Pain and Sickness Are Death in Slow Motion

Do you remember the TV show called “The Six Million Dollar Man”? The 1970’s show was about an astronaut who had bio-implants that gave him super-human type powers! Little did I realize that one day my husband would receive computerized implants!

In April 2004 I brought home my own bionic man!

My husband had received a diagnosis of “severe spinal cord injury with a spinal tear” and was told to sit still and rest for 1-2 years. Given a 5-pound weight limit and no hope for recovery, the doctors loaded him up with Oxycontin, Percocet, Morphine, and a few other heavy-duty painkillers – all at levels normally reserved for the terminally ill – and wished us good luck.

His final surgery for the year was an experiment to implant an electronic neurostimulator from the top of his back and down to his hip. Neurostimulators were becoming common in those days but no one had yet successfully implanted the apparatus into the region of the thoracic spine, we were told.

The theory is, you shoot controlled electric currents into the spinal cord to shut off the pain. Cauterizing local nerves also served to help shut off the pain, theoretically. The computerized battery was designed to control the current on both sides of the spine and could be dialed up or down by the patient.

The neurostimulator was to become yet another failed experiment that would forever impact our lives.

Making our way down the 401 from Bakersfield to California my husband went into out-patient surgery (yes, out-patient!) to have his back opened up and wires implanted along his spine, from top to bottom. In the middle, near the source of the injury, a junction box was installed that served to conduct electricity to the wires. Into his hip was implanted a computerized battery that was operated by a control unit with all kinds of fancy buttons.

Arriving in the recovery room, the doctor passed a box to me and told me to read the instructions, while a nurse handed out a yellow sheet of paper with standard surgical recovery procedures and then told me to bring my pickup to the front door.

This was the 9th surgical procedure, so I just did what I was told.

With the nurse’s help I lifted my husband out of the wheelchair and propped him up in the passenger seat, very droopy from anesthetic. I hit the 401 and we returned to Bakersfield.

At home I opened up the box and curiously inspected a gray control panel with a lot of buttons… similar to a PlayStation controller. What in the world? I asked my heavily sedated husband, “Did anyone show you how to use this thing?” Blurry eyed, he said he didn’t remember a thing.

Okay… if all else fails, read the instructions. Needless to say, it was all Greek to me. So we played with it. Controlling the electricity levels, he would have sensations of electricity alternatively jolting through his legs and out his feet… or hands… or even certain personal parts.

It was a bit odd, as I discovered I could make my husband hop, skip, and dance!

We finally resorted to going in to see a specialist, where a company representative arrived to teach us how to use the control unit. Hooking Randy up to his computer, he began properly programming the control panel. Using his computer mouse to determine the appropriate places to shoot electricity, my husband performed like a puppet for the technician. Click the mouse and my husband’s hand jumped. Click the mouse again and his feet reacted. Click the mouse again and my husband was yelling, “You’re making me wet my pants!”

There were times when so much electricity would shoot through his feet that it was like he was disco dancing. It was fun for a few months, but then body fluids filled the battery and shorted out the whole system! Determined to beat the system, we elected for more surgery. This time they tweaked the junction box, excavated the battery from the back of his hip, drained it out, and then re-implanted it into the front of his abdomen. Fuzzy from surgery, the technician tested the electronics and, satisfied with Randy’s responses, flew back to Colorado!

I pulled my pickup truck to the hospital, grabbed my dazed husband, and we left for home…. little realizing something was amiss. They forgot to turn on the computer! A week later they flew the technician back and she turned on the power. We finally left California and returned home to the mountains of Northwestern Montana.

Randy was still using a wheelchair, but it wasn’t working very well on the rocky ground. I’d see his empty wheelchair and then rush to go find him, hoping he hadn’t fallen down anyplace too hard to get him out of. I ordered two canes for him and he began dragging himself around the farm for short distances. But it was like having a 200-pound toddler to watch!

Randy was not one to sit for more than a few minutes. One day I lost track of him only to discover him limping out of the woods, totally drenched in sweat, the sweat of pure terror! In a drug-induced daze he had wandered too far out and had met up with fresh grizzly bear tracks and the sounds of a very large animal in the brush. One cane has broken in half and the other was severely bent out of shape. It’s amazing he got out of the woods in time!

The neurostimulator was too delicate for antics like that, and it broke shortly after that incident. By then our cobra insurance had run out and for the next two years we had no medical intervention except for appointments with the local physician, a country doctor, who said he could do nothing for Randy’s back except prescribe drugs.

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