Degenerative Disc Disease

“Well, doctor, I think you lied to me,” she said, the quality of her voice slightly altered by the subtle sandpaper tone of the telephone.

Dr. Leroy Church was just closing his office when Patty Hanks called. The sun had been on its way toward setting and he was ready to go home. He held the phone to his ear. “Now Patty, come now. Why would I do that?” he said, trying to console her with some mysterious manner of psychological counseling, though he was neither trained nor much interested in its practice. His was medicine, and he’d worked hard for his credentials, his little family practice, and his repute.

Of course, he knew about the Patty Hankses of the world. He’d taken a course as a pre-med student called “Doctor to Patient Ethics and Care.” In it, he’d been taught typical ideals that any half-wit who read the course title and description could make accurate conclusions about. Don’t lie. Always do good. Don’t take bribes. And so forth. Follow these and you’ll be successful. These were the ideals left with Dr. Leroy Church from that class. Whatever more he’d been taught he’d now forgotten.

He looked at his watch while steadying the phone with his shoulder. Six-fifteen. Mrs. Church would be putting her famous five-cheese lasagna into the oven now. He had already considered the two remaining light beers in his refrigerator to be his football-watching companions after dinner. Slinking into his recliner, flicking on his high-def plasma, and helping his Falcons make eagle stew out of Philadelphia sounded like a fine Monday night. That would be, of course, after a little gording. Two helpings, maybe three, of Mrs. Church’s lasagna would be the doctor’s orders, followed by a different compliment about taste or texture for each helping, the latter of which would sound more refined and thus more genuine.

But Patty Hanks. “When I was there today, doctor, you gave me my inspection and I then asked if there was anything wrong or anything you’d noticed about my back.”

“Mhmm,” he said, leaning against his still-shut office door.

“And, well, you’d said you didn’t notice anything, even when I’d explained the pain I’d been having. I think it’s spine related, doctor.”

“I’d not be so sure of that, Patty. There’d need to be pretty severe symptoms if anything were wrong. For one thing, you’d have trouble walking. You might even collapse if it was a deep spine-related issue.”

“Well I do feel the stiffness and I don’t know why I’m the one who needs to point this out.”

“Oh Patty, come now, that’s not always tr––”

“Do you ever find yourself being wrong, doctor?”

Dr. Church looked at his watch again. He felt his stomach growling. He got an idea. “Patty, look,” he started. “Let me give you something over the phone. Now, I’ve worked on this for a while,” he lied, “and according to my studies, and by careful interpretation of my medical texts, I’ve come up with four steps for relieving oneself of pain. They’ll help you move beyond it. You might even forget about it. But they will certainly put you back into a place of power and control.” He knew he was reaching a bit, but he was on a roll. What he was about to say would be sufficient-enough, he thought.

“Doctor, I don’t know what a four-step program’s really going to––”

“Now just you listen,” he heard his voice rise slightly. His back was still against his door. “Listen,” he said again, softly. “These are good practices for you, and they’re good for me and the next person too. We need these. Okay?”

The phone was quiet.

“The first step has to do with breathing. Just breathe,” he instructed. As he said this he could tell Patty was still on the other side, listening, albeit quietly. He went on, “The ancients used breathing techniques to ready themselves, claiming the state of mind they acquired from it was fundamental to daily life, to work, and to war.”

Patty exhaled, which Dr. Church took to be reassuring. He’d tried breathing exercises a couple of times when he was a stressed medical student, but ultimately concluded they weren’t for him. He preferred light beer and football instead. His sure-fire remedies.

“Okay, number two. Write out your top three tasks for the day, but write them as goals. Prioritize and seize the day today, Patty. Make them your own and try to make them an equal mixture of daring and realistic.” He listened closely to the phone for the sound of paper rustling. Patty was still quiet, but then he did think he might have heard the sound of something resembling a pen scratching paper and, deep down, this was confirmation. The thought of it authenticated Dr. Church’s counseling abilities to himself. He was grinning.

“Number three, let’s put some goals into action. What do you say, Patty? Ready for some action steps?”

“Well,” she said.

