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The Cementing of Science and Soul
I'm the kind of person who bolts out of bed in the morning with his mind already running through the day and weeks ahead. Yet on a Wednesday morning in November of 2000, my body wouldn't cooperate. I leapt from bed as usual, but when my feet hit the ground, they were as numb as if I'd just sleepwalked barefoot through a knee-deep field of snow. When I reached out to steady myself on the bed, I discovered the same lack of sensation from my fingertips to my elbow. Maybe I'd just slept wrong, I tried to convince myself as I pounded to the bathroom on wooden feet.
I flexed my fingers and arms trying to pump feeling into my limbs as I looked myself in the eye in the bathroom mirror. All the while, my doctor self ran through the many major medical problems these symptoms could point to. I was so scared. My older brother Bob had awoken with these same symptoms just three years earlier, and was subsequently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. But I had a nearly week-long trip beginning the next day with commitments in New York, Colorado Springs, and Houston. This year had been pretty tough on the family finances. My wife, Teresa, and I had labeled it the Financial Perfect Storm. Each one of these upcoming meetings was a step toward calming those waters. Push through the pain, I thought; you just don't have time to get sick. I told no one.
As I worked steady through the day, the numbness dissipated and I convinced myself I was getting better. But once I was in New York, the headaches began: intense pressure behind my eyes that radiated pain through my shoulders. I was dosing myself with handfuls of over-the-counter headache remedies, pinching the web of my thumb in an attempt at self-acupressure, and struggling to sleep with a cold rag over my eyes. Nothing spelled relief.
Sleepless in New York, I caught a 6:00 A.M. flight to Colorado Springs. There I met my host, Dr. Jim Humphries, the veterinary contributor for CBS. Dr. Jim knew something was wrong and tried to get me to go to the emergency room. I persuaded him I was feeling much better and, after our meeting, he dropped me at the airport. At the airport I started to stumble. I called Dr. Steve Garner, a veterinary colleague and my friend of four years, whom I wage flying to meet at his seminar in Houston. His alarm at my symptoms really shook me.
At the gate, my cell phone started going off. The first call was from Jim, who said he wasn't convinced I was improving. He wanted to come back and drive me to the emergency room, but I turned him down. Then Steve called to tell me he'd arranged for a friend of his, a neurologist at Baylor University, to see me as soon as I landed. How badly I wanted to go home. I slumped in a seat at the gate, cross-eyed with pain. I pictured Teresa and our children, daughter Mikkel, fourteen, and son Lex, ten, sitting, as we had so many evenings that summer, on the deck of our home in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, surrounded by pets. Our house looks down the throat of a thirty-mile-long glacial river valley. We like to watch the light fade in the evening as herds of deer, elk, and even the occasional moose migrate across the valley floor, while hawks and bald eagles swoop overhead. If I was this sick, I wanted that sight, those smells, my family. I called our family doctor, Dr. Will McCreight, who told me exactly what my heart was saying: come home.
I was on the jetway about to board the plane home when Steve called again. He'd talked to his neurologist friend who believed there might be bleeding in the lining around my brain. "Do not board the plane," he said. The change in pressure on the ascent might kill me. I should go immediately to a hospital in Colorado Springs. I told Steve I was going home, and stepped back from the stream of passengers to pray that I was making the right decision. Then I boarded. The anxiety I felt made the trip one of the longest of my life, but I made it. By the time I landed around eleven that night, Dr. McCreight had arranged for me to see a neurologist in Coeur d'Alene the next morning and booked an appointment for an MRI.
The doctor who examined me unsmilingly offered four possibilities: stroke, brain tumor, multiple sclerosis, or subarachnoid hemorrhage, the official name for bleeding between the linings around the brain. When I went in for the MRI, the staff cautioned me that the test was noisy and claustrophobic. Even some of the local miners got antsy in the MRI tunnel, they said. They asked if I'd like to listen to music during the full-body scan and I chose a CD of gospel hymns. Imagine my trepidation when the first soothing hymn had the lyrics, "Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, come home, come home/Ye who are weary come home." Maybe I should have taken my second choice of Credence Clearwater Revival.
The MRI results were the best I could have hoped for, however. I had a simple mechanical problem -- an intervertebral disc in my neck had prolapsed, spilling its contents onto my spinal cord. The discs that cushion the bones of your spine are constructed like a jelly donut: a harder core on the outside, with a softer, jellylike middle. Usually when a disc slips it affects only one side, but mine was more severe, putting extreme pressure across the whole cord. That was what had caused the bilateral numbness. The headaches were from muscle spasms and anxiety. I would need surgery to remove the damaged disc, during which they'd insert a poker chip-size piece of cow bone to keep the correct spacing and fuse the instability in my spine with a titanium plate. My doctor gave me some muscle relaxants for the anxiety and sent me home in a neck brace to await my appointment with the neurosurgeon, which couldn't be scheduled until the end of December, six long weeks away. In the meantime, he advised me to slow down and prepare for a lengthy recuperation.
Although I was relieved that the diagnosis wasn't any of the four conditions I'd feared, I still had a hard time accepting that I had to slow down. When we moved to Bonners Ferry five years earlier, Teresa had named our ranch Almost Heaven because she saw it as an oasis of beauty, goodness, and serenity. We designed family stationery and I added the slogan "Life in the slow lane." But the slogan had become a joke to my family. Ever since we arrived here, I'd worked even harder than before, all the while promising that I was just about to slow down. As soon as I finished one obligation or chased down another opportunity, another presented itself and I was off again. It always seemed more important to take care of business than to take care of myself. In fact, since we moved to this beautiful, peaceful place, I'd gained twenty-five pounds and had developed high blood pressure.
