Today's secret word is: Radiculopathy!

I finally went to see an orthopedic doctor about my leg. As it happens, Dr. Google gave me the same diagnosis weeks ago, but this one is more trustworthy, albeit more expensive, than a handful of online searches.

When I entered his office, I was a doctor's least favorite kind of patient: one with an hour's worth of online research under his belt and a self diagnosis.

"With my symptoms, I think it might be a pinched sciatic nerve," I said.

He looked over the X-rays of my thigh that I didn't want to get, since my online research suggested the problem was in my lower back, but they wouldn't let me see the doctor if I didn't get the $400 X-rays first. I guess it makes sense, though. You have to rule out the obvious first.

He asked a few questions. "Did you lose any weight on the trip?" he asked.

"About thirty pounds, but I think I've gained at least half of that back already," I said.

"Okay, good," he said then did some other physical tests. I was a bit alarmed that the reflex test that I remember so fondly as a child, didn't produce that familiar leg kick like it used to. I almost wanted to fake it to stop him from telling me it meant I would never hike again. Oh, did I tell you I'm a bit of a hypochondriac?

Next, he watched me pirouette around the room. "Stand on one leg, okay now hop up and down." He pushed against various parts of my legs and had me push back. We found that I have a weak left big toe, which I didn't actually know about, but Dr. Google said is associated with nerve damage in vertebrae L5.

"With your symptoms, I believe you have a pinched nerve between vertebrae L4 and L5," he said. "You don't smoke. Have you ever had long term exposure to toxic chemicals like pesticides?"

"Not that I'm aware of," I said. "I mean we used some pesticides when I owned a pet store, but--"

"No, that wouldn't do it, but sometimes a tumor can cause the same symptoms. Of course, if you had cancer you would be losing weight not gaining it."

Like I said, I'm a bit of a hypochondriac. I only want to hear the word cancer if there is a chance I have cancer.

"Let me ask you this," he said. "Would you be opposed to having back surgery?"

Why on earth would I be opposed to having sharp metal instruments under my skin and around my spine? I thought.

Me two weeks ago, foolishly icing the wrong thing
"So, I need back surgery?" I asked.

"Well, I'd say one in twenty end up needing surgery."

"What does something like that cost?" I asked.

"First, you'll need an MRI, that will be a couple thousand. The actual surgery will run about that too--

"My health insurance deductible is $3500," I interrupted. "So, that seems about right."

"Well, that's not all. With everything and the hospital stay it would probably be around $34,000," he said.

"I'm unemployed and currently homeless," I confessed.

"Well, you could have the surgery then file for bankruptcy," he said. "Keep in mind, surgery won't fix the numbness, that's probably never going to go away. And it may not help the weak toe, but I doubt you care much about that."

"No not really," I said. "I mean, like I told the woman I talked to before you came in, I have felt a slight numbness since like 2004. I've gotten used to it. I just never had pain before."

"Oh it's been that long. Okay, well if it was cancer it would have gotten you by now."

Jesus, man! Again with the cancer!?

"What if I do nothing, and let's say, hike across New Zealand?" I asked.

"Well most likely, the worst scenario is you'd be in too much pain to hike and have to get off the trail early."

"So, you don't think I'd end up doing more permanent damage?"

"Well it's not impossible. I think it's unlikely, though. But, let's say your knee gets weak like your big toe. It could become permanent too, if you wait too long to have the surgery. If you start having weakness in your knee, you'll want to have surgery ASAP," he said. "Also, some patients with severe nerve damage can experience a loss of bladder control, but that's not likely going to happen."

"Oh good," said the hypochondriac.

"There is another treatment, that most doctors won't do anymore due to liability issues in the past, but it's pretty safe if you go to a doctor that is experienced with it." He explained a procedure that involved injecting something into my spine. "There is a doctor in Ohio that I believe still does it. You might be a good candidate for it. He only does it for people in good health that are under twenty-five. You're about, what, twenty-two?"

"I'm 33."

"Oh, well surgery might be your only option, other than living with the pain."

And there it is. I thought I would be hiking in Florida right now, but I think my next move should be to see a back specialist and pay the two grand for the MRI. Money that would have covered my flight to New Zealand in November. As a hypochondriac, I suspected every bit of this, but I was still hoping to hear, "Take two of these, and call me in the morning." Instead I got, "Have back surgery, file for bankruptcy, and then call me in the morning.. Umm, wait, actually just call the front desk, you can't afford to talk to me directly."

So, in conclusion:

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A Backpacker's Life List by Ryan Grayson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.