In part one (DigBoston, Vol. 20, Iss. 36, p. 6), I related how working a temp factory job at Belden Electronics on assignment for Manpower for several weeks in early 1989 in Vermont led to my sustaining a sudden and permanent spinal injury while walking to my car just after my last shift. At the conclusion of that narrative, I was standing in agony in an empty parking lot outside an empty factory in the middle of the woods in the middle of the night in a snowstorm. My left arm was essentially paralyzed. I was completely alone.
I staggered the remaining distance to my car. Struggled to get the keys out of my left pants pocket with my good right arm. Unlocked the door. Opened it. Tumbled into the driver’s seat. Pulled the shoulder belt over my numb left arm. Waves of pain coursed through my body. Got the car started.
“Can’t pass out,” I told myself, “Don’t have much gas left, and once it’s gone, the heat goes. I can get hypothermia before anyone notices me in here. Could die.”
It was hard to hold my head upright enough to drive, but I managed it. Harder still was getting the car in gear and then driving stick with only my right arm. In a snowstorm. In the middle of the night. Drifting each time my hand was on the stick. Nearly braking into a spin each time I approached top speed in a gear while my hand was on the steering wheel. Nearly stalling whenever I downshifted. And, yeah, that busted second gear I mentioned in part one? That was a real problem. It was tricky enough jumping from first to third gear and back when I wasn’t injured. Doing it while badly hurt and trying to drive one-handed on dangerously icy roads for the roughly half hour I figured it would take me to get from Essex Junction to the emergency room at the big Medical Center Hospital of Vermont in Burlington? That was just asking to get put out of my misery the hard way.
But that was what I set out to do. Why? Not sure. I was fairly lucid, but I wasn’t exactly thinking clearly. Still, not much was open after 9 pm in the rural suburbs of Burlington in the late 1980s. Especially with the snow falling harder with each passing minute. My recollection is that, given the route I was taking, the first gas station that was likely to be open was close enough to the hospital that I might as well drive the full distance myself and skip an ambulance ride I couldn’t afford. And I hadn’t lived in the area long enough to know if there were any emergency rooms closer to my location.
The other problem I faced was the the hypnotizing effect of my headlights reflecting off snowflakes as I drove down unlit back roads. To avoid accidentally getting confused, losing the road, and slamming into something solid, I stayed mostly in first gear. So it took longer to get to my destination. Maybe 45 minutes. Fortunately, I encountered little traffic on the way. And made it to the emergency room.
There I got treated the way people without insurance get treated all the time in America. Like dirt. I sat in the waiting room for over an hour. The bored resident that eventually saw me gave me a cursory examination and sent me for an X-ray. More accurate MRIs weren’t yet common and certainly wouldn’t have been given to patients without coverage at that time. I spent the next couple of hours in an emergency room bay. There was a heroin epidemic in Vermont in that period, so I was offered no pain killers in case I was just another junkie “drug seeker” trying to pull a fast one on the staff for a quick opiate fix.
Finally, the resident returned, and told me that I had dislocated two vertebrae. He gave me a few Tylenol, told me to put heat on my injury, rest for a few days, and see a general practitioner if my arm function didn’t fully return. I was not admitted for more tests or observation. I was not offered stronger pain meds. I was incredulous, but could do nothing. Naturally, I didn’t pay the medical bill when it arrived.
I shuffled back to my car and drove the mile to my apartment. Down the quite steep and icy hill from the University of Vermont campus where the hospital was located to the Old North End. Still one-handed, although I was getting some feeling back in my left arm by that time. At least the snow had let up.
It was 5 am. I got the front door open. Closed it. Got a glass of water. Took some Tylenol. Went to my room. Shut that door. Collapsed onto my futon on the floor of my dingy place that was cheap even by the standards of Burlington in that era. Slept fitfully.
Woke a few hours later to the first day of my new life as a bona fide member of the walking wounded.
It should go without saying that in the days to come both Belden Electronics and the temp service they used to hire me, Manpower, refused to accept responsibility for my injury. Neither company even informed me of my workers’ compensation rights. And I was too young and inexperienced to know much about labor law on my own. So, I proceeded with no money for medical treatment.
Surrounded, as I was, by wide-eyed hippies of the type that Vermont is justifiably infamous for producing, I was strongly encouraged to drop the idea of seeking help from “Western medicine” and seek assistance from one or more of the profusion of “holistic healers” that littered the hills and valleys of my temporarily adopted state like so many locusts. I went with the modality that most closely mimicked actual scientific medicine: chiropractic. Because, you know, its practitioners like to wear white coats and pretend they’re doctors. Regardless of whether they’re in the small minority of their colleagues that restrict their practice to scientifically proven treatments, or the majority that does not.
Unaware that a) with rest and some physical therapy my injury would probably heal to a tolerable baseline on its own within a few weeks, and b) that the neck twisting employed by less scrupulous chiropractors when “treating” injuries like mine carried a very real risk of inducing a life-ending stroke, I gamely allowed to a succession of chiropractors to twist my neck really fast until its vertebrae cracked. In addition to a fairly random grab bag of similar “treatments.” First once a week and later once a month for the next six years. At $30 a visit to start—up to about $60 a visit by the time I realized my trust in chiropractors was misplaced and stopped letting such charlatans violate my person—the price was significantly cheaper than any medical care I thought I could get without insurance.
So, despite feeling worse after every session than I felt when I walked in, I kept it up for far too long. Which was the goal of too many chiropractors. Whatever brings you in their door, they aim to keep you coming back regularly for the rest of your life. Assuming they don’t inadvertently end it. Or merely hurt you badly. As happened when my last chiropractor decided to try electro-muscular stimulation near my head and my vision exploded into whiteness, which faded for an unknown amount of time until I awoke with my face on the quack’s chest. Weak. Somewhat confused. And very angry. I walked out and never came back.
But five years later—over 11 years after the initial injury—I discovered that more damage had been done to my spine. No doubt in part from such ungentle and unschooled ministrations. A story for another day.