Teresa saw this crisis as an opportunity to force me to be true to my word. She begged me to look through my calendar for the next six months and start saying no to a number of things I'd said yes to. The mere suggestion of that caused me shame. What if I missed something? What if no one missed me? I started calling my friends and colleagues, bemoaning my fate, and in a way asking their permission to say no. Uniformly they told me to slow down and give myself a chance to heal.
Even as Teresa and I walked to the horse barn the next morning to do our chores for our quarter horses, 'Sugar Babe, Chex, Pegasus, and Gabriel, I was arguing with the prognosis. I'd always had perfect health and the capacity to dig deep and tough it out -- the determination I'd called on as an athlete to play while hurt, or as a farm boy whose father needed the crops in before the storm hit, whether or not I had the flu. The doctor said I had to stay put for six weeks or more after the surgery, but I'd always been a fast healer. I'd probably be back up to speed in a month or less, I reasoned.
The horses were galloping in the paddock, anticipating their morning meal. Teresa rolled back the door to the barn to let them into their stalls as I got the pitchfork to hoist a briefcase-size piece of hay bale to feed them. I stuck the fork in and suddenly found that I just didn't have the strength to lift even that meager amount. Ashamed I couldn't complete a task I'd done regularly since I was about five or six, I struggled in silence, using all the tricks I'd learned as a farm kid ordered to hoist something heavier than me. Pride forced me to try, but pride alone couldn't get the bundle to move. I had to ask Teresa to do it for me.
The first snowfall that year was early and very wet, the kind of heavy, dense snow that makes great "soaker" snowballs but can be rough on horses' feet. I could see that our horses were walking gingerly from compacted balls of ice that had wedged right into the center of their hooves. At least I could help them with that, I thought. I got the long-handled screwdriver and leaned into the meat of Sugar Babe's right front leg, flexing her foot to rest it on my upper thigh. Another defeat. I choked up as I admitted to Teresa that I just didn't have the strength to do this, either. Again I had to ask my petite, five-foot, four-inch wife to perform a task I'd done a hundred times.
I held Sugar Babe's reins as Teresa worked on her hoof, but my mind was ten thousand feet above, lost in the profound identity crisis of illness. I saw myself as the endurance champ, the tireless provider. If I am not the things that I do -- -if I have to do different things and do things differently -- who am I? The question was too frightening to answer. Sugar Babe laid her massive head on my shoulder with the gentleness of a baby's touch, and I reached up reflectively to stroke her muzzle. There are few things softer than a horse's muzzle, the animal equivalent of velvet. Horses take in the world through the mouth, and that supple, responsive muzzle serves as their fingers and hands. Sugar Babe pulled up a little and began nibbling over my neck with her vibrissae, tactile hairs similar to a cat's whiskers but of varied lengths and scattered across the surface of her nose and mouth. She roamed until she came to rest at the exact spot on my neck that hurt.
She still had a head of steam from her run in the paddock and her breath shot from her nostrils in forceful ostrich plumes. At 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit, a horse's body temperature is a few degrees higher than ours. Her hot breath on my neck in the cold barn was like a steam treatment. As she settled, I adjusted to the ebb and flow of her breath and felt myself relax for the first time since this soul-shaking experience. I was alive, with my loved ones, and I was home: three simple facts that I had taken for granted and that, as a result, were very nearly lost to me. In that simple way that animals have of bringing you back to your world, Sugar Babe was showing me that my healing would have to start here.
The feeling of Sugar Babe's laying on of hands through the gentle pressure of her muzzle on my neck stuck with me as Teresa and I walked back to the house. Truly I had a burden that was too heavy for me to carry, something that couldn't be shoved aside by cleverness and dogged determination. As uncomfortable as the idea made me, I had to look at this illness not as a defeat, but as a gift -- a chance to repot, renew, recharge myself. The first thing that had to go was the stress.
Teresa and I took out my schedule for the next six months and made a list of all the engagements I'd have to cancel. Once the schedule was clear, we blocked off a lot of family time. Teresa didn't stop at just the visible stress. I have a drawer in my office that is filled to the top with things I want to find a way to do, such as chairing fund-raisers, making speeches, leading the charge for causes, or reviewing a colleague's manuscript. That drawer was now too heavy for me to lift. Teresa took the drawer and ceremoniously dumped its contents straight into the trash. Then she asked for a very specific Christmas present. She begged me to lose twenty-five pounds and get control of my blood pressure.
Lessening stress creates a different kind of anxiety. What exactly was I supposed to do with myself? The cliché "Physician heal thyself" took on an ironic twist for me. I've been a pet lover and animal lover my whole life, and have observed countless times in my years as a practicing veterinarian how a strong relationship with animals often gives people the strength and motivation to reclaim their health after an illness knocks them down. I've spent my professional life celebrating this special relationship that we call "the Bond," the healthy, affection connection between people and their pets that science is only now beginning to appreciate fully. Yet I'd never been really sick; never had to call on pets to point me toward a healthier lifestyle. This Bond that I could describe in passionate detail I'd only felt as an observer. In reality, I didn't have the first idea about how to heal.
Copyright (c) 2002 Dr. Marty Becker