…as I lay motionless on the emergency room bed (see Story Day #1), unable to feel a thing from my toes to my shoulders, it suddenly occurred to me that we might have a problem—and I became uninterested in the flurry of activity up near my head and very concerned about what might happen down south. My shoes and socks were now off, and my fiancée of twelve hours still stood ten or twelve feet away from my bed with another nurse. This wasn’t the way I wanted her to get “to know” me—and I mean all of me. At the same time, no matter what happened, I didn’t want her to leave the room. I wanted her beside me, holding my hand, even if I couldn’t feel it. But I had no control or say over what would happen next. If my pants and underwear went flying across the room, there was nothing I could do about it. I was completely and totally at the mercy of the professionals surrounding me. (I couldn’t know at the time that Dana was equally concerned about the potential unveiling of the groom. And, like me, it didn’t matter to her. She wasn’t leaving the room for any reason.)
The burst of energy around me slowed to quiet whispers. Those up north were watching monitors and reporting numbers, while down south, the clothing removal brigade stopped their work, electing to leave my jeans in place and my dignity intact. And Dana finally came to my side. Her explanation of the needle marks on my feet and of our trip to Dr. B— earlier this morning, and I assume their call to his office, resolved the mystery. With everyone out of the way, I looked at the clock at the foot of the bed in disbelief. What seemed like five or ten minutes had been forty-five.
About that time a physician came in, introduced himself, and asked. “Still hanging in there, Mr. Pemberton?”
Dana responded for me, “He’s doing okay. Do you know what caused this? How long this is it going to last?”
“Yes. Apparently, the large doses of Lidocaine injected into his feet this morning at the clinic overwhelmed his system or triggered a rare but severe allergic reaction. It won’t last long.”
His words made sense. Whenever I’m desperate for relief from the constant pain in my feet and legs, Dr. B— injects nerve blocks that deaden the primary nerves leading into my feet. Typically, these blocks involve four medium-large syringes filled with a mixture of Marcaine, Lidocaine, and Cortisone. To provide maximum benefit, Dr. B— injects these drugs as close to the nerves as possible: three, sometimes four sticks on each foot, moving the needle up and down the nerve shaft as he pushes in the medication. In the process, he creates little pockets of liquid that puff up and put enormous pressure on the nerves—and causes pain beyond words. Especially because we’ve made the mutual decision to get the medicine as close to the nerves as possible, which inevitably means on occasion the end of a needle will nick a nerve and send me into orbit. Dr. B— does this work with the skill of an artist, working as fast as I can tolerate the pain. And, for the sake of safety, he works with a net: whoever brought me to my appointment holds my legs, pushing down with all their weight—to protect the doctor from getting my foot in his mouth, save me from getting a syringe buried into my foot, and enable me to escape as best I can through meditation (since I don’t have to concentrate on keeping my leg still). Today just happened to be Dana’s first trip to the doctor with me, her lucky day.
The twelve, twenty-four, or even thirty-six hours of pain relief as a result of the nerve blocks are worth every molecule of pain exerted by the injections. Otherwise, I never have a chance to catch my breath, a moment to escape from the pain that’s taken control of my lower legs. Without the blocks, every hour of every day is an exercise in pain endurance, never knowing from one moment to the next what type of pain signals will be sent to my brain or how severe they might be. Nerve blocks are the only chance I have to feel the bliss of nothing—and every time I’ve had a block I’ve been surprised, not by the pain I could feel (as it disappeared), but by the relief in parts of my feet that I didn’t think were hurting (but obviously were).
The doctor continued, “You are going to be just fine, but it’s going to take a little time before you feel better.”
I knew what he meant, but the joke was on him. It’s difficult to feel better when you feel no pain and “getting better” means hurting again. Don’t get me wrong—I didn’t want to stay paralyzed. But lying in that bed without any pain enabled me to completely and totally relax for the first time in years.
“The half-life of Lidocaine is only one and a half to two hours. So, you should start regaining feeling soon and be able to go home in two or three hours.”
As Dana spoke, I mouthed the words “Thank you.”
“Believe it or not,” he said, “the same thing happened to my wife about three months back. She had Lidocaine nerve blocks with the same reaction.”
Dana felt immediate vindication for her words in triage. “Would you please say something to the triage nurses? They thought I was lying and Glenn was faking his symptoms.”
He shook his head. “Yes, I’ll make sure they are aware. For now, just stay here,” he laughed. “I guess you don’t have many options do you? We will check in on you. But if you need us, just call out or find someone at the desk. Okay?”
Dana again expressed our thanks as he left the room and then laid her head on my shoulder (that I still couldn’t feel). Her presence was all I needed. I wasn’t really afraid of the paralysis; maybe I should have been. I just knew that when we got to the emergency room I’d be surrounded by all the people and equipment I might need to get through this crisis. I never imagined it might be permanent.
As we waited, however, I began to think about what it must be like for quadriplegics to live like this all the time. What must it be like to be totally unable to do anything, not even lift a finger or wiggle a toe, to be totally dependent upon other people to do everything for me? To feed me, clean me, dress me, and tend to my movement in and out of bed, movement into and out of a car, not to mention other—less pleasant—tasks. I was at peace. I was going to be fine. But what about those who have been in this bed before me? Seriously injured but unable to feel a broken leg or move their arms? What must they have been thinking? How scared must they have been?
As we waited for the Lidocaine to wear off, I couldn’t help but ask myself what I had gotten Dana into: my life was anything but normal or easy. Though in comparison to days to come…, well, it could and would get worse. How could I have asked her to join me and to be part of this journey? And yet, by the time we left the hospital just before noon, any question of Dana having second thoughts wasn’t permissible. As of last night, she planned to be in my life for better or worse, in sickness and in health, for as long as we lived—so help her God. This is the woman I love. May God help her.
So it was on the best day of my life. Within twenty-four hours the most beautiful woman, a woman whose beauty radiated from deep within her, had said “Yes” to a man already taken to be over the age of sixty, a man who lived with chronic pain and all that comes with it. And despite the threat of losing my trousers too soon, I got to spend three hours completely free of pain. For me, it couldn’t possibly get any better than this one day. But how I or we got to this perfect day, well, that’s another story…
–to be continued–
Excerpt from a working manuscript, A Fire in My Bones: A Memoir of Life with CRPS (copyright Glenn Pemberton)
Glenn Pemberton is a minister turned professor turned writer. After serving churches in Texas and Colorado, Glenn completed a Ph.D. (Old Testament). He then taught at Oklahoma Christian University before coming to Abilene Christian University in 2005, retiring as professor emeritus in 2017 due to a severe chronic pain. Glenn now spends his time writing for the church. Along with short essays he has published four books, including The God who Saves: An Introduction to the Message of the Old Testament (2015), and Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms (2012). Glenn and his wife Dana continue to live in Abilene, Texas.