Coast Guard officer Ian Lius back was killing him. But his problem wasnt… (Original artwork by Owen…)
Ian Liu’s back was killing him — and no matter what he tried, it wasn’t getting better.
The 39-year-old Coast Guard officer assumed he had wrenched his back caring for his infant son, not surprising given his long history of lower back problems. But this time, the pain was much more intense and persistent, and neither physical therapy nor painkillers seemed to help.
For more than a month, Liu shuttled between two Washington area military hospitals, searching for an explanation and, especially, relief.
“It was the worst pain I’d ever had,” Liu recalled. A series of tests failed to explain his deteriorating condition, which stumped the medical personnel who treated him.
It was only after Liu’s wife confided that he sometimes seemed disoriented that a doctor looked beyond the obvious problem and discovered the source of Liu’s pain. The cause turned out to be unrelated to his orthopedic history — and far more serious than a bad back.
Collapse in the commissary
Liu first noticed the pain on a Friday night, Dec. 3, 2004, after he finished bathing the youngest of his three sons.
“I assumed it was just from bending over the tub,” recalled Liu, who figured it would improve with time, as such problems had in the past. But the next day, his pain was worse, and as he wheeled his shopping cart around a Northern Virginia commissary, Liu was glad he had something to lean on.
At the food court where his family stopped for lunch, Liu said, he suddenly felt faint. Paramedics were summoned, and he was taken by ambulance to an emergency room where he had a CT scan of his back along with X-rays and blood tests. After nothing was found, he was sent home with a painkiller, muscle relaxer and instructions to call his primary-care doctor in a few days if he didn’t feel better.
He didn’t. The drugs made him groggy but didn’t seem to touch the pain or blunt the periodic muscle spasms in his back.
On Dec. 7, he saw a physician assistant in the primary-care clinic at a local military hospital. The PA gave Liu a five-day course of corticosteroids to reduce inflammation, along with a more potent muscle relaxer and a painkiller. He advised Liu to see the chiropractor who had previously treated him for back pain.
The next day, the chiropractor tried to manipulate Liu’s spine but soon stopped when it was clear that Liu was in too much pain. He recommended that Liu get an MRI scan, which was performed a few days later, and make an appointment with a neurosurgeon.
“I thought maybe I had a herniated disk or something,” Liu recalled, of the condition that occurs when a disk in the spine slips out of position.
A week later, still miserable, Liu returned to the clinic. The PA referred him to a physical therapist. But at his first session two days later, Liu was unable to tolerate any exercises. By this time, he had lost nearly 10 pounds off his already-thin frame.
“Sitting and standing were the worst,” Liu recalled. “Lying down, at least I didn’t have pressure on my back.” He had made an appointment with a neurosurgeon, but the first opening was three weeks away.
Liu had a more immediate concern. He, his wife and sons had reservations to fly to San Francisco to see his extended family, and Liu wasn’t sure how he would be able to manage the long-anticipated trip. He was in so much pain that he could barely walk.
He loaded up on prednisone, a corticosteroid, and painkillers; using a wheelchair to board the plane, he made the cross-country trip. “I was really out of it the whole time,” he recalled of his days in California. The painkillers made him “dopey and tired,” and he noticed that he sometimes had double vision or felt winded, which he assumed were side effects of the drugs.
His parents, he said, were alarmed by his condition and kept urging him to go to a hospital emergency room.
“I deflected,” he recalled. “I thought, ‘Why sit in an ER for hours and have them tell me I need to see a neurosurgeon when I already have an appointment?’ ”
Liu said his wife, Julie, was “fed up with me” and exhausted caring for three boys younger than 7 and a husband who was increasingly out of it. Liu said he told himself that everything would be sorted out when he saw the surgeon, even if it meant back surgery.
‘Just man up’
The Jan. 4, 2005, appointment with the neurosurgeon started on a sour note. Liu’s MRI had been performed without contrast dye, so the surgeon ordered a new one that would provide more information. But after viewing the results of the new scan, the specialist had disheartening news.
“He told me, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but I see nothing surgical to fix,’ ” recalled Liu, adding that this was the lowest moment of his ordeal — even worse than what would come later. “I felt like maybe this is just in my head and it’s not really that bad. Why couldn’t I just man up and take it?”