If someone had asked me to define “L3” several months ago, I would have guessed it somehow involved the Los Angeles rock band that called itself L7. I have since learned through experience that a misaligned L3 vertebra can cause strong pain in the lower back. The pain can be so strong that it spreads to a leg. That was the story of my life throughout the summer and until recently. I have not known such exhausting pain since rupturing my spleen during my childhood.
I am 56 years old now, and I hasten to assure younger readers of Covenant that my regular posts will not become chronicles of my physical decay. I write about the pain now mostly to give thanks for physical therapists.
I have seen a few physical therapists at work before, but they drew my attention mostly in the abstract. I knew they were generally compassionate, encouraging, and patient, but somehow I still expected to be scolded for slouching, twisting my spine in bizarre directions, and spending most of my waking hours working on a laptop.
I was intimidated on my first visit to Tidewater Physical Therapy. I saw a mini-gym and shuddered. How many of those instruments of torture would I have to work on to be rid of this chronic pain?
I have felt something else from my first visit and on each return: awe. This room felt like a sacred place, filled with people who are injured, or losing agility, or recovering from surgery. People lay on their backs doing stretching exercises or being treated by therapists and assistants. Others use gym equipment like treadmills, weights, or steps to renew failing muscles.
Only last week I heard Kevin, the therapist who established this clinic, telling a fellow patient that he likely was dealing with an internal brain injury. I remembered my late father, who suffered from such a brain injury after a tractor-trailer plowed into his vehicle in the early 1990s. Dad probably would have died had he not been wearing his seat belt that day. I don’t think Dad ever saw a physical therapist after that crash, and I wonder how much better he might have coped with the devastating effects of daily vertigo and nausea.
On each visit to my physical therapist, I have felt a room permeated with healing and hope. The therapists speak with humor and kindness. The room’s generous windows offer views of a wooded area, which is an easily overlooked scene alongside the rushing traffic of the six-lane suburban highway just outside the doors. A radio station plays softly enough to provide ambient sound.
I hesitate to look directly at any other patient, unless they are already glancing my way. Most of us assume vulnerable postures, doing odd exercises with names like “lower pelvic tilt: anterior,” “trunk rotation stretch,” and “moderate multifidus exercise.” We would look comical to one another if we did not all know that our recovery depends on these twists and turns, contortions meant to undo other contortions that have landed us here.
As I approach the completion of my regular visits, I already miss it in an odd way. I have come to realize that this sojourn through lower back pain has been what an ordained friend likes to call his daily humility pill. Throughout my life as a Christian I have tried to welcome occasions of humility, but I have thought of it almost entirely in terms of mental and spiritual activity.
My pain has given me a strong dose of physical humility. It reminded me that our bodies do not recover so quickly after several decades of life. It deepened my sympathy for why older friends talk so much about their physical struggles. It renewed the lesson that the day will come when no medical expertise, no painkillers, no compassionate physical therapists can forever keep my death at bay.
Above all, however, this pain and subsequent healing have reminded me that God’s love is stronger than death and his strength is most evident amid my weakness. It is easier to be thankful for back pain when it has diminished so much, but I am thankful nonetheless.
Doug LeBlanc’s other posts may be found here. The featured image, “The electro-therapeutic guide, or, A thousand questions asked and answered” (1907), was uploaded to Flickr by Internet Archive Book Images. It is licensed under Creative Commons.