Surgery: Week 1

The first week after my surgery is blurry and difficult to remember. This is probably for the best. I remember being in pain pretty much always, but the memories are vague and fleeting. So, as you’re laying in your hospital bed for those first few days thinking that things will just never get better, know that it’s really not as bad as it seems in retrospect.

As I mentioned in my previous surgery posts, I was in the hospital for about 4.5 days. During that time I did the following: sleep, nap, watch TV. Rinse and repeat.

Seriously though, you’re in no state to be doing anything else. My mom and I went through almost the entire first season of Friends while I was there and I don’t remember any of it. I don’t remember conversations I had or books I tried to read. That being said, reading was basically impossible with all of the drugs running through my blood. It was very difficult to concentrate on the individual words, and I usually gave up after a page or two.

Things that I do remember: the physical therapist coming to get me out of bed and walking, residents coming to check on me, hospital nutritionists forcing me to eat, nurses pouring Miralax down my throat (yuck. seriously).

The hospital physical therapist came by my room about noon the day after my surgery … so pretty much 24 hours after operating. I remember wanting to get up so badly and not lie down anymore but also thinking that attempting to move so much may kill me. But it’s super important to start moving as soon as possible and as often as possible. It’s incredibly painful and uncomfortable at the time, but it encourages your body to heal faster.

PT has you do what they call a “log roll” where you roll either to your left or right until you are laying on your side. You would have thought they were asking me to roll an entire marathon by the amount of moaning and groaning I did while trying to roll myself over. I remember feeling like my whole back was on fire and I could feel the two sides of my incision pulling against each other feeling like the whole thing was going to come apart. It won’t. I promise. It seems that I have an affinity for drama in certain situations…

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It probably took me about 10 minutes to finally get onto my side. Then, while they’re guiding you, they have you push yourself up on your shoulder. Here is where it would have been so crucial to have some killer ab muscles. Do some pilates, y’all! Seriously. So yeah, that part sucked, too.

Once I was finally sitting up, I immediately started to feel funny. I got really, really hot and started to sweat. The room started to spin, and I was certain I was going to throw up. This is all happening while the nurses are trying to change the sheets on my bed while they have a quick chance, so I’m roaming around panicking that I’m about to faint. The PT and nurses are telling me to breath and finally I go sit on the closest thing possible (just so happens to be the toilet) while they finish. So it took about 10 minutes for all that craziness to pass. This actually happened to me every time I got up to walk/use the bathroom while in the hospital. It was definitely annoying and made the task feel even more difficult, but apparently this is common when A) you are taking a bajillion medicines at once and B) you’ve been laying down for long periods of time and then change position abruptly. Makes sense. Once your actually standing up, walking is a breeze. It doesn’t hurt to walk, but it’s a slow process. Your body has been through a lot and it doesn’t want to move faster than it needs to. I was moving at a pretty glacial pace for the first week post-op, probably even longer.

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Besides walking around, I also remember the nurses checking my stats a lot, like more often than usual. I had an usually low blood pressure for most of the time I was in the hospital and they also had various reasons for checking my blood counts often which meant I was constantly having blood drawn. Not fun.

I didn’t really eat much the entire time I was in the hospital or even for the first week post-op. I drank a little bit of water here and there and I nibbled on some Fruit Loops because the nutrition lady at the hospital forced me to. The medicine messed with me, and it completely killed my appetite. This was unfortunate because ultimately, they will not let you leave the hospital until you, ya know,  go #2 – but that’s kind of hard to do when you’re not eating anything. The nurses will be giving you Miralax to drink a couple of times a day to help you go, but the closer I got to leaving the hospital, the more nervous I got about being able to leave. So they upped it to Miralax every hour. Not even kidding, y’all. But my alternative was a suppository and that was just not gonna happen. So, I drank Miralax every hour and it was disgusting. But it worked, eventually.

I also experienced a lot of naseau during my first week, so the nurses gave me an anti-naseau medicine called Phenergan which was awesome. I had one experience late at night where I threw up shortly after taking one of pills, which wasn’t fun. I would say this was my ultimate low-point through out the whole experience. The good news is that Phenergan also helps you sleep, so I literally spent most of that night and the next day sleeping. This was good for my mom and my husband because they were both able to go home, shower and get some sleep of their own.

At day 4.5, I was able to leave the hospital and I was nervous, but soo ready to get out of there! I was seriously smelly at this point. I guess going that long without a shower will do that to a girl. The nurses helped clean me off with a wash cloth before I changed into my own PJs. They also took out all my IVs and the drain pump from my back. This was all a breeze, not painful at all. I was wheeled down to the pick-up zone while my mom went to get the car. The ride home was not very much fun but we made it slowly, but surely.

There are a few things I recommend to make yourself as comfortable as possible once you get home. If at all possible, try to get your hands on a recliner chair. I spent about two months after my surgery basically living in a recliner. It was the most comfortable place for me to sit and to sleep. I’m not sure what I would have done without it, but I have read that body pillows or foam pillows can be helpful as well. I was never able to get comfortable for long periods of time on a bed or couch, though. Small, gray guard dog pictured below is optional.

