Pam’s Pictorama Post: I am sitting with a rather delightful pile of toys and postcards at the moment, in part thanks to the fact the on the Saturday after New Year’s my back went out and I spent most of the next ten days on my back in bed or propped up with pillows on our couch. This lead to a lot of television watching – I am very caught up on home renovation shows and TCM’s December programming; reading – finished all the Frances Hodgson Burnett adult novels I currently have access to and have moved onto the more obscure of her children’s fiction; and, lastly, spent a lot of time (and ultimately money) trolling ebay. So Pictorama readers will be in the clover with posts in the coming weeks. However, today instead I focus on the subject of my back.
I come from a long line of troubled backs. My father was 6’5″ and carried the weight of a small child in camera equipment every working day of his life. This combined with driving long distances, also for his job as a cameraman for network news, meant that periodically his back would blow and he would be recuperating for weeks. As noted above, Dad traveled a heck of a lot for his job and so, in some ways, aside from his summer vacation which was usually 3-4 weeks at a stretch, the most we saw of Dad for long periods was when he was recovering from one of these debilitating events.
However, over the duration of this recovery I reflected on poor Dad’s misery with his back. Being such a large man, my mom couldn’t possibly really help him get out of bed or out of a chair. His preferred chair for these spells was a very old Windsor rocker which, if it was summer, we would even move out into the yard for him to sit in, packed with pillows. That was once his back was good enough to walk at all, bent over but somewhat mobile, and sit in any chair. (I happen to be the current owner of this chair, which is suffering from a broken leg. Nevertheless, I also confess that after this recent incident, this choice of chair mystifies me somewhat. It is NOT what I would have chosen to sit in even if it wasn’t broken.)
Because of the ongoing problems, his back seemed to have a feather trigger and I can remember it going out once when he reached for the salt at dinner. My mom always ribbed him about how it went out just as he began the project of changing the storm windows to screens one spring and she had to complete the onerous task. These were family lore about dad’s back. The worst (and most family famous) episode was during the Bicentennial when he was in Rhode Island for work, hanging from the rigging on a tall ship, camera on his shoulder when (perhaps not surprisingly) his back went out. I cannot imagine how they got him, and the camera, down in one piece but they did. He then had his colleagues pack him in pillows in his car, more or less immobile and he drove himself back him to NJ. As I remember, he was home for weeks on end that summer. In the rocking chair, in the backyard during the day, us kids, cats and dog, satellites of activity buzzing around him.
My own back woes harken to early adulthood, when cooking professionally, and a fall down a flight of basement stairs on the job (you’ve never really lived until you’ve cooked in a New York City restaurant in an old brownstone-type building and run up and down basement stairs all day) precipitated learning that I had arthritis in my lower back and hips. In my case it ties out as inherited from my maternal grandfather, who I called Poppy. Sadly treatment was limited in Poppy’s day and when he was still quite young his spine fused, and when I knew him he walked permanently bent at a 45 degree angle. Even worse, the years of cortisone treatment combined with a heart condition killed him when he was only in his fifties, about my age now.
Treatment has changed and improved radically since then with the advent of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and even over the course of my adult life with biological drugs on the market now. I amaze that I see commercials for cures for psoriatic arthritis now when for years I did not know anyone else with the disease. Are there more of us or are we just better known?
For all of that I have never before put my back out in the traditional sense before. This siege seems to have been brought on by business travel compounded by more than a week of solid evenings at work, frequently standing for several hours at each. Eventually the Christmas holiday arrived and Kim warned me it was a critical mistake when the day after I decided to (at long last!) turn our closets over, bringing up bins of winter clothes from the basement and sending the sundresses down in their stead. I sensed trouble with my back and tried to stay the tide by having a massage that Friday. (Kim has been very thoughtful by not saying he told me so – he did tell me so, more than once! This is something I love about my spouse.)
