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As 2020 vote looms, a steel spine will come in handy

Doctors would ask me how I was — doped up, bandaged over, with stents in each arm and a drain and a catheter — and I’d mumble, “ecstatic.”

The x-ray of a skull showing titanium spinal supports.
Three titanium wedges and a few screws and I’m good to go.
Neil Steinberg/Chicago Sun-Times

This is the last of three columns about surgery for stenosis, a condition where narrowing vertebrae compress the spinal cord. The first two parts ran Monday and Wednesday.

The doctor wasn’t sure what he’d find.

If my bones were pliant, he’d cut little “doors” in three vertebrae, propping each open with a tiny titanium doorstop, so there would be room for the compressed spinal cord to shy away from that bone spur spearing it from the front.

But, if the bones broke, he’d have to fuse the whole thing with a titanium plate and rods. That second possibility made me worried I’d end up as limber as the tin-man.

So when I came to, after three hours, and learned that Plan A worked, and nothing had to be fused, I was ecstatic. Doctors would ask me how I was — doped up, bandaged over, with stents in each arm and a drain and a catheter — and I’d mumble, “ecstatic.”

Strange. Newspapers review every new burger joint and off-Loop musical, yet never rate hospitals. Let’s fix that. I spent three full days and nights at Northwestern. The surgical care was excellent. The post-surgical care was ... quite good, with exceptions.

Amazing how the reputation of a vast, $11 billion medical enterprise teeters on the back of whoever answers your call button. Most nurses were great; a few, not so much.

The dividing line seemed to be what each thought his or her job was. Those who saw themselves as tending to the person in room 1009 — aka, me — were sympathetic and attentive. When they went off shift it was like saying goodbye to an old friend. Some, however, seemed to be merely ticking off boxes — go into Room 1009, collect a blood sample, then get out.

A couple close-but-no-cigar moments, like the aide who brought the water I requested but then placed the cup just out of my reach and fled. I thought of that skeleton sprawled before a pitcher in “Snow White” as my fingers quivered toward the cup and I wondered whether pushing the extra few inches would roll me onto the floor.

Scene from Walt Disney’s animated classic, “Snow White”
Disney’s “Snow White” sprung to mind when someone at Northwestern Memorial Hospital brought him a glass of water — but left it out of reach.
The Walt Disney Company

Not to quibble. Bottom line: The operation worked. My hands are no longer numb. It’s funny. Writing stories, I’ve watched surgeries at hospitals across Chicago — U of C, UIC, Christ, Rush, Loyola. The one place I could never get into, despite years of trying, was Northwestern. And here I finally am present for some complicated spine surgery performed by a top doctor, and I miss the whole damn thing.

Speaking of doctors, an apology is in order. As a fan of Tolstoy, my image of doctors was of the guy who prescribes some useless tonic, then strokes his Van Dyke beard with one gloved hand while the other waits, palm out, for the 5-ruble gold piece. In my heart, I suspected surgery was a fraud perpetrated upon the unwary.

That was wrong. I’m not saying all doctors are now saints because I found a good one. But sometimes you need a skilled surgeon. Though that is never all you need. George Bernard Shaw once noted that when “in pain or peril, what you want is comfort, reassurance, something to clutch at, were it but a straw. This the doctor brings you.”

Ideally. The word I used before the operation was a rare one for me: “blessed.” I felt blessed to have good insurance — thank you, Chicago Newspaper Guild — and to live in a country where such care is available. To me, I hasten to add. I am also acutely aware that we are also a nation where tens of millions are left to hang. I believed health care was a basic human right before this; now I can’t imagine what kind of hypocrite and callous monster would not want every American to share the same benefit. Actually, I can imagine them, so no need to write in offering examples.

They told me to take a month off work. But guess what? Turns out, you get bored lying on the sofa, watching Netflix, eating ice cream and taking drugs. At least I did. I don’t see how folks spend their lives that way. I hurried back because, as Noel Coward said: “Work is more fun than fun.” And that titanium spine, well, I suspect it’ll come in handy as the 2020 election looms.