I really don’t look forward to any medical appointment very much, but this one I was dreading. I had deliberately scheduled seeing this specialist during a non-lecture week. I needed space, emotionally and mentally, leading up to this appointment and rushing from lecture to the specialist’s rooms wasn’t giving me that flexibility. So I cleared the space during the Thursday afternoon of our mid-semester break. This was going to be my second appointment with this specialist; I had been waiting for nearly eight weeks to get into one of her regular appointment times. The first appointment we spent talking about the nerve damage to the lower half of my body, what I can move and feel and what I can’t. This second visit though was when she would assess the muscle function and sensation for herself. I wasn’t looking forward to submitting to yet another round of tests. I knew though that my medical team needed the answers. I needed the answers. After months of hearing specialists disagree, finally we would know. The only question is, who would be right?
By now I’m becoming more relaxed about talking to my medical team about what function and sensation I have, or don’t. But I’m still not used to specialists working systematically through every major muscle group, every action, testing muscle strength as well as pain and touch sensation. There is always the awkward moment when the specialist asks me what I can feel and all I can say is ‘nothing’. Or when the specialist says ‘you’re not trying’ and all I can say is, slightly exasperated, ‘I am!’ After waiting so long for answers, each question this specialist asked was even more, if you can please excuse the pun, unnerving. When she kept asking if I could feel a particular touch or any pain sensation or anything at all, and most of the time I couldn’t, my voice was rising in pitch just that little bit more each time. Like every other detailed examination process that I have been asked to endure, I was mentally and physically exhausted. Trying hard to detect sensation and trying to move muscles that have been struggling for months is draining. By the end, the specialist didn’t need to say anything. She started the post-examination conversation with, ‘I think you already know what I’m going to say.’ She confirmed what I had been dreading now for nearly four months. I remember what the surgeon had told me at the six week post-op appointment in his rooms, ‘where there is no or little improvement, there may not be much recovery.’ The questions that were left hanging after the six week post-op appointment now have resolution. The specialist continued, ‘We now have much more information. What I have seen is not surprising considering the trauma to your spinal cord. I just didn’t expect that so much sensation has been lost.’ She was very gentle and kind. This was now the second time, in as many weeks, where a specialist has wanted me to hear that I have suffered trauma, even if not caused by a traumatic event like a fall or an accident. Sitting, listening to the specialist talk through the absence of reflexes, the loss of sensation, and the muscle weakness, the magnitude of what I have been dealing with for the past four months washed over me. Ever since that six week post-op appointment, all the test results have been in fragments and all the information about what function I have and didn’t have was still jumbled chaos in my mind. Hearing the specialist name what has been lost helped me put the pieces back together. Hearing her confirm what has been suspected by many on my medical team brought order to so much uncertainty. And finally having answers, the specialist was handing me permission to sort through the trauma, to finally accept that my spinal cord has been damaged. And what this might mean now for life in the future.