Undergoing five hours of spinal surgery in a foreign land was a frightening, enlightening, rewarding, and, ultimately, humbling experience. I know; the word “humbling” is a cliché often used after a major occurrence or a life-changing event. How many times have we heard an Oscar, Emmy, or Tony winner say “I am humbled just to be listed with these talented actors?” But learning my life-long back issues were more serious than I had ever considered, having my back rebuilt, and surviving has given me an opportunity to be humbled.
The expertise with which my neurosurgeon Dr. José Ernesto Ladesma González, whose name is longer than my spine, and his team of anonymous technicians repaired decades of damage, and the constant support and counsel of my general practitioner Dr. Santiago R. Hernandez, who was present throughout the surgery, truly leave me in awe. How wise, talented, caring, and hard-working these medical professionals, and the nursing staff who monitored my first days of recovery, are is mind-shattering. Whatever skills I have, I realize now, are minor. OK. I can write, put words together better than many others can. I can be funny and entertaining, although that point could be and has been debated. And I have the capacity to retain far more trivial information, particularly pop-culture related, than is necessary to navigate the seas of life. But I cannot rebuild backs. And I cannot save lives.
When I suffered a base-of-the-back herniated disc at 21, I did not realize the long-term impact it would have on me. All I knew was that it got me out of serving in the military; it got me out of going to Vietnam. But by my mid-30s, when muscles in my back seemed to be perpetually tight, I understood this was connected to the herniated disc 15 years or so earlier. As I plodded through life, even going to the gym regularly for 43 years, I attributed the mid-back tightness to the shifting and tilting of the vertebrae at the bottom of my spine, forcing the surrounding muscles to work double-time to compensate for the off-kilter bones as the cause. I did not expect, as the years went by, I would experience 4 other minor herniated discs in the low back, develop stenosis in my mid-spine, and experience, of all things, osteoporosis. That I thought was a woman’s issue.
When Dr. Hernandez uttered the “O” word and I saw the x-rays, I quickly realized that a major contributor to my “tight” back had been a weakened spine that was unable to fully support me. Now, with time and more titanium rods in my back than there are Republicans in Seattle, I expect the muscles in my aching back will gradually relearn their original job. How I managed to work out, walk as much as I do, and complete normal behavior for the past few decades and survive is a miracle and mystery.
As I review my four-day stay at Puerta del Hierro Sur Hospital, I find myself searching for funny tales to tell. I always have been able, after all, to find humor in the most mundane or serious situations. But I couldn’t really come up with any. There were a few entertaining moments regarding communications with staff members who either spoke no English or whose English was worse than my limited Spanish. But they weren’t really funny stories.
And then I remembered the Jello. Every meal included Jello. Red Jello. Orange Jello. Lime Green Jello. And plastic spoons too small to effectively balance the wiggling substance. As a result, I ate a considerable amount of Jello off my stylish hospital gown, its bodice to be more precise. And I grew to hate Jello. Especially the red one. The color of blood one. Why would anyone serve red Jello in a hospital, especially when the patient can see a clear tube scooting his or her sanguinary seep to an out-of-sight bag? Really. Whenever the meal deliverer—her name was Maria, I think, or Megyn—placed the cardinal-colored gelatin in front of me, I had visions of Donald Trump lurking next to my bed pointing at the server and saying, “Look at her. She’s got blood running out of her eyes, out of her wherever.” As a result, I swear if I ever see another jiggling glob of Jello, I will kill Trump’s apparent role-model Bill Cosby, who probably would welcome the action at this point in his disappointing life.