“I cannot walk.” This I said to myself on January 9, 2014. I know the exact time as well. It was 4:16 a.m. on Thursday morning. I woke up with pain in my legs that was excruciating. They felt cramped and twisted. My ankles and knees were swollen. When I tried to put my feet on the floor and get out of bed, I could not. I had to move my legs by lifting them with my arms over the edge of the bed. My left foot touched the floor…barely. My right foot would not touch the floor because of the way in which my knee and ankle were locked up. I had to get on all fours and crawl to the bathroom. The pain in my legs became even more intense as I put pressure on them. “I cannot walk. My legs won’t work. What is happening to me?” These thoughts raced through my head as I scooted backwards on my rear end to climb back up into bed.
I had already been sick for a full week with what the doctor at the urgent care center assured me was a bad case of influenza. Back on January 2 I was one of a room full of people waiting to see the doctor with flu like symptoms. My temperature was 102.8 F and I had not be able to keep food down for days. So I went home, determined to tough it out in the hope that I would be back to normal in a short while. After all, we’ve all had the flu. We’ve all been sick at home. We’ve all recovered from illness. “Suck it up,” I told myself.
What a difference one short week can make. I didn’t get better. I didn’t make a quick comeback. I was worse…and my legs would not work. So I placed several calls to my primary care physician’s office…but you know how that can go. The office staff took my name and number assuring me that I would hear from them as soon as possible…before the end of the day for sure. I did not.
Kirsten, my wife, drove me to the urgent care center that evening. Once again it was packed. After waiting for nearly two hours my name was finally called. With a cane that had been stored in our basement, I slowly hobbled and shuffled to the examination room. I would have preferred doing the backward-butt-crawl, but I didn’t think it would be appropriate in a medical clinic. After an assistant checked my pulse, temperature (102.9 F this time) and blood pressure, I waited another hour for the doctor to enter. It was the same physician who had seen me one week prior. If we had been playing poker, then I would have taken all of his money. The look on his face was not the confident, insouciant and unanxious countenance that doctors are taught to maintain while in med school. After examining my legs and sighing audibly more than a few times, he then said something I had never heard come out of a doctor’s mouth: “I have no idea what is wrong with you.” So he prescribed tramadol hydrochloride for the pain which was getting worse by the minute and told me to see my primary care physician immediately.
I know how busy doctors are these days. I understand that not everyone can been seen within hours of calling to make an appointment. That said, I called my physician’s office multiple times daily for the next several days. It was on January 15 that my doctor finally called. His voice was panicked. He apologized for taking so long to get back to me. He then said, “This is serious, Bruce. I am concerned that you may have deep vein thrombosis. You need to be seen right away. I don’t want to risk pulmonary embolism. It could be catastrophic.” Stunned, I asked when he wanted to see me. That’s when he said, “You are not going to see me. I’ve already called the hospital for you to see a specialist immediately. Can your wife drive you? You need to be there in 30 minutes.”
To make this part of a long story short, Kirsten did get me to the hospital. There was no sign of deep vein thrombosis. Instead, the vascular surgeon told me that the pain and stiffness in my legs were the result of not getting enough exercise during my illness. This was a first. In the past, I was told to rest and drink plenty of fluids when afflicted with the flu. I was sent home with doctor’s orders to start walking, with my cane if necessary, and to continue taking my pain medication. I was up for that challenge. I had finished basketball games with ankles that were sprained and broken. “I am a tough guy…I can do this,” I told myself.
On my first attempt at walking, it took me 45 minutes to go around the cul-de-sac across the street from our house. I am unashamed to tell you that I had tears streaming down my face. The pain was bad…very bad. The tramadol was doing nothing to ease the throbbing, stabbing and burning sensations in my legs. In fact, the pain was getting more intense with every passing day. It got so terrible that I could no longer stand up. Kirsten picked up one of the wheel chairs that we have at our church. I had to use it. Walking…hobbling…shuffling….were no longer possible.
The next day, I began to hallucinate. The first hallucination was a ghost buffalo. It appeared out of thin air in my room. It spoke to me…in Navajo…and I understood every word. Don’t ask me how I knew it was speaking Navajo. It was a drug induced hallucination, you know. “Bruce, do not be afraid. Your heart is good. You are strong. Do not be afraid.” And then it was gone.
Some time later that same day, I watched a 6×6 bull elk walk toward me after coming through the wall. This animal did not speak…in Navajo or English. He did not bugle. He did not snort. He did not make a sound…and like that, he was gone. He walked back through the same wall through which he had entered.
Within minutes, I heard a humming sound that was musical…and beautiful. It got louder and louder. Looking up, three angels came slowly down to me through the ceiling. They surrounded me. The light was bright. The musical humming was sublime. They circled me a few times and then went straight up and vanished.
My fourth and final hallucination then appeared. Ten court jesters came walking through the door. They picked up things in my room….looked at them…shook them…held them to their ears to see if they would make noise…and put them back in place. They, too, then disappeared from sight…or was it mind?
It was then that I knew something had to change. The medication was doing nothing for the pain…though the hallucinations it caused were nice distractions. The pain in my legs…and my inability to walk…were not the result of the flu bug. My condition was not the result of my failure to get proper exercise when my temperature was high and I could not eat. I needed to see someone else…I needed another medical opinion…and I needed it soon.
“I cannot walk,” I said to myself once again. And then it hit me…and hit me hard. If I cannot walk…and if I do not get better…then I will never be able to hike in the mountains with my grandchildren…or go hunting again.
All this happened in January. That was six months ago. I am better now…better than ever before…but it has been a long journey. Many things have changed…so many things.