MRI of the Back

The Chart is Not the Patient

Oh, my God,” he cried, the wet films hanging from the light board as I hastily got dressed. I thought he was going to tell me I had a breast cancer.

My husband, a radiologist, was giving me my annual mammogram when he made that exclamation. But no, it wasn’t cancer.

“You have the worst degenerative disk disease I’ve ever seen,” he’d said, looking past my breasts at my spine.I didn’t care about that. I didn’t have breast cancer, and I was pretty damned healthy. I ran 50 miles a week, had run 8 marathons, and in my early fifties I was only concerned about breast cancer.

“I have no pain,” I said. “You will,” he said ominously. “And when you do, don’t have an MRI of your back. Because if you do, they will try to recommend surgery. And back surgery never works.”

A couple of years later, he himself died of cancer.

I forgot about that mammogram until one day I tried to get out of bed and couldn’t straighten up. In terrible pain, I hauled myself out of bed on to the canal bank to meet my running buddies for our usual run. As I struggled, my back loosened up, and I felt better. But that wasn’t the end of it. Day after day I awoke frozen, ran to “warm up,” and re-froze when I sat down.

Finally, I started seeing orthopedic surgeons, starting with one of our friends, and I had the MRI. “You’ve got to have something done,” he said, or you will be in a wheelchair without bowel and bladder control.” That alone was enough to scare the piss out of me. I got a second opinion, and then I went to the famous Barrow Neurological Institute, then the best place in the city for back surgery.

The famous surgeon Volker Sonntag kept me waiting for thirty minutes as he did his rounds accompanied by his epigone. Uncomfortable while I waited (I couldn’t sit either), I picked up a pamphlet about back exercises and lay down on his office floor to do them. When he came in, he said the same thing everyone else did and, cowed, I scheduled surgery.

But the idea of surgery (I had never had any, and even my childbirths were natural) terrified me. My own mother had come out of an anaesthetic for routine surgery demented. And I was a mind worker — a widow with foster children to support and kids still in college. The surgery was the kind where they put a metal cage around your spine and screw everything in place. Sonntag said in six months I’d be good as new.

I came into the Biltmore gym in tears, and talked to my trainer, Chip Bohlman. He said to me, “why don’t you try yoga. It helps some people. And we have a class here at the hotel.” The only reason I went, because of course twenty years ago Type A people scorned things like yoga, was because the thought of surgery was so terrifying and the pain was so intense.

At the first class, Mary Bruce put us into a forward fold, and I couldn’t straighten up. But I kept going, and eventually the pain subsided. I postponed the surgery. Mary Bruce, my savior, left the Biltmore, and I followed her to a new yoga studio opening near me. I practiced at least three times a week, got certified as a teacher, and went back six months later for a followup to Sonntag. “Well, “ he said.” You’re one of the lucky ones for whom conservative treatment worked.”

Just like that. I remembered what my husband had said: “surgeons sell surgery.”

Fast forward twenty odd years. Volker Sonntag retired last year. I still haven’t had surgery. MRI still looks dreadful, and every time I see a doctor, he or she gasps. I still practice yoga.

The chart is not the patient.

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