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Cane and Disabled

What a cartoon can teach us about the human body.

The human body, I have slowly learned, actually is a Rube Goldberg device, a complicated cartoon mechanism in which one seemingly inconsequential action creates a chain reaction leading to surprising results. You know what I mean: The ball is released and rolls down a gutter until it knocks over a vase, which hits a toaster. The bread pops out and hits a bell, which scares the cat, who scrambles up the curtains, which fall on a candle, and the chaos continues.

I peer into the mirror and see old Rube staring back at me. He is part of my life now. A bunch of seemingly unrelated things are wrong with my body, but the connections are there.

This all started when I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 37 years ago. I was a young journalist on the make, a network news producer who had found the “up” escalator and was determined to cling to it. That would mean wherever my body would go with this disease, I was going to move in a different direction.

Yield nothing to the disease, my reasoning went. There will be no concessions or compromises. Do what you have to do. I ran around the world in the news business, scurrying in a panic through the streets of Beirut, diving under parked trucks to duck bullets in El Salvador. I constantly climbed, from tall hills in the Middle East to minor mountains in Asia. I paid no attention to the increasing stress on a body that was changing, weakening, and no longer fully able to accept physical challenges gracefully.

Years later, when I had put away my notebook and assumed a saner life, I encountered Mr. Goldberg’s machinery for the first time. My limp, which had come on gradually when I was physically so active, had blossomed into dragging my leg and hobbling at a funny angle.

The orthopedic surgeon blared Bruce Springsteen as he performed arthroscopic surgery on my right knee to clean out the cartilage torn by years of eccentric movements. Apparently I was not “Born to Run.” The good doctor informed me that I would probably walk even less normally after the operation than before, since the MS had robbed me of the muscle strength to make my refurbished knee work effectively.

Sure enough, my walk grew crazier, putting growing stress on my lower back. The new choreography resulted in a herniated disc, which introduced me to a level of pain I had not known. These days, the searing pain is a constant companion. Three cortisone injections have failed to drive the beast away.

So my walk is weak and erratic, and I find myself leaning on my cane more than ever. The arthritis in my left shoulder now feels out of control. The pain is there day and night, whether I am using the cane or not. It has reached biblical proportions. Cane and Disabled. All of this has come together in recent years and will not go away. I hear Rube laughing in my sleep.

Often, I tell my friends I am a train wreck. A cartoon character would be more like it. When I was growing up, I never thought a Rube Goldberg device was anything more than a silly joke. Now I wish Dr. Goldberg was still alive so he could lecture at medical schools. Physicians these days specialize in a single organ or system, often failing to see the whole body.

I see the big picture, but, alas, am not licensed to practice medicine. Of course, even as I hurt, I am winning, living my life my way and enjoying the adventures I always have wanted. I regret nothing and will take the aches and pains as they come.

Richard M. Cohen is an Emmy-winning TV news producer and author. His online column is published every two weeks.

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