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I also recommend getting a potty chair. The hospital arranged for us to buy one, I think it was about 20 bucks. It attaches to your toilet so that you don’t have to lower yourself all the way down to the seat to go. Seriously, a life saver.

The best part of going home was being able to “bathe.” You’re not allowed to get the bandages/incision wet, so it’s a bit of a process, but it was still magical. It took my mom and I a bit to figure out the best way to go about the whole process but here’s what we came up with. Mom put a chair in the bathtub. I wrapped a towel around my torso and then put a poncho on and held it tight around my neck to make sure no water could drip through. Then mom used a cup/spray nozzle to get my hair wet and wash it for me. It’s obviously not very comfortable to sit in the chair and lean back for very long, but seriously, clean hair has never felt so amazing! It was 100% worth the 30 minute process to achieve it!

So that was pretty much week one. Like I said, sleep, nap, watch TV. Also, no judging for how completely creepy and weird I look in all these pics. Remember that whole no-showering thing? It’s quite evident if you look closely barely glance at the pictures.

Quick shout out to my blog friend and fellow spinal fusion survivor, Pang for motivating me to finally get this post up. Better late the never, I suppose. You can read all about her story on her blog!

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Day of Surgery

As I sat down to write this post it occurred to me how amazing/terrifying it is to realize what anesthesia can do to your brain cells. My memories from the first few weeks post-op are scattered and blurred around the edges. Luckily, I have my parents and my husband to fill in holes for me.

My surgery was schedule for January 10, 2013 at 9:00 am. We had to be at the hospital around 5:30 am. Knowing that I wouldn’t be able to shower/wash my hair for awhile after surgery, I showered the night before and woke up around 4:00 am to give myself enough time to straighten it. I slept surprisingly well the night before, but as soon as I woke up, I had an anxious feeling in my stomach that pretty much never went away. Honestly, from the time I woke up to the time they started to put the IV in me, I talked to God. I asked him for guidance, for courage, for strength but mostly for His watchful eye. Obviously, some of you reading this may not see this as a particularly helpful option, and that’s totally fine. It was my way of distracting myself and calming myself down. I highly recommend finding something that can take your mind off what’s to come. Maybe listen to your iPod or tell stories back and forth with your family?

This procedure was a surgical first for me. I’d never had an IV or a catheter before, both of which terrified me (silly, in retrospect) and I’d really never been in the hospital before, besides a brief ER visit. I was so fortunate to have a friendly, informative nurse who was great with my IV and with answering all of my nervous questions. I suppose this could be different depending on where you have your surgery, but it made me a little nervous that I was without my family/husband for about an hour while they have you change, put in your IV, ask you medical questions, etc. But like I said, the staff was great and made things a little easier. Both my anesthesiologist and my surgical PA stopped in to check on me and explain a few things and this was really helpful as well. Turns out my anesthesiologist went to the same high school I did, so we chatted about that for a bit. By the time they were done with all of this, I got to see my parents and my husband for a bit, but things were moving so quickly, they were pretty much in and out.

All of my anxiety washed away when the nurse anesthetists put a nice dose of Valium into my IV to calm my nerves before the actual anesthesia. And let me tell you, that stuff is fun. I’m sure it effects everyone differently, but I was one happy girl. I remember them rolling me down the hallway to the operating room and I could’ve sworn we were going about 80 mph. Once we got in the operation room, I remember being amazed at the number of people in there. I looked around and said slurred to my nurse, “Are all of these people here for me?” I don’t remember her answer but I remember feeling slightly comforted that I was surrounded by so many capable hands.

After surgery is done, they take you to “recovery” to wake you up from anesthesia. My first memory after coming out of surgery is coming out of anesthesia. For whatever reason, my brain did not like the process. I remember waking up feeling upset and panicky. There were two nurses there (whose faces are literally blobs of color in my head) who would help calm me down. I would fall back asleep for however long and then wake up panicking again. This happened several times before I woke up a little more clear in the head and they rolled me to my hospital room.

Eventually, my parents and my husband came into the room and I remember feeling so relieved that they were finally there but I was still in a weird, panicky mood. According to my husband, I was upset for about 15 minutes, but unable to explain myself. He thinks I was in pain and confused about how to deal with it. Sounds about right to me.

When you wake up you are going to be in pain. No doubt. It’s going to hurt to make just about any movement. On top of that, you will have all kinds of needles, tubes and wires coming out of and going into your body. You’ll have your anesthesia IV on one arm and another on the other arm that they use to administer antibiotics throughout the day to prevent infection, as well as any other medications you might need. There will be a heart monitor attached to your chest and a drain that comes out of your back to keep your incision as clean as possible. There are two pad things wrapped around your lower legs that inflate and deflate to keep blood flowing throughout your body since you aren’t moving. They reminded me of the little pads you stick your hands in at the nail shop when you get a manicure. And then there’s the catheter which turned out to be the easiest, least noticeable one of all. It’s not painful at all and it’s obviously a blessing to not have to get up to go to the bathroom those first few days that its in. You hardly know it’s there and don’t even feel it when they take it out. Here I am post-op Day One. See all the wires coming out of God knows where?

