Becoming Walter Brennan

Hopefully the reader knows who Walter Brennan was, past tense being a possible key here. For those too young to recognize the name, Walter Brennan was a once-famous and accomplished character actor, and one of only three men ever to win three academy awards. Those were all won in the 1940s, so word to your grandma, I guess.

Some things about Brennan that I have come to recognize in myself: One, he was always older than everybody else in most of his movies, he was Southern, “cantankerous,” he always had some folksy wisdom to share, and…this is the new thing: He tended to walk with a distinctive, funny, “old man” kind of limp, which may have been an affectation, since he always played older guys, even when he wasn’t old.

I’ve always had the gray, thin hair, the peculiar vocal intonations, accent, etc., but now I have also acquired that limp. If it was real, my god…I just hope it wasn’t.

For the past 20 years I have worked in the allied health field: nursing support, cardiac rehab, ER, critical care, cath lab support, etc. All these pursuits require one be on one’s feet for most of 8, 10 or 12 hours at a stretch, and those medical-surgical assignments require a lot of pulling, lifting and turning of patients. The job descriptions always say “must be able to lift or push up to 50 pounds,” but that is misleading as hell, because with total bed care (completely dependent patients) the low back gets quite a workout, and even having attended “back school” in the late 1990s (not long after having spent 25 active years as a volunteer firefighter and EMT, the latter certification I still hold, but not for much longer), it’s still a woman’s field, women are generally shorter, and when nurses see a tall, robust looking man on the floor, they tend to look to him when there is heavy lifting to be done. At least that has been my experience. And even when they are splitting the work with me, I am usually a head taller and have a strangely long torso. So after eight hours of total bed care, the low back always was a little sore. It was worth it.

A year ago I found what I thought would be my dream job as a cardiology tech at a hospital some distance away. Long story short, it was a six-month nightmare before I extricated myself. I will not say what was wrong there, but there was plenty. It took me nearly a year to find another (part-time) allied health job, back in intermediate care as a critical care technician, but this time having to work, for the first time in quite a while, two twelve hour shifts per week (three makes full time, which I do not need). Exhausting, and that much more rough on the low back, but a great gig nonetheless…until that night around Thanksgiving just past, when I foolishly decided to…take a shower.

Statisticians know the bathroom is the most dangerous room in the home. Among all my various accidental injuries, none had ever happened in that room. Until it did. One step away from the shower, nominally dry, I placed a foot on the tiled bathroom floor — and slipped. I could not fall, which would have probably ended better. No room for that. So I had, like James Brown used to, pull myself back up by sheer force of will.

I knew that was a pain that would linger, at least through the weekend.

I did not know it would become excruciating and linger for what will soon have been two months. Neither did I know what serious pain was like before that. I was certain I had torn something involving the trocanter (the leg bone connected to the hip bone, etc.) and NSAIDs and heat/ice would resolve it. But no. Eventually I was at my local orthopedic surgeon’s office, where first he tried a six-day oral predinisone trick. No go. Then an injection in the hip (we thought maybe trochanteric bursitis). Oh no.

Meanwhile, the Walter Brennan limp was setting in.

Finally an MRI was done, and my lumbar spine looked like a trainwreck viewed from the air. Every disc was mildly to moderately displaced, including the one causing the agonies in the hip/knee/calf/ankle.

Meanwhile I had missed more than a month of work at a job I had just started. A really good job, good place to work, where the patients mattered. The MRI made me realize I wasn’t going to be able to go back to that particular job, which had taken me 10 months to land. It’s not so easy to get hired, even with 20 years deep experience, when one is, um, well…yep, it still says it on my driver’s license…70 years old, closing in on 71.

Well shit!

The pain and spine specialist to which I was referred, a young guy who looks like he might be a senior in high school but sure does know his anatomy and physiology (as well he ought, considering what he does for a living) sat down and had a talk with me. I told him I assumed nursing (and a lot of other fields) was out of the question for me now, and he responded with “No! Don’t quit nursing! Just maybe find something that doesn’t require heavy lifting.” He went on to explain the treatment strategy of epidural injections, physical therapy and, of course, pain medication. He told me these things can actually correct and the affected nerves can heal, “…sometimes within a year.”


There was actually a lot of positivity in that session. He didn’t think I should leave my beloved field of work, even knowing my age. He believed it could be vastly improved, although it could take up to a year. He only said “no heavy lifting,” and yes, believe it or not, there are nursing and other allied health jobs that do not require total patient bed care, that won’t challenge the lower back.

We get started with the first injection in a week. I am still in my employer’s system, and am trying to find a way to stay in it until I can come back maybe as a vascular surgery tech (which is pretty easy, mostly in-and-out patients). I could even maybe find work as a medical assistant in an urgent care place. I’ve done that before, and it is not physically challenging.

I am encouraged. Now I feel like being Walter Brennan for a while might be fun. Hell, I could even be Gunsmoke’s Chester (I look a lot like the late Dennis Weaver, too) just for laughs. Of course no one remembers that show either.

Jesus, I’m old. Oddly enough, I’m not to old to keep working, once I get my back fixed.

Meanwhile, I guess I’ll practice what I’ll be like when I really am old — in another 10 or 20 or 30 years.

Writer, activist, novelist, sixth generation DC, local historian-storyteller, and 1:1 patient care technician five days a week.

Writer, activist, novelist, sixth generation DC, local historian-storyteller, and 1:1 patient care technician five days a week.