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The Unexpected Turn

Joanne 2006-10-04

During our travels Paul and I are purposely not doing much planning. The reason for this is, it leaves room to enjoy or just embrace the unexpected. When there is no real plan, there is also a greater sense of freedom in not having to constantly look at your watch, in not having to adhere to a self imposed strict time schedule. With an open ended date of return, there is a greater proportion of living done in the present moment than planning for the future. This is the one of the allures of our travels of not knowing where we will go next or for how long.

The part of our trip that had been planned was through Europe visiting family and friends. Then off to South America beginning in Quito. After that, I don't know; let's flip a coin, where to next? That was OUR plan, but then you never know what the unexpected holds in store for you.

Without beating around the bush, I suppose there is no gentle way to put this; I had suddenly lost the use of my left arm with any outreaching movement. Did you gasp? When it happened, I did!

There I stood in front of a mirror trying with all my might to send the message to my muscles to perform a function as basic as lifting my arm. A motion I was able to do without difficulty just hours or even moments before. No matter how much I focused, the simplicity of lifting my arm had become as challenging as spinning hay into gold; I could not do it no matter how much I may have wanted to.

Fear, sadness and uncertainty had my thoughts racing a mile a minute. Would this become permanent? How would we go about getting the proper care in South America? Was it safe for me to fly home? Should we be on the next flight to Canada? Would this be the end of our travels? .......

As soon as I had noticed the weakness in my arm, I was quite certain the culprit was a disc herniation in my neck which was causing pinching on some nerves. We needed to get some answers and the only way to do this with any amount of certainty was to get an immediate MRI. Easy enough, or so we hoped.

The Canadian Embassy directed us to the largest and most reputable hospital in Quito, hospital Metropolitano. This would become our home base for almost a week.

I didn't know what kind of care to expect in South America. This uncertainty carried with it much fear and apprehension in seeking treatment. Once arriving to the emergency room, my main fear subsided; the hospital looked mostly like any in North America The immediate difference was that there was almost no one there! Sadly most Ecuadorians cannot afford insurance, which brings us to another difference, very little to no waiting time compared to the typical North American emergency room experience.

Then of course there was the obvious main difference, the minor detail that these doctors did not speak very much English if any at all. Challenging, but doable.

The triage process went smoothly; my goal throughout the process was to get referred to a neurologist. After about 2 hours, mission accomplished, and the bonus was she spoke English.

Dr. Magdallena Gomez had ordered an urgent MRI. Fantastic!! Unfortunately the hospitals MRI machine was broken, but no worries it was being fixed immediately. Apparently immediate in some cultures is defined differently than in others. When enquiring about it, the answer was always different and always "maƱana", tomorrow at some time. After two days of this, we were ready to book a flight back. Time may of been of the essence, while no movement in my arm had returned, there was no further loss either, it seemed I was stable, but there was still uncertainty if it was safe for me to fly. As luck would have it, Dr.Gomez found an opening at another facility first appointment the following morning. The feeling of luck is all relative.

I was grateful for the care that I was receiving and that I was seemingly one step closer to gaining more information on what was going on, then figuring out if we needed to fly back to Canada. Shortly after the dye got injected into my arm and I was slid into the MRI machine I was no longer feeling very grateful or lucky.

Lying in a tube for 25-30 minutes, no problem. I'll simply keep my eyes closed, try to breath softly and ignore the constant stream of noise that could best be described as a machine gun going off in your ear. Not a big deal.

Sure if that was how it happened. After going into the tube, communication was cut off. This was not the most comforting of feelings. I kept to my plan of breathing slowly and keeping my eyes closed. Time seemed to stand still. There I lay neck and shoulders strapped down, loud noises blasting in without reprieve and no end in sight. Countless times I had considered calling for someone but I probably would not have been heard and the movement from me doing so would have only prolonged the process. This was truly the longest 30 minutes of my life.

I was certain at least 25 minutes had come and gone. So when the technician came into the room, I was overcome with relief to be released. Only he wasn't coming in to release me, instead he came in and said "No move, photo no clear, need take more photo". With the exception of some minor chest expansion from the little breathing that I was doing, I was a statue. So I thought.

I am not claustrophobic, but I was ready to beg, bribe or threaten him in order to get out of this machine. Seriously, I was prepared to beat him with my limpy left arm if I had too. An amusing visual, no?

