MILES' STORY – NEVER SAY NEVER
I’m Miles, 68 and a retired attorney. I’m sharing my story to help anyone considering back surgery. I was born in Louisiana and lived there until 2001, when my wife and I moved to Southern California. As an attorney in Louisiana, I concentrated on the fields of Admiralty, Maritime Personal Injury, Personal Injury and Medical Malpractice. After moving to SoCal, I continued to work in the legal field over the Internet, researching and writing legal briefs, memorandums, and preparing various pleadings to be filed in Court. During my legal career in Louisiana, I met a number of clients and friends, who suffered from back ailments and underwent different types of back surgeries. I may have known too much about failed back surgery at that time, but I’ll come back to this subject later.
My story begins with my parents. I was loved and cared for until they died during my adulthood. When I reached my early teen years, my parents allowed me an increasing degree of independence in an effort to prepare me for adult life. When I left home at 18 to attend LSU (degree in Marketing and a J.D.), it took two weeks to become a “free thinker”, rejecting a number of long-held beliefs acquired during my youth.
I was in good shape mentally and physically by the time I entered LSU. I had used drugs during my teenage years, as was all the rage among young people in the ‘60s, and the behavior accelerated when I entered LSU. That behavior created a lot of problems, and an uncle (an attorney) told my father that my biggest problem in life was I thought I was invincible. I did. In my defense, I say that real problems with insomnia, anxiety, and related issues somewhat contributed to my dangerous behavior. And, the powerful medications prescribed at the time for such medical problems didn’t help my overall situation. I can sum this up by saying that most anyone observing that part of my life would conclude that I was a drug addict.
However, I went on to become a successful attorney and had all the possessions that go with such an endeavor. I also continued to be a “free thinker” and was in excellent physical condition, engaging in activities such as jet skiing, fishing and hunting. I never had any problems with my back until my wife and I moved to Paso Robles, California.
Those problems gradually began in March 2004 with lower back pain. By August 2004, my spine began to curve forward and to the right. My pain continued to worsen and I began to self-medicate with opioids and benzodiazepines obtained over the Internet. As a result, I resigned from the practice of law and discontinued my relationships with attorneys in Louisiana. I couldn’t visit a physician when the problem initially began, as my wife’s insurance didn’t cover any physicians in our area. I visited the Emergency Room at a Templeton Hospital on a number of occasions, and was given injections of Morphine and prescribed oral Oxycodone. Finally, in January 2005, I saw a physician in Templeton, California. This physician started me on Morphine and referred me to an orthopedic surgeon and physical therapy for treatment. The latter two did not help. In January 2005, I was awarded S.S.D.I. upon initial application, which I continue to receive today. I then became eligible for Medicare in January 2007.
In March 2005, my PCP referred me to the head of the Orthopedic Clinic at Stanford University. After a thorough workup, I was given a choice, i.e., I could continue on opioids for back pain or undergo back surgery. I chose the opioids. The origin of my back condition was unknown by my physicians at the time. And, at this point, I circle back to my opening paragraph. I had personal experience with back pain and back surgeries through clients and friends, and I was resolved to forego any back surgery. As such, the next 15 years are somewhat of a blur.
As with all opioids, I became physically dependent on them and graduated from Morphine to Dilaudid. My quality of life began to diminish mentally and physically from my worsening back condition and the powerful opioids used to treat the pain. My physical and mental condition deteriorated to the point where I was disabled in every sense of the word. My spine eventually ended up with a 35-degree curvature to the right and a 10-degree curvature forward (Kyphoscoliosis). I could barely take care of myself. Thankfully, my wife was an angel and helped care for me.
At this point, my wife and I moved back to SoCal, living in North San Diego County where my present PCP, Richard H. Lovell, M.D., continued me on opioids and benzodiazepines through February 2019. It was at this point that my life began to take a drastic turn for the better. Simply stated, a perfect storm of events conspired to send me in the direction of back surgery.
First, in November 2018, Dr. Lovell referred me to an orthopedic spine surgeon, Robert K. Eastlack, M.D., at Scripps Clinic in La Jolla, California. During my first visit with Dr. Eastlack, he pointedly stated: “We can get you standing normal”. I’ll never forget that statement nor Dr. Eastlack. On my second visit with Dr. Eastlack, I stated that he reminded me of Benjamin Hawkeye Pierce, the U.S. Army surgeon in the TV series “MASH”. The explanation for my statement: Dr. Eastlack exuded a confidence in his abilities as a spine surgeon, which gave me great confidence in those abilities. Dr. Eastlack’s statement also gave me hope that there was an alternative to opioids that could change my life.
