dr. joe from new mexico
story by michael estabrook
I'm sitting bent over like crazy at the chiropractor's. This is my first visit ever. Oh, I have certainly thought about going to one over the years. When I was a teenager I had a serious operation done on my spine. They cut a hunk of bone out of my hip, then grafted it onto my spine. Seems I was born with an abnormality in my lower back, an inherent weakness. The vertebral canals or lumens or whatever are too wide-open, or weak-walled, I can't remember exactly. Without much provocation, if I walked too fast or sneezed or slept wrong, my back would go out, just like that. Then I'd be stooped over and twisted for a few days, waiting for Mother Nature to sort the whole mess out.
So it had to be fixed, at least back in 1966 it had to be fixed. Today is another matter, of course. My doctor tells me, seems to enjoy telling me in fact, They would never do this operation on you today. Great. Isn't that great? Medicine, such a merry, fickle, devil-may-care science.
Even though I knew for years that chiropractic might help alleviate the pain to some extent, it isn't covered by my HMO. I could never afford the 60 to 80 dollars per treatment. But to be honest about it, I've always been suspect of the whole thing, of doctors pouncing down on you, twisting your limbs all over the place, cracking your joints, and doing this and that.
For about a week now I had been in such agony that I decided to give it a try. What did I have to lose? So I'm here, in this dull, quiet office with the obligatory Norman Rockwells on the walls, with the plants dying of thirst dropping leaves and petals on the counters and floor, with the piles of ancient, ugly dog-eared magazines on the table in front of me that I can't reach.
I'm the only one here in the waiting room, except for the receptionist, a young woman, perhaps 17 or 18. She looks pleasant enough with her shiny pink lips and crisp summer outfit. She's filing her nails with an emery board, waiting for me to finish the half dozen forms I need to fill out and sign. I'm in such pain I can't even read the stuff. I'm writing down almost anything just to make this all go faster. But I don't really know what I'm expecting here. This is a desperation attempt. I suppose I'm hoping for some sort of miracle, for the chiropractor to crack something or other and poof! I'm cured just like that. Suddenly, I'm feeling so old, like my father-in-law with his bad feet and back and legs and neck.
Dr. Joe comes out to greet me, stretches out his hand. I raise myself up by pushing off the chair and clutching onto the wall.
Oh my, this doesn't look good, let's take some x-rays. Dr. Joe's from a school somewhere in New Mexico, I think the receptionist said, or maybe it was from someplace across the border. He seems like a nice young man with somewhat unkempt, choppy dark hair. And he has a few scars gleaming faintly from his forehead and the bridge of his nose. (From being struck, no doubt, with a bottle or a pool cue in a bar fight in Tijuana.)
About twenty minutes after the x-rays have been taken, he calls me into the back room. He stands there pensively, stooping forward slightly (or maybe it's just that his arms are too long for his body) and shows me the films of my spinal column. My sad, lackluster vertebrae are tilting to the left like a lopsided stack of coins, leaning like the Tower of Pisa. And they're screaming at me, I can hear them screaming at me - Get this pain out of me! Help! Do something to get this pain out of me, you idiot!
"The stiffness in your lower back, more specifically your acute tortipelvis, the exacerbation of bilateral lumbar strain with vertebral subluxation complexes and associated paravertebral myalgia along with muscle spasms and antalgic posture deformation, is caused by advanced diffuse lumbar intervertebral disc degeneration and premature arthritis resulting primarily from the surgical fusion of the L4/L5 motor unit that was done on you years ago."
OK, well, that's cool. Whatever you say, Doc.
I stand cocked at the hip, my mouth open, the pains shooting down my tired, wobbly legs while he circles the problem areas with a thick, red grease-pencil. Then he flicks on another x-ray panel so I can see what a healthy normal back looks like.
This is a woman, says Dr. Joe, a little older than you, but as you can see she has a good back, a good strong back. And I can tell it's a woman, because I see the outline of her bra-cup holding up a rather hefty although not, at least from this vantage point, unattractive breast.
Next I lie on my side on this table with a drop-down middle. I don't like the way that sounds at all. He positions himself, his entire body weight, over me. He pauses there, sizing me up, hovering like one of those fat-bellied helicopters they used in Nam, then he pounces! snaps down hard, Holy Christmas! on the bones of my spine. They make these loud cracking-popping noises like the sounds of giant hand's knuckles being cracked and popped.
I gasp as he rolls me over and does it again on the other side. Then it's on to my neck, crack-pop, crack-pop, to let the carbon dioxide out of the spaces in the joints. (Come on, Doc, you can't really expect anyone to believe such silliness, can you?)
Next, after sitting up gingerly, feeling a little light-headed, wondering if I'm still in one piece, it's off to this medieval torture chamber, wall-to-wall racks and tables and ladder-like contraptions and rolling-pin machines. I lie face-down on a hard bench for my cryotherapy. Oh boy, this doesn't even sound good.
A young, Igoresque woman with pimples, no make-up, and stringy, not terribly clean hair, (maybe she tangled with that grease-pencil of Dr. Joe's) sticks four cold electrodes over the muscles in my lower back. Next she slaps on one of those wet ice-cold cold-packs football players use when they've sprained an ankle. It feels like a dead octopus. Then she turns the electricity on. Yikes! I feel like Rambo when that surly, rather unpleasant Russian General was electro-shocking him over and over again on that rusted box-spring-like apparatus.
"If your muscles start to spasm or twitch just give me a holler. OK? Don't wait now, don't try to be a macho guy or anything. Give me a holler. I'm always within hollering range." And off she stumps.
I lie there quietly listening to the muffled sounds of back crackings and breathful gruntings. I lie there, still as a cement post in an empty park on a gray winter's day. I'm feeling so old and decrepit with my cracked-popped spine, cold and sizzling at the same time. I lie there wondering when they'll be bringing in the leeches and which parts of my limp, pathetic body they'll be sticking them on.