In January 1993, I was in a single car accident. The kind where they cut you out of the car, chopper you to Shock Trauma less than four miles away, and put you on life support with a traumatic head injury. Essentially, the only things that I didn’t damage were my hands, my right arm and my pelvis. I was hospitalized more than two months and was released in a wheelchair. My internal injuries were healing, but my legs, knees, ankles and feet were so mangled, I could not stand or walk. An orthopedic specialist in Baltimore convinced me not to amputate and did a series of surgeries from 1993-1996 that allowed me to walk with leg braces and a walker. Both of my sons learned to walk bringing Mommy her snazzy, silver, geezer walker. We didn’t have to spring for that noisy Fisher Price contraption.
Eventually I would walk short, flat distances without aids. Progress. What the doc didn’t mention was the medical complications that would develop over the years since the venous and lymph systems in my legs were destroyed, and I never anticipated the complications from medications and pain from traumatic arthritis. It would take pages to list all the issues I have; the short version is that both legs have bone, lymph, and venous complications. More than 15 years on anti-inflammatories has led to Stage 3 Chronic Kidney Disease. My gait is so bad that I have bulging discs in my lower back. I go to bed in pain and wake up in pain.
At first, I could handle the pain without heavy-duty meds. You know, the kind that killed the artist formerly known as Prince, may he rest in peace. I used meditation, aromatherapy, biofeedback, psychotherapy, physical therapy, and the occasional acupuncture session. By 2008/2009, however, I spent most of my time in bed because I couldn’t function with the pain. Since then I have supplemented meditation, aromatherapy, and physical therapy with opioids. Unfortunately, the meds do a number on my brain and I have been unable to work, something I had done since six months post-accident. The pain has increased significantly over the past two years as my arthritis worsens and I suffer from that evil scourge: aging. Gasp. I’m back in bed way too many days now.
My balance sucks. In the last two years alone I have fallen through a wall (a spot I fondly refer to as “that ass hole”), tumbled down steps and blown my knee, and lost a battle with gravity in the kitchen that broke my back. Even sitting in a wheelchair is still painful. We recently downsized to a two-bedroom apartment because I was crawling up the steps to bed every night in our home. We rent in Baltimore, not far from where I got that helicopter ride in 1993. I recently met with the surgeon who worked on me all those years ago. I trust him and he’s still one of the best and brightest in the world at what he does. Alas it seems surgery is not an option for either leg.
The surgeon did, however, offer another possible treatment: stem cell transplants. Apparently, stem cells found in body fat tend to turn into bone and cartilage when treated a certain way (I will spare you the medical jargon and detail, but feel free to Google it). For a minute, I had visions of using my fat ass to provide stem cells to millions of suffering patients. But, doctors use stem cells from your fat only so there is very little chance of rejection. Unfortunately, they only need about 4-5 tablespoons of fat per treatment, so I wouldn’t drop any dress sizes (damn) even though I have half a dozen areas that might benefit from treatment.
I wouldn’t run any races and probably still walk assisted in some way (cane, walker, orthotics, braces, etc.), but I could have significantly less pain. There are a couple of catches: it’s not guaranteed, it can be relatively short-lasting (about a year give or take) so it needs to be repeated, and the outpatient, minimally invasive treatment is not covered by insurance. Of course. Oh, and it’s expensive. Anywhere from $3500- $5000 ($6,000 if you also add platelet-rich plasma that supposedly helps create a more supportive environment for the stem cells). The surgeon, practice, and hospital I trust is on the high end of the cost range.
Fifteen to 20 years ago, we might have been able to afford at least some treatments. Today we’ve blown through savings, college funds, and retirement to cover 20 years of average annual $30,000-$40,000 in out-of-pocket medical expenses (that’s WITH health insurance). Rich has his own issues, and both of the boys have special needs, so we are the poster family for medical lost causes and empty wallets. Until now we have been blessed with crazy-good incomes to cover our needs and not end up on the street. But today, Rich got laid off from a job for the second time in as many years. It took him 10 months to find a job last time. In the past, I could work on big writing projects and we could cut expenses to float us, but those aren’t options now.
I’m basically screwed. Just one more reason to stay in bed. Ugh.
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