My First Spinal Tap

8:15pm – I’m pretty sure that I don’t belong here. Sitting in a hospital bed in Colorado Springs waiting for a doctor someplace to tell another doctor someplace else that I should get some test that the OTC wasn’t able to do on site that will hopefully tell me why I’ve had a fever and a raging headache for three straight days after having a fever just last week. Some of the diseases they threw out there are pretty scary to me – mono, leptospirosis, meningitis, hypochondria… (just kidding about that last one, I wish I had the mental capacity to worry myself into a fever like this).

I’m sure eventually I’ll have some …

9pm – OK, the phlebotomist and the nurse just came in. Hooked me up to an IV and took a bunch of blood for analysis. They’re looking for all the things I listed above (except the last). The nurse is on the phone with the Doc from the OTC telling him she can’t do an “LP” until tomorrow for some reason. I have no idea what an LP is.

10:30 pm – Alright, I gave four vials of blood, peed in a jug, and now I’m sitting with my computer talking to Courtenay and my Mom on video chat. The nurse keeps coming in to check on me, and I keep telling her that my headache is killing me. Now she’s going to call the doc and ask for something better than Advil. I’m not sure I really want something more than Advil, that sounds scary, but my head really hurts. Oh, and the “LP” is a “Lumbar Puncture” or what is otherwise known as a Spinal Tap (as in, “Our amps go to eleven”). I called my uncle, who is an ER doctor in Hawaii, and asked him about what they’re doing and he also thought I needed the spinal tap tonight so they can start me on antibiotics.

11:20 pm – The nurse just came back with morphine. Never been so glad I had my computer handy so I could check the status of morphine on the DRO (Drug Reference Online – otherwise known as the banned substance list for those of us that get random out-of-competition testing). It’s legal out of competition, but not in. I’m still not keen on it. Also, they’re going to do the spinal tap right now.

12am – That was really really scary. I asked a ton of questions. Apparently they do this procedure a lot, but when the doc came in wearing some radiation suit (he was a radiologist because they use an X-Ray machine to pinpoint where the needle needs to go) and he had bright white hair, slender build and a German sounding name (Van Wagoner), I was absolutely certain that I was part of a mad scientist’s experiment.

First they turned me on my stomach. Wait. No. First they made me sign a form saying that there were all kinds of risks, but there was no other option. Then I turned on my stomach – which hurt like crazy because my neck is so stiff – and then they wiped down my back three times with iodine, then came the first big needle of lidocaine, a local anesthetic. A moment later, a second, bigger needle of lidocaine. The first one hurt a lot, the second hurt almost as bad, and then I saw the 5 inch long, thick as the momma earth worm in the compost heap, shiny, scare-the-crap-out-of-me needle.

Now, I’m a watcher. When I was little I had really bad acne and I had to take this terrible drug called Accutane. It was so harsh that I had to have blood draws every few weeks to make sure the drug wasn’t going to kill me (ah, what we do for vanity). I got so used to having needles stuck in my arm, that I actually started to like it. The way it goes in and then the blood starts squirting into the tube… The point is, I don’t mind needles at all, and if anything I derive some strange enjoyment of being poked and prodded. This was different.

There is nothing about a spinal tap that is not scary – even if they rename it to “Lumbar Puncture”. The giant needle goes in, then he taps it to get it into the spine, then he taps again, then the x-ray machine comes back over while the needle is standing straight out of the spine, then a bit more tapping, then the doctor’s hands are both way over away from me grabbing other stuff while this giant needle is protruding from my spine. And the whole time I’m laying there face down, afraid to move, afraid to breathe, afraid to do anything that could mess up the procedure (I read the list of awful things that could happen! It said DEATH!!!), and meanwhile I’m running out of oxygen, about to pass out, trying to will my back muscles not to spasm as the pressure in my spine telegraphs its way into my hips and upper back and slowly starts to cause a few twitches throughout my back, and then into my abdominal muscles. The words I had read on the waiver are flashing in front of my eyes, “Nausea, Headache, Fainting… DEATH”.

He finishes drawing the first vial and asks me if I’d like to see what spinal fluid looks like. I’m thinking “can’t it wait?!” in the primal part of my brain, but the more academic side is first to the vocal chords and I hear myself muttering, “Yes, of course.”

It was completely clear. Like water. I thought it would at least be viscous like glycerin, or maybe a bit opaque, but it pretty much looks like water. I relaxed and began to think, “at least that’s ove…”

“Okay, we’re going to do three more vials like that one.” I froze. I was so scared, and so uncomfortable it seemed like that big needle had been in there for way too long already. How could the prep have been so quick, but the actual “tap” be more like a crescendo.

I held my breath, then breathed shallow, then held it again and finally it was over. The needle came out with a jerk and a pop and before I knew it I was back on the gurney being pushed back to my private room here in the hospital.

Now I’m on antibiotics and tomorrow I’ll have a better idea of what’s causing all this illness. But for now, I’m going to take advantage of this moment of opiate-induced painlessness (first time since Sunday afternoon without a headache) and try to catch some Z’s.

Published by Ben

Ben Collins Professional Triathlete

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  1. Sorry you aren’t feeling well.
    I live in Colorado Springs too!
    It sounds like what I had several years ago…leptosporosis.
    Contracted it from a triathlon open water swim in Illinois.
    Which then led to meningitis because the dr. did not pick up on the bacteria.
    Yep, you have a headache for so long you don’t know if it is still there till you shake your head!
    I think they tried every pain killer out there to give me some relief, cocaine, morphine, demoral finally helped, they give it to migraine sufferers.
    I strongly suggest you take a long walk around the hospital before they release you.
    I was really sore, from the spinal tap. I also had a bit of a memory problem for a few days.

    Hope it’s not anything more serious, get well!

  2. Get better Ben. I met you at the south beach tri (my first) last year and have been a fan of you and the site since. Hope you have a speedy recovery!

  3. I had this exact same experience. Down to the detail. Violent headaches and fever for days , a spinal tap that revealed clear spinal fluid meaning no infection. Ruling out meningitis. I signed the AMA waiver and left the hospital after a week and a half of going insane from the medication. I never figured out what my mystery illness was , but I got it a week after a significant mosquito bite in Lake Tahoe. They had an infectious disease specialist that couldn’t figure it out after numerous blood tests. The spinal tap was the worst experience of my life . So painful, not to mention the few moments of paralysis I experienced when the doctor said I slouched , when I was perfectly still cringing in pain from the deathtrap protruding out of my back. I feel for u Ben , at least I’m not alone.

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