I was baffled when the man behind the counter said “two hundred”. And yet, as I was shuffled from one waiting room full of people to the next waiting room full of people, it dawned on me that they have this surgery business down to the same way as a farmer herding his cattle. It didn’t feel real until I made it to the final room and Willy was asked to wait for me somewhere else. At that point, I followed a young man who quickly led me to a gurney and encouraged me to transform from street walker to patient as he reminded me, like us medical personal always do, “gown opens to the back”. And just like that, I looked just like the person next to me, who wore the same hospital gown and sat anxiously awaiting her fate on a different gurney.
The doctor came over to talk to her and pulled the curtain to give a false sense of privacy. I overheard that she was about to undergo a crainiotomy for some sort of leison pressing on an optical nerve. I used her crainiotomy to lessen the fears I had about my own spinal surgery. I mean, she was having brain surgery. All I could imagine were those eggs sizzling on a frying pan from those commercials in the 90’s that reminded us what our brains were like on drugs. Not that there was any correlation. But then I heard her doctor say, “Not to worry, crainiotomys are actually quite simple procedures and the pain post operatively is minimal… nothing compared to what the spinal patients have to go through”.
Just the words I needed to hear.
And then it was my turn.
Suddenly my little guerny was surrounded with people. A pre-op nurse struggled to chime in and collect my medical history, of which there was none. The anesthesiologist had a student with him. I let her try to place my IV. She missed twice before the anesthesiologist stepped in and insisted on doing it himself. I saw my surgeon at the end of the gurney talking to Willy. He asked if I was ready, I gave him a nod, not really knowing if I was ready or not; “As ready as I imagine I’ll ever be” would have been a more honest response.
Someone asked if I’d like something put through my IV line to “calm down”. I wasn’t noticeably anxious, but I gladly accepted. They pushed some versed through my IV line and as they started moving the gurney down the hall, my mind became a bit cloudy and I surrendered. I glanced around the operating room and then the lights went out; not literally, but figuratively.
My surgery was supposed to take 4 to 6 hours. Willy waited, fighting his own anxieties, with my dad in a waiting room. It took 8 hours.
When I came to, I was in pain. A lot of pain. There were a lot of people around me again and I quickly realized I was back to where I started only with a lot of pain and surrounded by people who were no longer strangers to my body. My blood pressure was low and I was given some extra fluid through my IV line, which had been switched to a central line in the jugular vein in my neck. I also had an arterial line in my left wrist, two drains coming out from my back, a foley catheter to drain my bladder, and pumps on my legs to prevent blood clots.
I spent two days in the ICU. I was told I lost a total of 2L of blood (the average woman has about 4L of blood) and I was given 4 units of blood as a result. My blood pressure remained in the 70-80’s (120 is normal) and I was given several bags of added fluid.
I looked like a balloon. My eyes were so swollen I couldn’t open them. I couldn’t even tell you what that ICU room looked like. In fact, my ICU nurse came to visit me days later and I recognized him only by his voice. My stomach was incredibly distended and painful and I had horrible pitting edema on both of my lower extremities.
It felt like forever before they were able to give me something for my pain (pain medication causes your blood pressure to lower, so they couldn’t give me anything until my blood pressure was under control). When they did, I got a button and was told to press it whenever I needed something for pain. Then I was nauseous.
Two days later I was transferred to the less-acute spine unit.
Before my surgery, I had anticipated bringing my lap top to the hospital to write and surf the web and pass the time. I remember thinking immediately how silly that was. I was in no condition to even sit up in bed, let alone put coherent thoughts together. It’s been nearly two months and only now am I able to sit down for any length of time to put write my thoughts down and it has taken several sessions to finish this post.
I stayed on the spine unit for another 5 days before being transferred to another hospital for an inpatient rehab program. I stayed there for an additional 5 days before finally coming home.
It’s been a long, trying, road. Recovery is not easy. A few people have called me brave, which makes me laugh. I’ve cried and cursed a lot. I’ve felt weak and frail and defeated. I’ve had episodes of depression and, even worse, episodes of withdrawal when I tried to stop taking my pain medication.
I’m not even close to the end of the road. Technically speaking, it takes the spine an entire year to fuse. But I do rest easier knowing the worst is behind me. There are plateaus that are sure to come that bring with them frustration and doubt, but the worst is behind me. The worst is behind me, the worst is behind me, the worst is behind me. Like a ruthless teenager writing standards on the chalkboard in high school, I need to say it repeatedly to bang it into my darn head. Really though, the worst IS behind me. Right?
The details: On October 10th I had 13 levels of my spine fused due to curvature from scoliosis (thoracic 62 degrees, lumbar 48 degrees). Because my curve was progressive in nature, surgery was required. My curvature did not cause me pain or limitations. I was told that they had to fracture each vertebrae on both sides for a total of 26 fractures so that the 27 screws and 2 rods could be placed. I gained an inch and a half in height and lost a chunk of weight due to the pain medication I was on. I have to wear my back brace for a few more weeks. Recovery takes about 6 months. Feel free to ask any questions you may have in the comment section below.