A slight rewind.
On October 20, 1997, my parents and I were in a car accident. They had come into LA to celebrate my birthday, and as we crossed Nordhoff St. on Etiwanda Ave., an octogenarian having a diabetic seizure ran the red light and slammed into the side of our car. It was a spectacular scene, with two rumpled vehicles, glass, plastic, smoke, steam, and blood. We were all banged up, and I dizzily ran to check on the other driver. I was sickened to see blood smeared, horror-movie style, all over the inside of his still-running Cadillac. As it turns out, he’d just cut his hand and was flailing about in a state of confusion. The poor old coot had missed his insulin and blacked out.
After making sure he was okay and flagging down a bystander to call for an ambulance, I sat on the curb and cried hysterically. What a rush of fear and adrenaline! My neck was sore, but I was already in people-pleasing mode: who needs another whiny person in a neck brace?
The paramedics weren’t so convinced. They did a few tests and my reactions confirmed a concussion and possible neck injury, so they loaded me onto a stretcher and took me to the hospital. Much of the rest of the day was a blur, but I definitely had whiplash for several weeks afterward.
I took a week off of playing, but attended rehearsals for the various ensembles I was part of. Everything hurt, and I began to develop a meaningful sense of fear about when the pain would next incapacitate me. You see, it started changing the way my hands worked: my arms felt heavy, or sometimes felt nothing at all. A delay developed, becoming at times so pronounced that I could actually see the lag between the moment my brain asked my finger to move and the movement occurring. My fingerings became ever more Byzantine, trying to favor 1 and 2, but it was a race against time.
I decided to apply for an audio engineering program abroad and take a year off of large scale playing. Of course that’s when I moved to London, had the time of my life, and ended up winning the concerto competition. Go figure. My life is weird. My time in the UK was not without pain, but something about being there sat right with me, and I played nearly as much as I wanted to for a whole year.
I returned to CA with optimism and a sense of purpose. It would not last long: I bombed out of a recital almost immediately upon re-entry, streaking offstage in tears, unable to get through the Elgar. After a few days of trying to play through the pain, it was determined by my advisors that I would take the semester off of playing and use it as an opportunity to finish my GE classes. This ended up being wonderful, discovering a love for subjects that used to scare me. Fractal math and physics were tantalizing. I considered becoming a geology major after taking some paleontology courses.
During this time, I tried other Kaiser facilities to see if I could get a diagnosis. I saw orthopedists, hand surgeons, neurologists and sports docs at Sunset. Ventura. Woodland Hills. Panorama City. More doctors, more pills, more offers of surgery. It was always the same. I couldn’t convince anyone that the symptoms could have had some other cause, even though referred pain has been an extensively documented phenomenon for over 500 years.
The rest helped, and in the winter semester of 2000, I played a senior recital of Bach, Shostakovich, Ginastera, and Mozart that was technically 6 minutes short of the minimum length, but my advisors were also guardian angels, knowing this was the only way I could hobble through. And hobble, I did. After the recital, I took a few weeks off and began experimenting with treatment myself. The internet was in full swing at this time, so I got to scare myself with “you probably have something fatal” at the end of most searches.
During the early 2000s, I managed to cobble together a career despite the attempts at mutiny my body would stage. The pain was something only my closest friends knew about: you don’t publicize this stuff professionally if you want the phone to ring and the bills to get paid. Several people I met through my work at Baxter Northup even subsidized medical interventions that had helped them: acupuncture, Thai massage, Reiki, moxibustion. It was cool to have someone lay hands on my body and agree that all was not well, and that my back and neck needed tending to. For a while, things seemed under control. The pain was ever-present, but could be tamped down to some degree.
In the back of my mind, a shadow lurked.
Motor control problems
The shadow whispered you probably have multiple sclerosis, just like Jackie. I would silently plead with a God whose existence seems only certain in foxholes and emergency rooms: please don’t let me lose my hands like she did. That whispering voice became a constant companion, and as they were performing a lumbar puncture years later, in search of the oligoclonal bands in my spinal fluid that could confirm my most feared diagnosis, my hope was at its nadir.
The year was 2009.