CHARLOTTE, NC—Friends of 33-year-old Matt Breunich quietly observed the 10th anniversary of his lower-back problem, a chronic condition that has served as an ongoing reason to excuse himself from such diverse activities as taking out the trash, helping friends move, and making love to his girlfriend.
"No matter what's going on, you can always count on Matt's slipped disc to act up," said longtime friend Janet Wolck, who joined 13 others in an evening of reminiscence at a local restaurant Tuesday. "It's been one heck of an excuse-laden decade."
According to gathering organizer Tony Kairns, it was in April 1996 that Breunich first revealed the existence of a herniated disc in his lower back when declining at the last minute to help a group of friends move into their first off-campus home.
"While we've never verified the exact date of the alleged injury, everyone agrees that that was the first time they heard the excuse," said Kairns, who has known Breunich since they were college freshman roommates 12 years ago. "Everyone was so concerned because it sounded serious. None of us suspected the excuse would last this long."
In that time, Breunich has used the slipped-disc excuse a number of times estimated by friends to be between one and three zillion. It has served as Breunich's ticket out of stripping paint, attending a coworker's going-away party, changing a tire, holding a friend's baby, setting up a tent, conveying pitchers of beer from the bar to an awaiting table, making a bed, vacuuming, retrieving an escaped guinea pig, shoveling snow, kissing the Blarney Stone, cleaning out a garage, and going on approximately 14 second dates.
Even as friends' concern over the injury gradually grew into bemusement, then indifference, the excuse persisted. Ex-girlfriend Lauren Vargas marveled at its longevity, saying that as recently as February, Breunich "trotted out the old chestnut" when asked to deliver canned goods to a local homeless shelter.
"It's fun to feed him terms like 'torn lumbar region' and 'bone chips' and so on," Vargas said, "then watch him find a way to incorporate them into the excuse next time around."
"Does your back need to be in peak condition in order to watch a pro basketball game?" said Charlotte Bobcats fan Kyle LaGrange, echoing the evening's trend of rhetorical questioning.
Though no one has been able to determine whether Breunich ever truly slipped a disc, Kairns said he felt especially privileged to "be on the scene" when the excuse transformed from a casual complaint about his lower back to a full-blown prolapsed vertebra. Breunich told Kairns that a first-year medical student he had met at a bar said that his back pain might be due to a slipped disc.
"I don't think he's ever seen a doctor or a chiropractor about it," Kairns said. "You'd think that he would, with all that pain and apparent immobility."
Despite his unwillingness to consult the medical establishment, Breunich remains attentive to his condition, often requiring the most comfortable chair in a given room "for his back," according to Kairns.
Though admitting they had no specific knowledge, Breunich's friends were fairly certain that modern medicine had devised treatments for the condition, with a few guessing that proper care and bedrest could allow slipped discs to mend on their own. Some were also baffled by the injury's versatility, specifically its ability to travel from the lower back to the neck region.
Jeff Lewis, who works with Breunich at a Charlotte-area data-recovery firm, noted that back complaints disappear during activities Breunich enjoys, including company softball games, where he is the team's leading hitter and hasn't missed a game in four years.
"That can't be good for his back," Lewis said. "But I guess he fights through the pain, like he must when he's hunched over playing Quake 4 for hours on end."
When coworker Dave Amato added that Breunich had recently complained of possible carpal tunnel syndrome, excusing him from three major projects, it inspired lively speculation from the group about a new era of potential injuries.
"This has the potential to be a real 'stealth excuse' for Matt," Lewis said. "There are times when a headache or a backache just isn't appropriate, and I'm sure those will be exactly the times when his carpal tunnel will flare up."
Breunich was invited to the gathering, but canceled due to an unspecified medical ailment.