My Trusty Red Bag

与曾叔叔闲聊: 我的值得信赖的红包 (Dan Zhao 翻译)

Accidental falls are a major reason for death in seniors. If you’re young you might be thinking of parents and grandparents who are at risk. Indeed, I’ve personally heard of too many instances of very serious falls in older people. As a result, they injure their back, neck or brain, or fracture their bones; and become bed-ridden, some never getting up from bed thereafter.

An overseas mother came to visit her son, a new faculty member in my department in Cincinnati. While staying at her son’s home, in the middle of the night she fell down a full flight of stairs. She remarked whimsically to herself when she hit the bottom that “at least I finally tasted American lobster, before I go.” There were no lobsters where she came from in England, so it was a good thought. And she survived to tell the story, which was reassuring, especially since I was to “blame” for recruiting her son, partly by entertaining him through the same delicacy, his first time also.

Recently, during a visit back to Cincinnati, my wife slipped down a few carpeted stairs in a dear friend’s home. She landed on the stairs on her back and broke a rib. Unfamiliar stairs, slippery slippers, holding onto cup and plate, all contributed to the event. No major disaster fortunately, but 6 weeks of some pain and discomfort, and the potential for disaster. That really started me thinking. Was there some simple way falls or back injuries could be prevented, since the consequences could be life-threatening!?

One cold winter day in Cincinnati, the beloved leader of our hospital was watching from his garage door, while his wife was taking out their trash to the curbside. He was a tall elegant figure standing there in the cold, but within a split second he was on the ground. Little did he realize, he had slipped on the icy pavement. His thigh bone, the femur, was described later by doctors to be extra strong, so solid that the head of the bone smashed into his pelvic bone and shot it into smithereens.

He wound up that night in the Intensive Care Unit, and nearly died hours later from a sudden leg clot that was flung towards his lung arteries. A series of operations and months of hospital stay followed, causing lots of pain and misery. All from a “simple” fall. How could this disaster have been prevented?

One winter in Seattle I also slipped on ice near our condo parking spot, so suddenly, literally in a split second that I didn’t even realize I was falling, until I was flat on the ground. This was really surprising to me since, unlike Cincinnati in the Midwest, Seattle rarely has ice. In Cincinnati in winter, knowing that there was snow and ice, I might have been more careful. So likely, I was caught off my guard.
在西雅图的一个冬日,我也在我们居民楼的停车场附近的冰上滑倒,所以在一刹那之间, 几乎是在我都躺在了地上我才意识到自己跌倒了。这件事让我非常惊讶,因为不像中西部的辛辛那提,西雅图很少结冰。在辛辛那提的冬天,因为知道有雪和冰,我可能会更小心。所以有可能是,我太大意了。

But fortunately, I landed on my trusty back pillow-bag, without any significant back injury, neck twist or concussion at all. Just a minor bruise on my back. I wasn’t carrying my favorite red bag to protect from falls, but it was in the right place at the right time.

I used to travel internationally a lot for my medical mission and medical lectures, often 7-8 times per year across oceans. Those 15 to 20 hour economy class air flights made me sit slouched over a laptop for long stretches that injured my back sciatic nerves. I had 3 serious painful sciatica nerve compression attacks, each time after long air travel.

I remember lying in my medical mission office couch bed in Hong Kong, moving my body very gently, trying to find the sweet spot where the pain from my sciatic nerve pinch would be the least. So that I wouldn’t make it worse, and I could “survive”. As I lay there, dozens of well-wishers streamed by. Since they were mostly health related workers, recommendations were thick and fast. After all, we were a medical mission!

“You have to go to surgery!” “I had a great acupuncturist and he cured me instantly.” “You should see a chiropractitioner, they are the best!” “I do chiropractice, and I can fix you quickly….” Actually in the process of trying to “fix me”, this man flipped my neck so dramatically (as part of his treatment) without warning or permission, that it freaked me out, I thought he was breaking my neck!
“你一定要做手术!”“我有一个超棒的针灸师当场就治好了我。”“你应该去看一个正骨医师,他们是最好的!”“我做正骨,我可以很快把你治好。。。”确实就在他“医治”我的时候, 这个人没有如何警告或同意的情况下夸张地扭了一下我的脖子(作为他治疗的一部分),吓了我一跳,我以为他要扭断我的脖子!