Saturday I was enjoying the Vija Celmins exhibit at the Met Breuer. She is an extraordinary artist and so glad I didn’t miss it! Anyway I was loving the exhibit when at some point I sat down – and realized that getting up wasn’t going to be all that easy. Pain!
I got myself home and there I stayed through into the New Year. (I tried a brief trip to the office but couldn’t make a full day.) Suddenly I was in the land of my forefathers and walking bent, unable at times to fully straighten. I thought a lot of about Dad and Poppy!
I tried the usual remedies – Aleve, hot rubs, ice packs. A visit to my trainer who used a massage gun on me which with some stretching helped a little, but the spasms began again almost immediately. The doc was reluctant to use muscle relaxers and told me to keep on with the Aleve. A friend suggested acupuncture and I was surprised I didn’t think of it sooner. I had received acupuncture treatments on and off since the onset of the arthritis although have not been in a few years.
In the early years of pursuing acupuncture, late 1980’s, it wasn’t that easy to find someone and I got a referral to Dr. Ching Y. Ting from a colleague in the Asian Art Department at the Met – she had curvature of the spine which gave her back trouble. I saw Dr. Ting for several years. He spoke little English and smoked constantly. (So much for acupuncture resolving that habit!)
His operation was housed in a two bedroom apartment in an enormous white brick building in the East 30’s. Broken into a labyrinth, it was a rabbit warren of cubbies where numerous treatments were ongoing at the same time – ticking egg timers for each treatment luring us all to nap during treatment. Assistants coming to our rescue when our timer dinged. In addition to the cigarette smoke, there was always steaming tea being consumed and instead of heat lamps the heat in the apartment was turned way up, creating a steamy, smoky, exotic atmosphere which was just short of terrifying to my 23 year old self at first.
Dr. Ting was a very good doctor and I saw him as frequently as I could afford to, but sadly he died suddenly several years after I started to see him. (I heard that he just fell over after a family banquet at a restaurant in what was described to me as a good way to die.) Subsequently, I briefly saw some of his colleagues (treating an arthritic toe) over near Penn Station; followed eventually by a woman in the West Village (extremely capable, during an episode of frozen shoulder) whose location was inconvenient; and finally (during the second frozen shoulder) Eileen Chen who I turned to this time. She, like Dr. Ting, is a doctor fully versed in Chinese medicine. Her uptown location has closed, but she is still operates an office on 57th Street, which as it turns out, is about a block and a half from where I now work.
Eileen was unavailable over the holiday week for my emergency treatment so I saw a young colleague of hers, Hilary Zelner. I was unhappy about changing docs under the circumstances, but ultimately Hilary has done an excellent job, her style patient and chattier than Eileen, and she gets the credit for having gotten me back in shape. Needles have piled high with each of my treatments, more than I ever remember before. She mentioned how they vibrate and grow hot to the touch in my back.
If you’ve never had acupuncture my experience is that it doesn’t hurt in the way you might think it would. The needles themselves going in are so thin you barely feel it if at all. However, the purpose, in the simplistic way I understand it, is to release energy and clear the path of flow. As nerves are activated there is occasionally a shock – more surprising than actually painful – although the ongoing movement of energy does hurt, as do some needles. You lie down, face down in my case, on a massage table and generally remain very still. The needles, after their placement, stay in for 20-30 minutes in my experience. She used a heat lamp on me during the duration of the time the needles are in.
I spend the 20-30 minutes in the dark, considering how I got my back in such bad shape and how long it will take to repair – and how not to do it again! You can feel energy traveling up and down your body. No sleeping during these treatments! I have thought about Dad and Poppy and wondered why Dad never tried acupuncture. I have thought about work and about what to make for dinner.
In all, the treatments, have been uncomfortable and exhausting, but after two (long) sessions I saw amazing improvement. I completed my third last night, preceded by a session with their massage therapist (new to me and entirely different from any massage I have had before; I haven’t made up my mind what I think yet), and I came home like jelly. Today I tackle a gentle work out at the gym and see how it goes. However, just in case, I also go back to Hilary on Friday!