now. Half an hour later, my pills are ready to come home with me and save the day.
I’m hobbling toward the exit when a quick inventory of my purchases sends up a mental yellow flag. They only gave me two meds.
I shuffle back to the counter with a sad face and my back pinging like a furious radar. They tell me the Care Center only notified them of two prescriptions. If I wanted the third, I would have to go take it up with the Care Center.
I gnash my teeth while accepting this answer. I drive to the Care Center a second time, where I’d just been half an hour ago. One nurse asks me to sign in and wait my turn before they’ll acknowledge my existence. Even though I’d just been there.
I’m in their waiting room for yet another ten minutes without so much as another greeting from anyone. Then my wife texts me from home: the pharmacy called her and is working on the third prescription.
The first word in my reply to her was, and I quote: “AAAAAAARGGH.” The seven As stand for angry words.
I limp out of the Care Center without acknowledging their existence and drive to the pharmacy a second time. I squirm for another ten minutes in their waiting room. The pharmacist at the register is a courteous chap who remembers me from earlier, unlike certain other medical providers I could mention. While ringing me up, he compliments me on my weird T-shirt and we end up in a brief chat about the Boggy Creek Monster. I leave at last with all three meds intact.
While trudging out, I match the names on the packages to the names on my April bottles. The med that was left behind, the one that spurred several extra minutes of driving back and forth, wasn’t the heroic steroid that was the whole point of this odyssey. It was for one of the meds I still had left over from April. I could’ve gone home after the first pharmacy trip and walked away two drives sooner if I’d known. Or if the Care Center hadn’t submitted the redundant prescriptions in the first place.
I go home, swallow the meds like a desert straggler chugging oasis water, whip up an omelet for my lunch-supper while leaning against chairs and countertops, and eventually stop seething.
As of tonight the back pain has retreated somewhat, but is still making its presence known every so often. Almost nowhere in our house is relaxing yet for sitting or lying down. But I know this will pass.
Doctors’ offices aren’t a regular stop for me. I’ve not had any lifelong prescriptions assigned to me yet. I’ve not yet had major surgery, or my first heart attack, or one of the serious illnesses that require an extended hospital stay. But I’m 42. Someday those times will come. Someday I’ll face a challenge that takes more than pills to remedy. Today’s disappointing absurdities and customer service failures were minor first-world problems compared to what many of you have undergone.
Today was nothing. But I also recognize today was a sideways glimpse into my future. I recognize the worst is yet to come. Longer drives, trickier schedules to accommodate, stricter tests, more convoluted legal twists and turns to negotiate, tougher solutions to endure, longer and longer waits to test my patience and endurance. And, quite possibly, more enormous pains. Lord willing, maybe all of this won’t happen too soon.
If this kind of strung-out scavenger hunt is a typical health-care experience for back pain and other mundane afflictions, I’d better start armoring myself now for the truly taxing tribulations ahead. I’m not looking forward to finding out what their idea of service looks like when stuff gets real.
Time for more meds now. Fortunately the pills aren’t bitter. And I’m honestly trying not to be, either.