November 21, 2002 was a typical November evening. It was dark and rainy and traffic on northbound Interstate 5 in Seattle was heavy. I was driving home from work, and I was very aware of the Volvo that had been tailgating me for the last mile or so. Suddenly, the traffic ahead of me came to a stop. I was able to stop my 1998 Mustang, but the Volvo behind me never even hit his brakes. He smashed into the rear of my car. The impact pushed my Mustang into a large SUV ahead of me. The rear end of my car was crunched in, and the trailer hitch from the SUV split my front bumper in two.
Right away I knew I was hurt. I felt tightness in my neck and right shoulder, and in my left lower back. I stayed in my car until the medics arrived, and they placed me into a cervical collar and backboard. I was transported by ambulance to the emergency room at Virginia Mason Medical Center, where I was x-rayed and examined. They prescribed some pain medication and muscle relaxers, and instructed me to follow-up if the pain didn’t resolve. That’s pretty typical for an ER.
I followed up with a chiropractor and began a course of chiropractic and massage therapy. At this point, I was pretty sure my primary injury was just a strain to my neck and upper back. Over the next few months, I continued my treatment, but as the pain and stiffness in my neck and upper back improved, the left low back continued to worsen. Shooting pains were radiating into my left hip and down my leg all the way to my toes and the muscles in my hip and leg were continuously spasming.
My chiropractor sent me for a lumbar spine MRI, which showed disc bulges and protrusions at multiple levels. The most significant was an annular tear of the disc at L5-S1, which resulted in a protrusion that was coming into contact with the nerve root. This was the cause of the pain which continued to radiate down my leg.
Based on the results of the MRI, I was referred to a physiatrist, a specialist in rehabilitation and physical medicine. That doctor ordered more diagnostic testing and prescribed new medications for the pain. He also ordered a course of physical therapy.
The physical therapy was excruciating, and during that time I was in unbearable pain. At times I was unable to roll from my back to my side. I couldn’t lift, twist, sit for any extended period, run, or participate in any kind of sports. I could barely get into and out of my car.
Within a few weeks of starting physical therapy I got my first epidural steroid injection at the L5-S1 level. This injection helped a lot, and I was able to continue physical therapy. Each time the symptoms returned, I received another injection, ultimately getting 7 injections over a period of two and a half years.
During that time, I met with an orthopedic surgeon, who offered to perform surgery on my injured spine, but I did not like the odds he gave me. This doctor told me I had an 80% chance of a full recovery, 15% chance of no change, and a 5% chance of permanent worsening. Because the injections were effectively managing the pain, I was not willing to risk a one in twenty chance that it would be permanently worse. Instead, I continued the injections and physical therapy.
In September, 2003, almost a year after the accident, my insurance company requested that I attend an independent medical examination. The insurance company doctor documented weakness and atrophy in my left leg. He also documented muscle spasms and diminished range of motion. He noted that the tear to my disc would be a weak or vulnerable spot that would be more susceptible to damage in any future injury. Based on this report, my PIP coverage continued to pay my accident-related bills.
By March, 2004, I had lost over 30 pounds and had strengthened my core considerably. I continued to experience major flare-ups of pain and disability, but I was increasingly able to enjoy my life, and gradually resumed most of my pre-accident activities.
In 2004 I negotiated a policy limits settlement with the insurance company for the Volvo that hit me and shortly after that I agreed to an additional settlement from my own underinsured motorist coverage (UIM). The money certainly doesn’t undo the harm I suffered, but it paid the bills, made up for the time I had to spend away from my growing law practice, and allowed me to set something aside for the future.
Since my settlement I have continued to focus on keeping my weight down and my core strong. I find this is the best way to keep the pain at bay. To this day my low back continues to flare up after strenuous activity, but the flare-ups eventually resolve, and I am able to live the life I want to live and be an active father to my young son.
My experience with this herniated disc injury gives me a unique insight into what my injured clients are going through. I know how disruptive an injury like this can be on a person’s life and family and I understand the stress of trying to deal with the insurance claim while at the same time trying to get your life back to normal. I see my clients not as files, but as real people, going through perhaps the most difficult time of their lives. As a result of that experience, everyone in my office is committed not only to getting our clients the best possible recovery, but to make the whole process as easy, painless and stress-free as possible.