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A story: Part Three

The vertebral injury healed perfectly but the underlying nerve injury didn’t. I developed an inversion of my right foot that persisted for eight years before it was remedied. The foot always inverted but it wasn’t always severe. There were times when I could get my heel flat and walk “normally” but it took effort.

The inconsistency in my gait generated a lot of doubt from medical professionals. I was accused of drug seeking a number of times which was especially funny because I couldn’t swallow pills until I was 19 and avoided medication at all costs. Walking with a limp most of the time gave me pain in the ankle, knee, hip and back. It impeded my ability to do most forms of vigorous exercise although I did continue to walk a lot, even when it hurt.

When I was 16, I saw a doctor who was so insistent that I was lying about my foot inversion that he told me I was taking time from real sick people and should be ashamed of myself. It’s bad enough having something wrong with your body without being told over and over again that there’s nothing wrong and you are a waste of space. I walked out of the office and didn’t pursue medical attention again for years.

Continuing the theme of never having been particularly healthy, I was not particularly healthy in college. This was probably exacerbated by not getting enough rest. I was always coming down with a cold or some awful cough. I started having GI issues in earnest with significant bile reflux into the esophagus and a hard time stooling.

I started college at 16 and full time at 17. My family didn’t have money to put me through school so I worked full time throughout college to pay tuition and living expenses. I worked 30-35 hours a week most weeks while also carrying a full course load of hard sciences with labs. I was in the honors program and worked in a lab my junior and senior years to complete my honors thesis. Throughout college, I stopped sleeping on Tuesday and Thursday nights to get through my schoolwork.

I worked in health care so I was exposed to a lot. I worked as an assistant for an 87 year old doctor in Cambridge where assistant meant performing basic bloodwork and urine testing, typing notes on a typewriter, sterilizing all of our reusable equipment, cleaning up mercury from broken thermometers, and generally learning a ton of really interesting things. This doctor was very out of touch with current medicine but one of the best diagnosticians I have ever come across. A lot of my instincts in identifying problems, both health related and otherwise, come from working for him. I learned so much from him and loved working there so much that I didn’t even mind that he referred to me as “girl” or “the girl” and hand wrote my paystubs.

He died two years after I started working there. I was already also working in a pharmacy and picked up more hours there when I was no longer needed at the office. I spent 30 hours a week interacting with sick people, many of whom were contagious. Given how overextended I was, and that getting ill is expected when exposed to contagious people, it was not surprising that it took so long for me to realize that some of my symptoms could not be attributed to my lifestyle and environment.

I finally saw a movement disorders specialist when I was in college to try and correct my pronounced limp. It had gotten bad enough over the years that I usually walked with a crutch. I gained weight from birth control (I gained 26 lbs in short order when I started the birth control shot), the fact that I didn’t exercise beyond being on my feet 10 hours a day in the pharmacy or lab, and a diet that consisted mostly of Coke and Easy Mac. Gaining weight with a back injury is never a good thing.

I got physical therapy for my foot and slept with a brace on for several months to correct the inversion. It was painful and obnoxious but it worked. While my foot still “wants” to invert, I can walk with it flat without trouble. If there’s not pressure on the bottom of the foot (if I’m sitting or laying down mostly), the foot still turns in. If I’m too tired to pay attention, or experiencing a lot of physical stress (after surgery, bad anaphylaxis, etc), the inversion is evident again.

I was in grad school when I started having GI issues bad enough to seek specialized medical care. I had really bad chest pain and my throat was always irritated. I did a bunch of testing, barium swallows, scopes, esophageal manometry, and pH testing, which at the time involved threading an NG tube with a pH sensor into my stomach through my nose and then leaving in place for 24 hours. The first time, they used the wrong sensor, so I had to do it again. I started taking regular meds at that point, including a PPI and a smooth muscle relaxer to decrease spasms pushing bile into the esophagus.

This period in my healthcare was critical for a different reason: this was one of the first doctors to treat me like an intelligent, capable person with health problems. While this gastroenterologist didn’t know what was wrong with me on a global level, she agreed that something was going on and that I wasn’t inventing my symptoms. I was only her patient for a few years but I will forever be grateful to her. Her support helped give me the gumption to figure out what was really going on in the years to come.