A col­umn about the spinal col­umn and a medicine man

The Compass - - OPINION - — Peter Pick­ers­gill is an artist and writer in Sal­vage, Bon­av­ista Bay. He can be reached by email at the fol­low­ing: pick­ers­gill@mac.com 30

It is dif­fi­cult to be pre­cise. Per­haps that’s be­cause our mem­o­ries have a way of pro­tect­ing us from de­tails of the bad and the painful, so I can’t pin­point when my leg prob­lems be­gan. About two years ago I would es­ti­mate. It started with numb­ness.

Nat­u­rally, I wanted to be able to feel my legs; it makes walk­ing so much eas­ier. The trou­ble was that when the feel­ing did re­turn, it came in the form of pain. I wasn’t very sat­is­fied with that ei­ther. When even­tu­ally I got my wish and the pain dis­ap­peared it was re­placed once again by no feel­ing at all. You might say, so what’s his prob­lem? In a choice be­tween pain and no pain, most people would tick the box next to the word none.

That would be be­cause they may not have ex­pe­ri­enced what hap­pens when all sen­sa­tion van­ishes en­tirely be­tween your waist and the soles of your feet. Since it is im­pos­si­ble to tell when your feet are touch­ing the ground, when you take a step, you reel, spin and fall in a heap. I can’t rec­om­mend do­ing this at 10 am. in the liquor store sec­tion of the phar­macy. Eye­brows will be raised.

Though not one to scurry to the doc­tor at the first sign of a snif­fle, I thought it was time to de­scribe my symp­toms to my GP and dear friend Dattu Patil M.D. at the East­port Clinic. It was then I learned that, de­spite how far med­i­cal tech­nol­ogy has ad­vanced, our health sys­tem re­mains nos­tal­gic for the old ways.

Dur­ing the half- year that fol­lowed, Dr. Dattu tried his best to ex­plain the ur­gency of my symp­toms to doc­tors seated on the de­ci­sion- mak­ing lad­der above him. They de­cided I must first have an Xray. X-Rays can see bro­ken bones, but not soft tis­sue dam­age. Mine showed noth­ing out of the or­di­nary, but the symp­toms con­tin­ued and be­came worse. I was then al­lowed to un­dergo a CT scan. It de­tects some, but not all soft tis­sue prob­lems. My CT scan showed no prob­lem ei­ther, but the symp­toms con­tin­ued to worsen.

Fi­nally, I was per­mit­ted into the pres­ence of the blessed MRI, the ma­chine that can see it all.

And it did. Lo and be­hold, there on the large screen, plain as day, was my prob­lem!

A lum­bar disc, well out of place, was in­ter­fer­ing with the spinal canal. Also two large growths of bone had de­cided to en­tirely crowd the spinal col­umn to the point that, rather than a canal the di­am­e­ter of my thumb, the spinal col­umn was squeezed to un­der a mil­lime­tre. No won­der I couldn’t feel my legs. The pic­ture was un­mis­tak­ably clear. The spinal col­umn, the Trans- Canada High­way of the ner­vous sys­tem, was now re­duced to the width of a foot- path squeezed among boul­ders of bone.

I had spent half-a-year of my life go­ing through the steps of X-Ray and CT Scan tech­nol­ogy when an MRI could have shown in a mat­ter of weeks what I now saw plainly on the screen.

This is a bit like a budding am­a­teur pho­tog­ra­pher walk­ing into a shop and ask­ing for a smart­phone cam­era. Be­fore I do that, look at this, says the pro­pri­etor, as he proudly steers her to a Brownie Hol­i­day Flash circa 1954.

But it’s only in black and white, she grum­bles, and you have to buy the film at the drug­store. Once you’ve taken 12 pic­tures, sent them off to Ko­dak by mail and waited two weeks, the pic­tures may not even come out. Can’t you just show me a smart­phone like my friends have?

Just one other thing first, let me show you this Po­laroid Cam­era. The film is al­ready in­side the cam­era. Re­ally slick. You click the snap, push a but­ton and wait a minute or so and then the photo slides out of the cam­era. See that, pretty snazzy eh?

It’s not a very clear pic­ture, is it? Can’t you just show me a smart­phone cam­era? Please?

