Walk It Off

A little known—or widely known for those that went to my high school—fact about me is that in December 2006 I was tested for early onset Multiple Sclerosis. It all began, when at the age of seventeen, I suddenly and without reason, lost the use of my legs. It was rather dramatic, and even at the time I couldn’t let the irony of having spent my entire life labeled by parents as a “drama queen” pass any of us by. Of course, handling the situation with humor was, if not done on purpose, then an entirely plausible way of handling the situation. My parents were panicked, probably more so than myself, but that was because I just couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of not walking again. To me it was the only possible outcome.

The day following my, what I will fondly refer to as my, “episode” was uneventful in that none of the tests I endured were anything out of the blue. I visited the ER, where we were promptly told my insurance would not work; my orthopedic doctor, the one who had patched up all of my various broken bones in my life; and the phlebotomist office. By the end of the day, the most exciting thing I underwent was getting my blood drawn and a couple of x-rays. Of course, I’m condensing for intrigue, but for the most part I spent the better ¾ of a day being wheeled from office to office with nothing to show for it. In the following weeks, however, that all changed. My days of leisure in the x-ray and blood-pulling room were over, I was frighteningly moved to the big leagues: MRIs (plural), CAT scans, and PET scans became my norm. EMGs were a given, and a spinal tap, while unwelcome, was had. Predictably, or not, as the tests piled up, the mystery of what my diagnosis was grew. With only an incredibly painful back and useless leg muscles to go on, the many doctors grew increasingly flummoxed. Luckily, signs of a blood clot, stroke, or brain tumor were nil, and MS was ruled out as well. For all intents and purposes, I was a healthy seventeen-year-old girl, who just so happened to have zero use of her legs.

With little other options, and unsure of what else to do, my neurologist recommended trying a procedure typically used on chronic back pain sufferers, the sympathetic nerve block. It would be on a trial basis, the tests could come back inconclusive. It was the only thing that he could think of to dull the pain. Initially scared—you’d think at this point I’d be over my fear of needles—the doctor was kind enough to go through the procedure step-by-step with me in an effort to calm my nerves.

Under the super vision of my pain management specialist, I would be put under a mild anesthetic by way of an intravenous line (an IV). Additionally, an anesthetic would be given to numb the area where the needle would be place, numbing both the skin and the tissue surrounding the sympathetic nerve along the spinal track. Ensuring that the location is numb, the specialist slides a needle along the track, injecting a contrast solution that can be seen with the use of a fluoroscope to identify the painful areas (as well as to confirm the location of the (cringe) needle). Next, he explained that he would remove the base of the needle, leaving the tip in, and attach a drug cocktail containing anesthetic, saline, and anti-inflammatory medication. This mixture, he went on to explain, would work to stop pain signals in the sympathetic nerve from reaching the brain. I would go home, possibly sore, but most likely pain free for several weeks, if not months.

Though the specialist impressed that this would most likely not fix the fact that my legs were not functional, the vague promise of a pain free few months was enough to send me grappling for the sign up sheet. In total, I underwent a series of two sympathetic nerve blocks administered four months apart. With the first nerve block, as predicted I still couldn’t walk, but by the second, my back and leg pain was alleviated to the point where I was capable to attend physical therapy to help reinstate the use of my legs.

While a concise diagnosis was never made (they chalk it all up to some inexplicable neurological virus), and though I still can’t skip without taking a second thought at how it’s done, I can walk, something which I thank in large part to the neuro-blocking. Looking back, I can say that the tests were scary—but what test isn’t? Deep needles will imbue in anyone a healthy sense of unease, but sometimes with that unease comes relief. And with my relief? Well with my relief came my walk across a stage, in high-heeled shoes, in the bright sun of June, as I accepted my high school diploma.