While the care was excellent, it can not be forgotten that Ecuador as a developing country does not have the funds for the latest and greatest in equipment. The pictures were not clear enough and so he just continued taking pictures....for 2 hours!!!! No kidding it really was the longest 30 minutes of my life.

It was confirmed, I did have a discal herniation. If you are of the mindset that more is better, than you will think this statement is a positive thing. I not only have a discal herniation, I have two. What can I say, if you're gonna do it, do it right!

I had gone as far as I could in the Ecuadorian health care system. It was now time to fly home and make friends with a neurosurgeon and figure out what the next steps would be.

This gained knowledge was bittersweet. We were finally going back to Canada where I could get the care that I needed. There still lies so much uncertainty. Would we ever be coming back to pick up from where we left off? Our taste buds had just barely been wet with travel; so much lay ahead, or did it? Is this goodbye or just see you soon?

The neurosurgeon in the ER in Canada, did not find the MRI taken in Ecuador clear enough to make a definitive diagnosis. I needed another MRI!!! Comparatively speaking the second experience was as pleasant as a spa treatment.

Here's the bad news and then the good news, you read whichever you prefer first. I personally prefer to end on a good note.

Bad News

Because it is multi-level the only surgical option would be to fuse both levels of the spine together and put a metal plate. Ugh!

Good News

From the time of the initial onset and the visit with the neurosurgeon I had made some minor improvement. I could lift my arm a little in front, but I couldn't withstand any resistance or lift it out to the side.

It is possible that if I follow the do's and don'ts that I may be able to avoid surgery. I'm in!! It can be difficult to tell sometimes, but it seems like I am making improvements almost daily. I can lift my arm overhead in both directions and even take some resistance now, but it gets tired really easily. So things like washing dishes are out. (Not really but it's what I asked the neurosurgeon to tell Paul) The next 6 weeks will be crucial ones in determining if surgery lay ahead or if we will be able to continue traveling.

We now find ourselves in Montreal; it goes without saying we most definitely did not plan this. As I mentioned earlier, the beauty of not planning the trip to its entirety is to be open and available to exploring new avenues. Instead of looking at this as the end of our travels we have chosen to make an adventure out of our time here.

Paul and I were born and raised in Montreal, but there is much of the city that remains a mystery to us both. As I am sure most of you can attest to, most do not explore their own city with much vigor. There is often so much else going on in your life that you put off the touristy stuff until someone comes to visit. In our case we moved away and were left with the overwhelming sensation of having missed out on so much in such a vibrant multicultured city.

Neither of us has ever experienced downtown living. It's an experience we both craved to at least try. What better opportunity? So we continue our travels but in Montreal. We have rented a furnished apartment in the heart of the city and are thoroughly enjoying taking in new sites and new experiences on a daily basis. It's such a different energy to live in a city's main artery. Just walking the streets and feeling its pulse is invigorating.

For the first time in 9 years we are close to our families for longer than the usual 10 day Christmas vacation. This is a nice unexpected change for us too.

Did I mention how incredibly beautiful autumn is in Montreal? I had forgotten its mesmerizing effect and the feel of a cool autumn breeze.

As of right now our plan is to continue on to our next destination at the beginning of December, assuming that I am given the O.K. by the neurosurgeon. If he doesn't give me the o.k. there is always the option of beating him with my limpy left arm until he clears me. Until then we will take full advantage of being in our city and falling in love with it all over again.

You never know where the unexpected turns will lead you.


Permalink by John Condos   |  October 7, 2006 10:39 PM

It could have been worse......I know bad joke. I have a feeling you won't need surgery. Call it bald guy's intuition. I love the Fall and what better way to spend it then in the North East with family and living in a city environment. By the way Joanne, you are an excellent writer. Really good. Keep the updates coming. John C.

Permalink by Christian Berlin   |  October 16, 2006 02:27 PM


I am sorry to hear from that unexpected turn. I really hope, that this break will not smash Your plan to travel the world.

I whish You to get healthy again, Joanne! I am with You.

With the best whishes from Berlin,


Permalink by Sander van Zoest   |  October 29, 2006 08:39 PM

Hi Joanne,

I hope you are feeling better soon. Glad to hear you are in good hands now.

Best wishes from San Diego!

-- Sander

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