Monday, January 29, 2007

A Cyst the Size of a Gerbil - Back Surgery Excuse & Web 2.0

Here is my "genuinely lame" excuse for falling behind on email and other activities during the past 6 months: almost-emergency back surgery.

I'm just beginning to catch up. If you have something that I should have done or responded to, please send a copy to Sally Gilbert ( before she leaves for some well-deserved vacation time in Peru in 2 weeks!

Sally and I are proud of our innovative use of Web 2.0 as described in the PPS below.

Thanks for your patience and support.
Sorry that I couldn't send individual messages to everyone I know!
Nice to be back.


A cyst the size of a small gerbil was removed from my spine on January 9.

For the past six months I had been like a frog who hasn't noticed that his pond is really a saucepan heating up very slowly.[1] The pains, twinges and tingles in my left leg continued to increase gradually and erratically in spite of improvements in the ergonomics of my work life, excellent physical therapy, and medical advice. Even though my pains kept me from participating fully in family activities on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I was missing more work time, I didn't imagine anything really serious was going on.

I had joined the large club of post-middle-age people who joke about their chronic back problems.

But on the morning of January 3 I had an MRI, and by lunch time the test results cancelled my membership. The next few days centered on medical tests, hospital visits, and appointments with doctors - culminating with two hours of almost-emergency surgery on the 9th.

I was able to go home on the 10th, and by the next day the pre-surgery pain and side effects had vanished almost completely. January 15 was the day of my real reprieve: positive post-op office exam and a voice mail message reporting that all pathology tests were negative. I'm still coping with the after-effects and side-effects of significant surgery - especially all the anesthetics and drugs, but even the incision pain is dramatically less than what I had been living with during November and December.[2]

For the past twenty years, I've had a typical variety of occasional borderline danger signals from routine medical exams. Each time the recommended follow-up tests revealed that I did NOT have the potential illness. I became complacent about minor symptoms and inconclusive test results. I wasn't prepared for real medical problems - for unavoidable evidence of my own mortality. Almost 2 weeks since the surgery, I'm just beginning to grasp - emotionally as well as intellectually - this new lesson: that all the best preventive efforts cannot avoid the cumulative effects of aging.

So, now I'm hoping to join - slowly - some of those other large clubs of post-middle-age people who share complaints of pains and maladies. And when I do, I hope my membership can be long and undistinguished. Of course, I've become a fanatic about posture, ergonomics, exercise, and other ways of avoiding back problems. And I'm more committed than ever to daily walking outdoors.[3]

Our family doctor keeps reminding me that these infirmities beat the alternative. All things considered, as he says, it's better to be on the right side of the grass.

I'm more grateful than ever for Sally. She is a wonderful health problem partner - as well as wife, mother, and professional. And I'm grateful for the support of many other friends, colleagues, and family members.


PS: Scary News (no longer applicable):
If untreated, the continued growth/pressure of the facet cyst that was fully removed "might" have caused permanent nerve damage with serious consequences - within another few weeks.
"synovial facet cyst"

PPS: Web 2.0 Innovation
Second day home from hospital, Sally inspected the incision on my back and tried to describe it to me. She asked to use my Treo 650 cell phone to take a photo so I could see.
I put the photo of the incision on a Web page along with a photo of me doing a Sudoku in the hospital bed. I emailed the photo and the URL to a helpful Surgical Coordinator.
Viewer discretion advised:
I asked if the incision looked OK and a few other questions. She forwarded the photo and questions to the surgeon and quickly sent me an email reply. No hassles. During the first post-op office visit we learned from the surgeon that we were the first patients to use email and the Web to send a photo for these purposes. Seems like really useful idea.

1. ".. if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will never jump out."
Wikipedia - 1/21/2007
2. On January 5 I had several hours of the worst pain of my life. The next day my first encounter with cortisone and vicodin eliminated the pain entirely and brought the best night's sleep in 6 months. I discovered vicodin was not good for me after the surgery when the pain was already so much less intense.
3. Not just on a treadmill. More later about the principle of "Anything that's different is not the same." A principle that applies to educational technology as well as to walking.

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