Waking up to a health-care crisis: When life and art froze

Fall 2018

Some health-care journeys begin with an accident, a heart attack, a stroke – a moment that someone can pinpoint and explain. Michelle Easden’s journey began with a scream the moment she woke up a few weeks before Christmas in 2015. There was no explanation.

“It was a burning pain, like a match being lit that ran from my neck, through my shoulder and down my left arm,” describes Easden. Her husband Andrew was downstairs preparing breakfast for their children, Hannah, then two years old, and Haden, then nine, and ran upstairs to check on his wife.

They went to the Emergency Department at LHSC’s Victoria Hospital in search of relief and answers. In the meantime, Easden, a visual arts teacher in the Bealart program at H. B. Beal Secondary School, could not return to the classroom.

“Teaching art is physically demanding, and the movement of my arm was increasingly becoming restricted,” she says.

At home, she was unable to help with basic tasks, in addition to the usual Christmas preparations in a household with two children. Haden, her oldest, understood Easden’s limitations, but it was hard for Hannah to understand why her mother couldn’t hold her.

“Andrew had a lot of conversations with the kids to help them understand why I wasn’t myself or doing the things I normally did. It was difficult for all of us.”

Easden is also a professional artist who paints abstract landscapes using a variety of mediums such as acrylic and oil, watercolours, and ink, and her artwork appears in galleries and in private collections. She was unable to complete her paintings.  

“Every aspect of my life, and my family’s life, suddenly froze. I was bed-ridden with my left arm raised above my head. That was the only position where the pain wasn’t as intense. It was the worst Christmas of our lives.”

As the pain worsened, Easden returned to the Emergency Department at LHSC’s University Hospital. She received a CT scan, then an MRI, and was eventually referred to neurosurgeon and orthopaedic surgeon, Dr. Fawaz Siddiqi.

Her diagnosis: a compressed nerve between two vertebrae was causing severe pain and lack of mobility.

“This can happen for a variety of reasons, but the most common cause is a slipped or herniated disc in the neck,” says Dr. Siddiqi. “Her pain was debilitating.”

Her care plan began with medication and physiotherapy. “Within the first minutes of meeting Dr. Siddiqi I felt I would be ok. Having a team I could trust, an explanation, and a plan alleviated a lot of stress,” says Easden. “I appreciated starting with physiotherapy instead of surgery and being part of those decisions.”

Unfortunately, Easden’s condition did not improve after a few months and surgery became her only option.

“While I was going through physiotherapy, I had time to mentally prepare for surgery. Since it is a spinal surgery, I was worried about losing the ability to move my arm completely, or even my ability to walk. As a teacher, I was also worried about my voice changing because the surgery is performed near the throat, but once the decision to operate was made, I felt confident in Dr. Siddiqi.”

The surgery Easden received was an anterior cervical discectomy. The procedure involves reaching the damaged disc of the spine through a small incision in the throat area and moving the neck muscles, trachea, and esophagus, until the spine is exposed. The disc is replaced and a titanium plate and screws are attached to the bone to ensure proper spinal alignment and assist with healing.

As soon as Easden woke up in the recovery room she tried walking to make sure she could. While her pain was immediately lessened by the surgery, she would be in a neck brace for six weeks. Eventually she was able to return to the classroom and her own art.

“I jumped right into teaching and painting as soon as I was able and they were like my therapy. After worrying I’d never work again, working felt like freedom.”

Easden wanted to return to large canvass painting as soon as she could. “I still feel like I’m a thousand paintings behind.” Easden returned to the series and pieces she was working on before the morning that stalled her life. She finished “"Fireworks of Gold Reflecting Over Big City Shorelines,” an extra-large five foot by seven foot canvas depicting water, a cityscape and golden fireworks.

In her latest series, the New World Collection, she uses a pouring technique to create an almost marble-like appearance. “Pouring is very physical and I try to maintain as much control as possible. I have even lifted the canvass above my head to achieve a desired result,” Easden explains. “There are times where I completely forget what happened, and I’m beyond grateful for the care I received and the family support I have.”

Easden has recovered from her surgery, but there is some lingering nerve damage. It hasn’t slowed her down and she’s working on catching up on some of those thousand paintings. Her paintings and other artwork can be viewed on her instagram page and her New World Collection will be available for viewing in a gallery soon.

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Every aspect of Michelle Easden's life froze when she woke up with neck pain.