“But how did you manage the Antabuse-like effects?” asked my doctor.
It was only then that I realized: Flagyl, the medicine that the doctor had given me, reacted to alcohol in the same way that Antabuse did. And so, unwittingly, I was flirting with a constellation of symptoms, none of which was good. There was sweating, rapid heart beat, thirst, nausea and severe vomiting, and, especially….
How much of any of this did I have? In fact, I have no memory, although whatever happened must have been insignificant: the next morning I went to the pharmacist, and came home to search for a list of gastroenterologists, which I sent to myself by email. So I must have been functioning, however much the subsequent pain may have erased my memory.
But her comment stayed in my mind since a lingering question remained: why had I fallen? And why had the fall been like nothing I’d experienced before?
I know what I believed: that I had woken up at three in the morning with a severe charley horse, which I had been having frequently. Always before, I leapt out of bed, grabbed the footboard, and stood on tiptoe leaning forward on the affected leg. That forces the extension of the contracting muscle. And that’s exactly what I did—or thought I had done.
The next thing I knew was the sound of my body hitting the floor.
My mother once told me: there’s no sound like the sound of a body falling dead weight to the floor. And my initial reaction—beyond the shock—was anguish. Did I say, “Oh, NO! I’VE FALLEN!”
I think so, and I knew it was no little fall. But did I know how bad it was? No, because I should have called for Raf, I should have gone to the hospital by ambulance, and I should have (I suspect) had surgery. But I only knew that I had to get back in bed; I had, I imagined, merely strained my back.
I now think that, perhaps due to the light-headedness of the Flagyl and alcohol, I blacked out. And since I was leaning forward at the time of the fall, that would explain why my lumbar spine, normally inclining inward but then exposed somewhat outward, took the brunt of the blow.
In fact, the neurosurgeon whom I saw recently questioned: what is a guy of 59 doing with a compression fracture? Normally, it afflicts older people with osteoporosis, or people who suffer traumatic injury like a fall from a height. He advised a bone density test; I wondered whether what was essentially an unbroken fall would have been enough to account for the fractures.
At any rate, I reacted to the fall with unparalleled denial. If I sneeze, I will Google every condition from allergies to hay fever to tuberculosis. But even after I got the MRI results, did I look up, “burst fractures,” about which Mt. Sinai says:
Burst fractures are much more severe than compression fractures. The bones spread out in all directions and may damage the spinal cord. This damage can cause paralysis or injury to the nerves, which control the body's ability to move or feel sensations.
In fact, my dread over the long San Sebastian Street festival was not unfounded: shards of the broken vertebrae can lodge in the disc, and may lodge in the spinal column itself.
But did I look up any of this? Of course not, since I knew instinctively that I was on the thinnest of ice. The only thing to do was to take each day at a time, rest, and make sure I didn’t fall again.
If I had looked everything up, I would have known: the little brace from CVS which I wore for two months (and which I am wearing still, mostly to remind me to sit up straight) was entirely insufficient. In fact, I was supposed to be wearing a prescription, tailor-made “molded turtle-like shell brace,” that spanned my entire spinal column. I should have gotten physical therapy. And of course, I should have gone for follow-up visits immediately, and not waited two months.
Nor am I sure how much help any of that would have been. In fact, I had treated my injury in much the same way an animal would have: I withdrew, away from any stimulation or any potential harm. And I waited. But in all of that time, did I reflect on what particular meaning this experience had for me?
No—because doing so would have made me face what I could not face: the severity of the injury, and the utterly amazing fact that I was still up, still walking, and increasingly without pain. The day came when the brace became more trouble than it was worth: I took it off. Weeks passed when I no longer needed pain pills: I took them off the cutting board and put them in the drawer.
Am I out of the woods?
Maybe—but not so out of the woods that I don’t still remember that crushing pain, that agony of moving in bed, and perhaps worst…
…the sound of my body hitting the floor.