Spinal Tap

I was in junior high school at the time, but I remember most of the events surrounding the episode almost as if they happened yesterday.

I had spent most of the day before at a friend’s home, a condo on the beachfront on the south side of Corpus Christi.  He and his brother lived in the mid-rise condo with his mother.  If I ever knew anything about his father, I have long since forgotten it.  It was just the three of them, as far as I knew.  And they must have had money, at least more money than most folks I knew, because living in that mid-rise condo was expensive. And each of the two boys had a sunfish sailboat.  There were other signs of wealth, but those were  enough to tell me they enjoyed privilege.

The previous day, we spent the better part of the day out on Corpus Christi Bay on his little sunfish.  After sailing in and out of shipping lanes, retreating when we heard the ships’ warning horns sound, we took a break from the salt water and jumped in the common area pool.  A few hours of fresh-water fun was enough to wear us both down; I walked the mile and a half to my house.

The following morning, I awoke with the worst headache I had ever had.  My head throbbed and the slightest movement of my neck sent sharp pains through my skull.  It was very hard for me to get out of bed because the pain was so great with every move I made.  I made it up, nonetheless, and made it into the bathroom just in time to reach the toilet before I started throwing up.  Each heave sent explosive pulses of pain through my head and neck.

By the time my gut was empty, my mother had called my friend’s mother.  He was experiencing the same sort of symptoms, though his apparently were not as severely as mine.  My mother then spoke to our family doctor by phone.  She told him about my friend. He asked her about my symptoms and what I had been doing the day before.  He quickly suggested what he thought it might be: meningitis. “It could be any number of things, from the flu to meningitis.  My guess, based on what you’ve told me, is that it’s probably viral meningitis, which requires treatment but isn’t likely to do any long-term harm,” he said to her, “but as I said, it could be something else, could even be spinal meningitis, which is much more serious and requires immediate treatment.”  He told her to take me to his office for an evaluation.

I don’t recall the exact words, but I remember the doctor asking me if I could move my head side to side.  I could, but with great difficulty and pain.  Before I could say so, he said something to the effect that “if you can’t move your head or if it’s too painful, we’ll need to do a spinal tap so we can determine whether you have viral or spinal meningitis.”

His words changed the response I was about to give.  “No,” I said, “it’s not bad.  It’s not as bad as it was. I think it’s getting much better.”

Today, what he called spinal meningitis is more frequently called bacterial meningitis.  At the time, though, I didn’t care.  All I wanted to do was to avoid a spinal tap. I’d overheard someone say how painful spinal taps can be.

I suppose I had told the truth, in a completely unintentional way.  My head did not hurt quite as badly as it had.  Nonetheless, it hurt like hell and moving my neck from side to side exacerbated the pain several-fold.  But I was not about to tell  him and risk what might be even worse pain.  I didn’t know that my aversion to pain could have cost me my life, had the pain been caused by bacterial meningitis.

No spinal tap.  But the doctor told my mother to monitor me and my pain.  “If you see any change, if it gets worse, don’t wait.  Bring him back down here.  Take him to the ER if it’s after hours so we can do a spinal tap.”

I never did find out what was wrong with me.  By the next day, the pain was far more tolerable.  I was able to eat, if only a little. By the third day, I felt human.  By the fourth, I was aching to get out of bed, where I’d been required to stay after getting  home from seeing the doctor.  He had ordered bed rest.

Today, if I experienced the same symptoms, I would be absolutely honest with the doctor.  I think my aversion to pain, still nearly as great as it was then, would be overcome by my interest in staying alive.  At least I hope so.


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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3 Responses to Spinal Tap

  1. Trisha says:

    Absolutely, John. The next door neighbor I had here years ago with my first husband, and the person who sold him his house, her name was Doña Gloria, and a really nice lady. She contacted spinal meningitis after a trip out to Vera Cruz. They treated it too late, only 2 days after she became ill, which proved fatal. She was only 50 years old. Dangerous illness, for sure!

  2. Wow, Trish! I was fortunate, indeed. I’m surprised, too, that the doctor didn’t insist on a spinal tap. If it had been meningitis, his failure to insist on it could have had an awful outcome.

  3. Trisha says:

    Oh God, John! The same happened to me when I was 19. My boyfriend at the time had contacted spinal meningitis. He was working in a hospital. The very hospital he and I ended up in. After his case was confirmed the treating doctors told me and our mutual friends who had been in close contact with him, to come in to be checked. I’d already began to feel as you’ve described. Our friends check out okay. I was admitted, and a spinal tap was ordered. The doctor showed me the “standard” needle he was going to use. It was huge…long. He explained the reason behind that. Every body size was different, and if they had a very heavy person for example, they had to make sure they reached their destination. I was freaked out when I saw it, but I felt so sick, and my head hurt so bad, I was cooperative. They of course gave a series of local shots to anesthetize my lower spine region. In my case it didn’t hurt, though I was drowning in sweat from sheer nerves. My biggest fear at the moment was for me to make the slightest movement. It just felt like heavy pressure on my lower back. Thank goodness for that! I tested positive for meningitis, and remained in the hospital’s isolation unit for 10 days. I had no residual effects.

    I am glad that this is not what you had, and all turned out well for you. Actually surprised the the doctor didn’t press harder for you to have the “tap”. You’re a lucky man, John…someone was watching over you that day!

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