This is Part 2 of my Spine Surgery Summer Series. If you missed Monday’s column, you should start there.
The nurse’s urgency over the telephone startled me.
“Do you think it’s OK to wait until Tuesday?” I said.
“If your condition deteriorates before then, call me,” she said. That was not the answer I expected.
My hands had been numb for months, so my doctor ordered up an MRI. It showed severe stenosis: narrowing of the spinal vertebrae, compressing the spinal cord, damaging it. The first surgeon I saw suggested operating right away. Now, I was seeking the famed second opinion.
My wife insisted on going with me. She wanted another adult in the room besides the doctor.
Dr. Alpesh Patel was a revelation. I assumed he’d merely endorse the first doc’s suggestion. He didn’t. Instead, Dr. Patel gazed at the MRI and called the go-in-the-front-and-pluck-out-the-bone-spur strategy “dangerous.” Doing that, he explained, also might yank out a chunk of spinal cord. The hole would then leak spinal fluid and couldn’t be repaired, leading to meningitis and — I’m not sure if he said this or I just added it, mentally — death.
Dr. Patel took a long time explaining what was going on — if Dr. Bone Joint took 10 minutes, he took 40. As if I were an actual human suddenly facing a complicated and terrifying situation, and not just the latest sack of defective meat delivered to his doorstep by the health care conveyor belt. He contemplated the MRI, musing, “Hmm, I’m not sure WHAT is the best thing to do here.” He ordered a CT scan to get a better look.
Doctors love to radiate certainty. But suddenly the first diagnosis felt like a clerk at Macy’s giving me the once-over and announcing that I’m a 38 Regular. Being initially uncertain — Go through the back? The front? Both? — struck me as a sign that Dr. Patel was actually evaluating the situation instead of just pulling a procedure off the rack and hoping it fit me. My wife watched saucer-eyed — she later insisted it was worth my having surgery just to see Dr. Patel in action.
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