Nfld. & Labrador

Hitting rock bottom while falling through the cracks

Mount Carmel resident Stephen Marrie has never been convicted of anything, but he still feels like he's being treated like a criminal, writes Azzo Rezori.
For a time, Stephen Marrie was kicked out of his own home in Mount Carmel. (CBC)

54-year-old Stephen Marrie never committed any crime, but he might as well have, considering the kind of house arrest he's under.

He'll meet you at his door in Mount Carmel with the smile of a big, slightly mischievous, but very friendly bear.

Stephen Marrie once parked outside Confederation Building to take his concerns to politicians. (CBC)

Before you've even crossed the floor to his kitchen table he'll likely have offered you a feed of fried eggs and bacon.

Every now and then he'll open the door to the back porch to let in some fresh air and a whiff of the freedom he no longer enjoys. When he does, you notice how stiffly he moves.

Marrie's been confined to his home by disabling pain ever since he had the last of three neck surgeries to correct an old work injury. That was four and a half years ago.

There's a section of the spine in his neck where there's more steel than bone. He has his good days and his bad days. 

Still, a checkup eight months after the last surgery showed the fusion that was done to look "solid," the hardware to be in "excellent position," and Marrie himself to be doing "reasonably well."

"I think he had a lot of damage done prior to the surgery," the attending physician wrote in his report. "He is not progressing anymore. At this stage, I told him to continue with physiotherapy and different modalities as required..."

"Different modalities as required" clearly refers to any medically approved and properly prescribed therapy that would help ease Marrie's continuing discomfort and pave the way for at least some degree of healing.

That's not how things unfolded.

Locked out of his own house

Marrie hit rock bottom last fall. He was penniless by then, locked out of his own house because of unpaid bills. He spent 18 days in his shed sleeping on chairs until some sort of institutional sanity prevailed and he was allowed back in.

It all started with a tumble he took back in 2007 while working on a housing project in the Northwest Territories.

Stephen Marrie has collected sheafs of documents over the years through the workers' compensation system. (CBC)

He slipped on a patch of ice, hit the back of his head while falling down 10 steel steps, and lay unconscious for half an hour in minus 40 degrees until co-workers found him.

He had his first surgery four months later.

He was on benefits from Workers' Compensation of the North West Territories by then. His neck hadn't been getting any better. He was in constant and increasing pain. Spine imaging showed that the disc between his sixth and seventh vertebrae was bulging and pushing against the root of the adjacent nerve.

He underwent standard procedure for a ruptured disc. According to the surgery report, there were no complications. He was sent home with a prescription for Atasol 30.

He improved, but not as much as he'd hoped. He continued to experience pain radiating from the neck into his right arm, plus numbing in one of his fingers.

The physician who assessed him explained that healing from the surgery might take some time, but that turned out not to be the problem. Follow-up scans found Marrie's neck to be deteriorating. Another disc had collapsed. Large bone spurs had grown around the site where the first disc rupture had been cleaned up.

Once more under the knife

One year after his first surgery, Marrie went under the knife a second time.

Rock bottom is a hard place to be. Lonely, dark, and without pity except your own.

This time the procedure involved a drill. The surgeon replaced the ruptured disc with bone graft material and stabilized the spine with what's called a "cage" - titanium rods that keep the vertebrae apart and in place.

Marrie still wasn't getting any better, so workers' compensation started sending him to pain clinics across the country.

Even his surgeon considered that a waste of time. "This man is clearly quite disabled," he stated in a letter to Marrie's family doctor. "I think he is going to have to learn to live with his disability."

Workers' compensation persisted. Marrie kept getting prodded, X-rayed, CT- and MRI-scanned, you name it. According to one battery of tests, yet another disc was starting to go. More bone spurs were growing as well. Some findings also raised questions about the stability of the "cage" in his neck.

Marrie's every move, meanwhile, was being surveilled to make sure he wasn't faking any of it.

Somewhere around that time his faith in the system started to unravel. Too much surveillance. Too much pressure from workers' compensation to get well. Too many doctors saying they could do nothing more for him when others said they could. And perhaps most disturbing of all, too much hemming and hawing about the "cage."

By the time he underwent his third surgery, Marrie had laid an official complaint of malpractice against the surgeon who performed the previous two operations. Everything started to fall apart after that, as if he'd given the final push to a house of cards.

He hired a lawyer but lost patience when things took too long and filed the suit himself. That was the last he heard from the lawyer.

Workers' Compensation was beginning to wonder to what extent his his continuing problems were caused by the medical treatment he was getting. His benefits were reduced. When he refused to co-operate, the benefits ceased altogether.

He ended up on welfare with a drug card but no follow-up treatment, because Workers' Compensation had cut him off and the provincial health system couldn't or wouldn't step in.  

His own worst enemy

Marrie got sucked into a downward spiral of anger and increasingly frequent bouts of despair. More often than not he ended up taking his frustration out on the very people who tried to help him in whatever limited way they could. He became his own worst enemy.

Stephen Marrie admits that he sometimes has become his own worst enemy. (CBC)

In the end even his welfare benefits were cut off.

He was diagnosed with depression at one point, but received no treatment worth speaking of. It was as if the entire system sat back, folded its arms and watched as he continued his free fall through the cracks.    

Rock bottom is a hard place to be. Lonely, dark, and without pity except your own.

Things have improved slightly since then.

He still can't find a physiotherapist willing to take a chance on treating his complex condition.

He still goes to bed in pain and, if he does manage to get some sleep, wakes up in pain.

But he has been able to get back in touch with his lawyer, and workers' compensation has reinstated him on $800 a month.

It's not much compared to the $2,300 he used to get before things spiralled out of control, but it's better than nothing and something to build on.

What he wants to build is peace.

It's a tall order when he looks at the smoldering ruins of his old life and sees nothing but enemies walking all over them.

About the Author

Azzo Rezori

Perspective

Azzo Rezori has been working with CBC News in Newfoundland and Labrador since 1987, and reports regularly for Here & Now and other broadcasts.

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