Others said, “You should be on pain pills and steroids.” “You need to see the neurologist!”

This last advice I followed. Being highly academic myself, when I returned home to Cincinnati, I found the most academic neurologist at the University, and went through a ton of research papers he recommended. I discovered to my extreme amusement that indeed surgery seemed to help in ~60% of cases, which sounded OK. But people who saw acupuncturists had a ~60% good response. People who saw chiropractitioners had a ~60% chance of getting better. And those who took a simple physical therapy approach had, you got it(!) a ~60% response. Being totally academic, my conclusion was obvious. Together with this careful doctor, we settled on physiotherapy as a cautious simplest approach.

My general approach to any treatment is the age old medical practice dictum, “first, do no harm”, and so being relatively stoic, I took minimal to no pain killers, no opiates and no steroids, which avoided drug side effects; and avoided the surgeon!

And I got this magical advice from my good doctor, “In the long run, try to protect your back, since your long distance plane flights likely made you crouch over your laptop for far too long. Those flight seats are notorious for being the worst seats in the world, since they essentially force you into the crouching position, which over many hours can lead to nerve compressions. So figure out a way to keep your back straight, or thrust your lower back forward in the natural lumbar curve, lower spine convex forward, rather than in the common opposite crouching position.”

In short, the little red bag was born, made to fit and support the natural curve of my lower back. Since then, for decades now, I have used this bag to augment this natural curve, as protective physical support for my back. On flights, at work, and on any chairs. I am guessing it has already saved me $100,000s in unnecessary hospital care costs, and weeks or months of pain related to repeat sciatica attacks or back operations.

Photo 1: My famous multi-million miles red-now-blue bag goes with me everywhere. It is likely a comforting “security blanket,” but hey, there are worse things to carry around.

God made that lumbar curve “naturally”, naturally for a good reason! And this more physiologic approach fits my general assumption that God’s natural healing process in the body, surprisingly often trumps modern day drugs and surgery, when given the right timely opportunity.

The charm of the little red bag was that it was simple to make, essentially housing a small pillow, firmed up with cardboard or a thin book. Inexpensive and home-made, by my trusty wife of course. There’s nothing like it, and you can’t even find it on Amazon! Dressed up in an innocuous looking bag that seemed like it had a function, so I could carry it around without “arousing suspicion”. After all, a grown man carrying a pillow around might cause a minor scandal.

In fact, some airline hostess challenged me that my bag was counted as a bag by her luggage rules, until I smiled and said that “it’s a pillow for my bad back, because you (smile) don’t have any pillows on the plane.” Which was true and usually enough to embarrass her to relent.

After I started carrying the bag around, my back pains have all but disappeared, now for decades, unless I didn’t use it, or was testing its removal, when the back and leg pain began to sneakily appear again.

Some people might suspect my bag is “just a security blanket,” but it has now proven itself again. My fall on Seattle ice was a reminder that a split second might be all that separated me from total disaster. My wife and son just a few feet away, had no inkling that I was falling, until I was on the ground. I did not even recall the fall; it happened so fast my brain had not registered it. In America, a good split second fall at my age might cost over $100,000 of health care costs, so it was quite a “save”.

For me, a “simple” bag was able to quietly prevent a potential major disaster. Since “prevention is better than cure”, and certainly better than death, some future innovator could spiff up the bag like a car air-bag activated by collision!? A bag to sense even a split second fall!? Air-bags are now standard in cars, so why not someday in humans, embedded in a simple bag or maybe even on belts?
对我来说,一个“简单的”包包能够悄悄地预防一个潜在的大灾难。既然“预防优于治疗”,当然一定胜过死亡,一些未来的发明者可能会设计一些包包就像汽车防撞气囊会被激发一样!?一个可以探测到甚至瞬间的倒下? 防撞气囊现在已经是汽车里的标准配备,所以为什么有一天不能在人身上,放一个简单的包包或者是安全带?

In the meantime, I’ll keep carrying my trusty red, now blue bag: it has supported my back through millions of travel miles. I’ll wait for that fancier $300 version, say in 2040?

Photo 2: Watch out for winter steps, slips, and slides that result in 6 figure health care costs or worse. Even in deceptively beautiful Seattle which reputedly “doesn’t “snow much”. A trusty red bag could be strategic.