The shop owner sighs, hands her the phone cam­era, she snaps a cou­ple of pho­tos, each with more mega pix­els than ze­roes in a lot­tery win. She pro­nounces her­self giddy with de­light, swipes her Visa card and ex­its the shop, snap­ping away at ev­ery­thing she sees.

I know that MRIs are very ex­pen­sive. But they can do ev­ery­thing.

How much money is wasted an­nu­ally in a cash-strapped health care budget by send­ing pa­tients for tests that are guar­an­teed in ad­vance to not show the source of their af­flic­tion? Even with my limited knowl­edge I found it frus­trat­ing. How much worse must it have been for my friend Dr. Dattu, obliged by the sys­tem to send me to tests he was al­most cer­tain were wast­ing time and money, yet forced to fol­low the es­tab­lished rou­tine.

He must have been all the more frus­trated be­cause at the time he was bat­tling his own se­ri­ous health trou­bles, yet turn­ing up at the East­port Clinic daily to care for his pa­tients.

With the MRI pic­tures on hand, I met Joe Tumilty, the orthopaedic sur­geon at Gan­der hospi­tal, who ex­plained how he would free up my spinal col­umn and re­store my legs to their for­mer util­ity. A date was fixed for what promised to be a big surgery. As it got closer I emailed Dr. Dattu who was on his an­nual visit to fam­ily a world away on three dif­fer­ent con­ti­nents. I asked him how he was, and when he was re­turn­ing to East­port and re­minded him that my surgery was days away.

The day I was pre­par­ing to drive in to Gan­der Hospi­tal, the phone rang. It was Dr. Dattu. He was call­ing from In­dia. The line was bad, his voice was weak and he was cough­ing a lot. Only af­ter he had asked and been as­sured that all was well with me and my surgery, did he ex­plain that he would not be com­ing back to East­port. He would be stay­ing in In­dia. With the phone to my ear and tears in my eyes I watched from my bed­room win­dow as my next door neigh­bour and his fish­ing buddy gut­ted and skinned a half-dozen seals on the wharf be­low.

The wa­ter around the wharf was crim­son with blood.

My surgery was suc­cess­fully com­pleted May 5. I lost a lot of blood. My body is in the process of re­man­u­fac­tur­ing it. This makes me very weak. I am told that all will be well, but I must rest and be pa­tient; the re­cov­ery will be long.

I will spend the time think­ing of a very brave and car­ing man, a man of love: Dr. Dattu Patil, my friend, to whom I ded­i­cate this col­umn.

Pho­tos and text by Ni­cholas Mercer/The Com­pass

HON­OUR­ING AFGHANISTAN VET­ER­ANS — The sun was shin­ning and there was a light breeze as the Town of Bay Roberts held a mid-day cer­e­mony to com­mem­o­rate the Na­tional Day of Hon­our at the war me­mo­rial on May 9. The Bay Roberts event was one of a num­ber of cer­e­monies hap­pen­ing across the coun­try as Cana­di­ans hon­oured the over 40,000 men and women who served in Afghanistan, as well as the 162 who died dur­ing con­flict. Among the dead are 13 New­found­lan­ders and Labrado­ri­ans. The poignant cer­e­mony also paid trib­ute to a Cana­dian diplo­mat, a Depart­ment of Na­tional De­fence con­trac­tor, an em­bed­ded Cana­dian jour­nal­ist and more than 40 United States Armed Forces mem­bers who were killed while un­der Cana­dian com­mand in Afghanistan. The Bay Roberts cer­e­mony brought to­gether mem­bers of the Royal Cana­dian Legion, town of­fi­cials, provin­cial of­fi­cials, as well as mem­bers of the Bay Roberts Vol­un­teer Fire Depart­ment and a vet­eran who served in Afghanistan. Some of the words spo­ken brought tears to the eyes of on­look­ers. One at­tendee and her fam­ily was sure to catch the eye of ev­ery­one at the cer­e­mony. Shearstown’s Tay­lor Hutch­ings (cen­tre) showed her sup­port for the troops by wear­ing a cam­ou­flage pat­terned gown, which she later wore to her high school grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony that evening. She is flanked here by fam­ily mem­bers and friends.

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