Jan Reid,

Jan Reid,

A weeklong electronic journal.
July 8 1998 12:30 AM

Jan Reid,

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       "You'll have good days and bad days," doctors and therapists cautioned me. But they failed to tell me how often the good and bad would be rolled into one. The bullet that a Mexico City thug fired into me during an April 20 robbery churned to a halt in a mass of spinal nerves called the cauda equina--"horse's tail" in Latin. Two weeks after the shooting, my neurosurgeon in Houston let out a whoop when he saw the results of an MRI. Though he likened the bullet's effect on those nerves to a blast furnace, at least some of the nerves were capable of regeneration.
       I had what's known as an "incomplete" spinal injury. That was good news. But not so cheery was the condition of my left leg. While the right grew stronger each day in the rehab hospital and soon would support my standing weight, muscles in the left twitched and fired, trying to remember what to do. The knee buckled and the leg was numb. In a way I was grateful. After I was shot, "referred" pain from the spinal injury had burned in my shins and feet like blazes of hell. The doctors brought this odd pain under control with drugs normally prescribed for epileptic seizures and depression. But more weirdness followed. First the symptoms felt like a fluttering surge of electricity moving slowly down my left leg. Then the phantom pains turned nasty. Doctors mumbled vague clinical explanations; the head physical therapist hiked her shoulders and said, "Aw, it's those funky gunshot wounds."
       Now I'm back in Austin, Texas, doing outpatient rehab three days a week. Last night at dinner the outbreak began with a buzzing tightness in my left knee. By midnight these spasms came every eight seconds--I clocked them--and the periodic climax felt like a combination of a foot gone to sleep, a toe stuck in an electrical outlet, and a twisting, total, lockdown cramp that reached the thigh before the muscles relaxed. My groaning and hissing drove my wife to the guest bedroom. It was a miserable night.
       As other people drove to work, I wheeled into the exercise room groggy and ill-tempered. My regular therapist said she had to do an evaluation of a stroke victim and introduced me to a young blond woman who would fill in for her today. Sarah was a contract therapist, working here and there as needed, and at one point she apologized for being so green about spinal injuries. "Green?" I said, surprised, because she was very good. On the exercise mat skilled physical therapists kneel and roll and pivot around their patients with the grace of dancers. The leg lifts and stretching moved me into that zone of relaxed airiness I once knew as an athlete. For 20 minutes I moved around the room on a walker. I lurched and wobbled, but in my mind I cruised. Outside the day looked glorious. "Slow down, take shorter steps," said Sarah. "But you're doing great."

Jan Reid is a free-lance journalist and a founding writer at Texas Monthly. He recently returned from a trip to Mexico that went awry.