Second, a dispute with a CVS Pharmacy, in the city where I live, over my concurrent use of Dilaudid and Benzodiazepines led to my filing a complaint against the pharmacist with the California Board of Pharmacy. This occurrence also shocked me into the realization that I could no longer continue down the opioid path. I was in desperate need of an alternative and Dr. Eastlack was offering it to me. I now had hope. Dr. Eastlack gave me a “weaning schedule” to get off Dilaudid, and I quit the Benzodiazepines at the same time. I followed the weaning schedule for five weeks. At that point, I took a fairly large bottle of oral Dilaudid solution and poured it down the toilet. This was not a good thing to do, but I did it anyway. I spent the next 8 weeks going through opioid withdrawal, which was an experience. But, Dr. Eastlack assured me that my pain would diminish once I was off Dilaudid and it did.
Third, besides realizing that my life would come to an end if something didn’t change, I experienced what I consider to be two sets of miracles that steered me towards back surgery. These miracles consisted of 4 separate occasions when strangers walked up to me and asked if I needed a ride home after being left by the LYFT at physicians’ offices. These strangers sometimes went as much as 40 miles out of their way to bring me home and could’ve been angels. In addition, an occurrence with a gentleman happened at the CVS Pharmacy, who also could’ve been an angel. A robust man about my age walked up to me from an aisle, looked at me, and said I used to be like you. When I asked what happened, he simply said “back surgery” and walked back to the aisle, disappearing as quickly as he appeared. This is all part of the previously mentioned conspiracy of events.
Once off the aforementioned medications, Dr. Eastlack prescribed physical therapy in preparation for surgery. I cooperated with the physical therapist to the best of my ability, and it was absolutely critical to the success of my surgery. The core muscles in my back had deteriorated to the point where physical therapy was necessary to strengthen them. I also discovered an old friend, Marijuana, which was now legal in California. I began to treat myself with CBD Oil and THC tinctures (substances that helped me to surgery). These substances took care of most of the pain and discomfort I was experiencing without the deleterious effects of opioids and Benzodiazepines.
As I was going through this experience, I continued to meet with Dr. Eastlack, who encouraged me every step of the way. Finally, my surgery was scheduled for July 31, 2019. With my physical therapy complete, I began to prepare myself mentally for the surgery. I have undergone a number of surgeries in my life, including artificial knee replacement, but I knew this was a “major surgery”. And, to say I was scared is an understatement. But I had supreme confidence in Dr. Eastlack and the surgical team he was assembling to perform surgery.
As the day of surgery approached, I began to speak with God (remember I’m a free thinker) and basically reached the point where I was okay with the outcome no matter what. On the day of surgery, my wife drove me to “Scripps Green Hospital” in La Jolla and I was admitted. The last thing I remember before surgery is speaking with a woman in her office. I told the anesthesiologist that I didn’t want to see the inside of the operating room, and he obliged. Subsequently, I learned that I entered the OR at 7:00 a.m. and exited the OR at 9:00 p.m. I was under general anesthesia for approximately 16 hours. Despite the facts that I underwent a major spine surgery and was under the influence of powerful medications, I recall Dr. Eastlack and an associate walking into the recovery room. Dr. Eastlack looked physically exhausted. We spoke for a while, I profusely thanked him, and he left.
My recovery was not a piece of cake by a longshot. I must encourage anyone considering back surgery to be very demanding of your surgeon and those who care for you after surgery. Tell them exactly what you feel and expect. My hospital experience was okay with intensive care and medications. However, when I entered the “rehabilitation center”, an incident occurred when the attending physician attempted to cut my pain medications too quickly. For two days, I was tortured, screaming and raising hell, until Dr. Eastlack intervened. Dr. Eastlack ordered that I be placed on the appropriate opioid medication. That incident, requiring Dr. Eastlack’s intervention, somewhat soured my experience after surgery. Inadequate pain management after back surgery can be a very difficult problem to handle, so speak up! It’s easier to complete the needed therapies when pain is well managed.
When I neared the end of my stay in the “rehabilitation center”, I demanded to be discharged and my wife picked me up. Dr. Eastlack continued my opioid medication at home until he became uncomfortable with it. At that point, I found a pain management specialist who reasonably and successfully withdrew me from Percocet 10 and Diazepam. I attended aqua therapy after discharge and worked hard towards my successful rehabilitation.
Today, I’m tall and straight as an arrow. And, almost everyone who knew me before surgery and sees me after my surgery considers it to be a miracle. I now walk over a mile every day in approximately 20 minutes. I keep pushing myself to walk farther as time goes on, and I become more comfortable. I strive to become like the robust man who spoke with me at the CVS Pharmacy, an advocate. My only pain medications right now are an NSAID and THC (when I can afford it). I sincerely feel like a miracle has occurred that has given me my life back. Recently, I had my one-year check-up and both Dr. Eastlack and I were very pleased with my progress.
I can best summarize my experience, and my insight as follows:
- No matter what has occurred during your past, always look to the future
- Live life one day at a time, as that’s all you can handle
- Always be ready to question your own thoughts and beliefs about any subject. When it came to spine surgery, technology is constantly changing for the better
- Seek physicians who are fellowship trained and do regular critical-thinking research on the topic. They seek to improve the quality of care for their patients.
SDSF would like to thank Miles for sharing his experience and his insight on the topic of decision making for spine surgery, as well as his struggle with opioid use.