“Alright, with those goals, let’s write out the first step that needs to be taken for each of them. Let’s make them known; draw them out of the dark to expose them. That’s what will kickstart you toward success. Am I right?”

But of course he was right. He could still hear her writing. As the seconds passed he began to wonder what all she could be writing. What fruits of his labor might be showing forth? He wanted to ask her to read all that she’d written, but that seemed silly. Best just to check in and then keep moving. Momentum in these matters was always important, he thought. “Patty, how’s it coming? Getting those action steps?”

“Yeah doctor. Sure am. This here is coming together.”

“Great,” he said, smiling again. So he was a counselor after all! “Okay, now lastly, this is the kicker. We’ve poured all the cement into the hole, and now we’ve got to let it dry. With those steps in hand, I want you to take them into your room and put them under your pillow. Then, tonight, as you lay your head down, I want you to imagine them soaking through those pillow feathers and into your brain. Give them all night to work their way in. Then tomorrow, seize the day!” He heard his voice echoing around his empty office. He listened closely again. He felt the smile on his face wane a little. “Patty?” he said. “Are you still writing? What all more do you have to write about?”

“Oh don’t worry,” she said, but her tone was different now.

“Worry,” he said. “Worry about what?”

“Well,” she began, clearing her throat. “Dear Medical Board of Georgia: If I were your doctor, and if you were me, and you called in for advice about back pain, I don’t suppose you’d be too enthusiastic to hear me instruct you in matters of breathing better, prioritizing goals, and literally sleeping soundly upon said goals that you’ve written out.”

“What?” was all that Dr. Church could say.

“This, however, is precisely the prescription that your licensed practitioner, Doctor Leroy Church of Atlanta’s ‘Church’s Family Physicians,’ believes suitable for a person with Degenerative Disc Disease. This person is, of course, me. Had Dr. Church bothered to ask about any of my symptoms, for example, how the pain worsens when bending over, lifting, or twisting, or about how the pain flares up at times but returns to a dull, low-grade level of pain, then he might have been able to, at the very least, direct me in certain active, personal treatments that I could do from home. For example, light but regular exercises meant to strengthen my core.”

Dr. Church could feel his face getting hot. “What is this, Patty, some kind of con?”

But Patty went on. She finished by telling Dr. Church that she intended to mail the letter today. “I don’t suppose you would supply me with the board’s address, would you?” She said coyly.

“Now you listen to me right now,” he said. “I am the doctor. And I’ve been seeing you for years and I know how your body works. If I thought an assessment was needed right here and now then I would have said so.”

“But of course you won’t give me the address,” she went on. “Fortunately, I own a computer. All I need is to stand, walk to it, and open up Google.”

He was pacing around his waiting room now trying to think of something to say. Something to get her to listen and to change her mind. Anything to keep her from mailing this stupid letter.

“Here we are,” she said. “And look at that, the computer is already on. Now I just need to––” But instead of finishing her sentence, instead of revealing to Dr. Church the nail by which she might accomplish coffining his career, the final ingredient she needed only from a quick web search, she let out a shriek that seemed to ring across Dr. Church’s waiting room.

He suddenly heard what he took to be the sound of her phone hitting the floor. He stopped pacing. “Patty?” he said. “Patty what happened?”

Patty continued to shriek in the background. “I can’t breathe––I––I can’t––I can’t breathe.”

He could imagine how stiffly she must be lying on the floor, how the pain had pervaded her entire back, coursing sharp, white bolts of agony any time she tried to move. “Patty!” He called back. “Where are you hurt? Where is the center of the pain, Patty?” But it was no use. The phone was out of reach and at best she would only hear his voice as distant, sandpapery tones coming somewhere from her floor.

“Not now!” She writhed in the background. “Not now––Oh––Oh––My back––Oh my back. Not now.”

“Patty I’m calling an ambulance,” he said quickly at his phone. “Just hang on. It’s going to be OK. You’re going to be just fine, Patty. Just trust me.” But he knew how futile this kind of consoling was. He hung up and exhaled and fumbled his phone before finally gathering it and punching in: 9-1-1.


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