It was late 2017, and I’d been feeling under the weather for a few weeks. I was achy and tired, and I even felt dizzy and nauseous. I was definitely not pregnant, so I chalked it up to work, holiday stress, and the cold December weather in New Jersey, where I live and work as a writer and editor.
I soon started to experience a dull pain on my right side, but I wasn’t sure if it came from my groin or lower back. I checked the calendar and realized I was due for my period. PMS, I thought. My period came and went, but the pain on my right side worsened—only now, my right leg was also tingling.
I was working full-time, sitting in an uncomfortable chair for more than eight hours a day. I figured maybe the pain had something to do with all that time sitting. I started using a standing desk, but it didn’t help. Then I suspected appendicitis. Why did I think it was my appendix? Google, of course. I had the symptoms, which included sharp pain on the right side, plus nausea and stomach bloating.
One afternoon in mid-December, the pain was just unbearable. I was at work and sent a slack to my editor: My appendix burst, I think. Going to ER. Bye.
Misdiagnosed in the ER
At the emergency room, a kind nurse asked, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is your pain?’
“It’s a 20,” I answered.
She gave me a look; I assumed she thought I was fishing for meds.
“I’m not here for drugs,” I said. “I think my appendix burst.” She got me into a bed and pulled the curtain. I folded up into the fetal position in my black jeans and black turtleneck sweater.
I’ve had some experience in hospitals. Three years earlier, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. I underwent thyroid removal surgery and radiation, which necessitated multiple hospital trips for tests and doctor appointments. I was still cancer-free at my last checkup, and I didn’t think it had anything to do with the symptoms I was now experiencing.
I’m a single mom, so I called my brother and asked him to pick up my son from school. The ER doctor, a jolly, goofy guy, came in and examined me. When he pushed on the area where my appendix is, I froze with pain. He ordered blood labs, an x-ray of my pelvis, and an abdominal ultrasound.
Hours later, the test results were in, and he diagnosed me with a benign ovarian cyst. I was discharged and told to take Motrin, use a heating pad, and follow up with my ob-gyn. An ovarian cyst was causing all that pain? And tingling in my leg? I went home skeptical. The next day, when I went to see my ob-gyn, she confirmed that I did have a small cyst on my right ovary.
When I looked up ovarian cysts later, I read that these are not uncommon in menstruating women. A cyst can form during ovulation when the follicle that’s supposed to rupture and release an egg fails to do so. Another type of cyst happens when fluid accumulates in the follicle. Both are benign cysts that tend to resolve themselves. Yet sometimes they cause pain in the lower right or left side of the pelvis, according to womenshealth.gov.
I still wasn’t so sure a cyst was the root of the problem. And how did it explain the tingling and numbness in my leg? That night I took a cocktail of Tylenol and Motrin to quell the pain and tried to go to sleep.
A second trip to the hospital
I was back in the emergency room hours later because I threw up, and the pain in my right side had become excruciating. Between these two symptoms, I was confident that my appendix was the problem. I was at the same hospital, but a different ER doctor saw me this time.
“I threw up. I can’t stand up straight.”
“Are you pregnant?” the doctor asked.
At this point, I really just lost it. The pain was overwhelming. I was exhausted.
“Are you suggesting I’m someone who doesn’t know they’re pregnant until the baby is crowning? Because I’m not in labor, my friend. Do I look pregnant?” I stretched my shirt against my flat stomach.
He ordered a transvaginal ultrasound, then read the scan. “You have a cyst,” he announced. “Cysts are painful. Your appendix is absolutely fine.” He wrote me an Rx for Percocet, which took the edge off the pain, and my dad drove me home. I was exhausted and figured I’d deal with things in the morning. But even with the prescription painkiller, one symptom persisted: the numbness and tingling in my right leg.
"You have to help me—something is very wrong"
The next morning, I couldn’t get out of bed; my right leg was numb, and the pain in my side was terrible. My dad was already on his way over to help me get my son to school. Once my son was on his way, my dad actually carried me out of bed to get me into his car and to another hospital.
When we arrived at Hackensack University Medical Center in northern New Jersey, I was unable to walk and had to use a wheelchair. The admitting nurse helped me change into a gown, and then an outrageously handsome doctor flung open the curtain and sat on the bed.
“Christine, I read the reports from the other hospital. You do have a very small cyst. I spoke to your ob-gyn—I know her—and she doesn’t think the cyst could cause this kind of pain. Talk to me.” What a relief it was to be dealing with a doctor who didn’t just order up some tests but actually spoke to me and wanted to listen.
“I want morphine and an MRI. I’m not leaving this hospital until I am properly diagnosed. I have a young son, a dog, a job, it’s Christmastime and I am in head and neck cancer remission.” I briefed him on my diagnosis with thyroid cancer in 2014, the surgeries and radiation I endured, and my regular doctor checkups.
“I have been in and out of hospitals for years and I know my body,” I explained. “I’m confident something more is wrong than a minuscule cyst.” I put my hand on the doctor’s hand. “You have to help me. Something is very wrong.”
He ordered a morphine IV drip and the MRI. He listened to me. He even let me have a cup of lemon Italian ice. An hour later he read the MRI results to me—and what he found out came as a complete surprise.
Finally, the right diagnosis
“Christine, you have a herniated disk at L5. (L5 is a vertebra in the lower back.) It’s leaking. It is also pressing on the sciatic nerve, which is causing the extreme pain, tingling, and numbness in your leg. You need spine surgery. I’m admitting you.”
A herniated disk? Because of the cyst diagnosis, I was expecting something along those lines, like ovarian cancer. Then a lightbulb went off.
“I fell in the snow! I was playing with my son and dog! I slipped!” I blurted out to the doctor. “I landed directly on my bottom. It was a hard impact; I remember feeling a vibration. I dried off and was achy the next day but took some Tylenol,” I told my doctor.
Things fell into place now. According to Mayo Clinic, a herniated disk occurs when something happens to one of the rubbery cushions (or discs) between the vertebrae that make up the spine. If one of the discs gets a tear because of an injury, the soft cushioning inside can start to leak out. This irritates nearby nerves and muscles, causing pain, numbness, or weakness. In my case, the disc was irritating the sciatic nerve, which runs from the lower back through the hips and butt and down both legs.
McDreamy clarified that adults get herniated disks for a few reasons: genetic predisposition, occupational hazards, excess weight, or like me, blunt force trauma—that fall in the snow.
Undergoing spinal surgery
I chose to have my disc surgery at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, and the operation happened two days later. I had a microdiscectomy, a technique that uses small tools to create a small incision. A microscope allows the surgeon to see the disc before operating. I needed only a small sliver of my disc removed—the part that was pressing on the sciatic nerve, triggering the radiating pain.
I stayed in the hospital overnight, then went on disability for eight weeks and attended physical therapy to strengthen my left and right sides. (Turns out I was putting all of my weight on my left side for a long time, without even realizing it, to relieve the pain on my right side caused by the herniated disc.) And that ovarian cyst? It eventually dissolved.
No more pain—but some words of advice
It’s been more than a year since I received the correct diagnosis for my pain and had surgery to relieve it. I came away with some insight: If I hadn’t advocated for myself, demanded that MRI, and didn’t get angry and insistent that a cyst was not at the root of my pain, I’d still be suffering. It would also have delayed getting the right diagnosis, and my disc surgery would have been riskier.
So I’m glad I insisted on going back to the hospital until I was taken seriously, and then persisted until I found a doctor who listened to me. I’m now pain-free and back to my regular life. Listening to what my gut told me made all the difference.
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