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Most importantly, you have a PCA morphine pump attached to you and simply put, you will feel like it is the most beautiful advancement in medical technology ever. My hand was pretty much glued to that thing. Whenever I started to feel even a twinge of unfamiliar pain, I hit that button quicker than Ken Jennings on Jeopardy.

According to my parents and my husband, I basically spent the rest of the day drifting in and out of sleep. I was woken up by the health & nutrition women who were there to deliver meals. This, essentially, was a joke. I had absolutely no appetite whatsoever. Much to the chagrin of the lovely health and nutrition ladies and despite all of their best efforts, I didn’t eat any solid food until my third day post-op.

You’ll also be woken up by the nurses who will casually flip on the giant overhead florescent light as if they are unaware that the darn thing is like a giant UFO hovering over you ready to suck you in to experiment on you or something. Then they poke and prod you, checking your vitals and administering medicines and forcing Miralax down your throat to help you erm- use the bathroom. Sorry, poo talk makes me awkward. They won’t let you leave the hospital til ya do the doodoo, and it’s kind of a tough task if you can’t even manage to keep down solid foods. Jokes aside though, nurses are a God send. They have a tough job and they are essential to your recovery, so be nice to them!

Apparently anesthesia also makes me a sassy because when my anesthesiologist came to visit me post-op and revealed the he went to medical school at Duke University, I matter-of-factly told him to get out of my room. I don’t really remember this, but I feel bad about it. Sorry, doc!

So here is my account of surgery, day one. My intention was to dedicate this post to the entire first week of surgery, but I’m very long winded and it just didn’t make sense to have such a long post. I hope this has been helpful in giving anyone an idea of what to expect from the day of surgery. I definitely don’t want to scare you off, I’ve said it already a few times, but every bit of what I’ve described above is worth it. Here’s the before and after again in case you don’t believe me:

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Pre-op

The main reason I wanted to write a series on my surgery is that when I took to the Internet to educate myself on the procedure, most of the websites, articles, etc. were about the experiences of teenagers or the elderly. At 24-years-old, I wasn’t ever able to fully relate to what I was reading so in retrospect, I went into my surgery without a real specific picture of what was to come. Hopefully, this post can be helpful to any 20-something woman (or dude, I don’t discrimi-hate) who is in my shoes.

Here’s a short list of what I recommend pre-op and I’ll follow with explanations.

  • Stock up on the following: comfy clothes, comfy shoes, mindless entertainment.
  • Pack a bag that inclues: the above and a toothbrush and deodorant
  • Attend lots o’ pilates and/or yoga classes to increase core strength
  • I had suuuuper long hair that I knew would be a pain in the b-u-t-t to deal with since I wasn’t able to shower for about a week post-op. I cut it to just above my shoulders and am sooooo glad I did.
  • Choose a surgeon you are seriously comfortable with. Like, I would love to have drinks with mine or babysit his kids or something weird like that because I’ve known him for so long and had no problem with him cutting a 14 inch incision down my back.
  • Know that this won’t be easy. Sorry, but it’s true. But it really helps to be as mentally prepared as possible.
  • Keep your spirits up. I wrote one of my Bible verses on my hand the morning of surgery. It was comforting to be able to look down and read it whenever I started to get anxious.

My surgery was scheduled for January 10, 2013 shortly after the madness from the holidays slowed down. This meant lots of surgery-related Christmas presents such as: comfortable pajamas, yoga pants, baggy t-shirts, comfy socks, fuzzy slippers, multiple crossword and Sudoko books, movies and all 10 seasons of Friends on DVD (!!!!!). I should mention that mindless entertainment is key here. Anesthesia seriously messes with your brain not to mention the gallons of morphine that I pumped into my system every chance I could. I probably watched about 30 episodes of Friends while at the hospital and I hardly remember any of them. I packed a book in my  bag and it never saw the florescent glow of the giant hospital ceiling light. It took me about a month to be able to really focus  enough to read a book or magazine.

From the moment I decided on surgery, my doctor recommended that I start participating in pilates/yoga classes to increase core strength. He said this would be very helpful to recovery since I would be relying on my core so much to make up for what my back muscles wouldn’t be able to do. Probably my biggest regret throughout this process is that I did not pay close attention to this advice. I’ve always been averse to pilates and yoga (ironically because Pilates always felt rough on my back) so I just kept procrastinating and before I knew it, it was December and wasn’t even worth the effort. Even though I kept up with my normal workout routine, I do think I could have benefited greatly from the focus on core strength. I’m currently 8 weeks post-op and I still have to push myself up with my arm while lying on my side to get up from laying down. 

I feel it’s worth noting why I decided to have a major surgery 3 hours from where I live. Dr. Watt didn’t know anyone he could recommend to do the surgery in Charleston and it didn’t seem worth the effort to establish a relationship with someone new. Honestly, I can not believe I even considered for a millisecond finding a surgeon local to my area. Having the same doctor who had treated my scoliosis from day one ended up being remarkably comforting and certainly made the whole process much easier than it would have been. If you’re going through this, I highly, highly recommend using a doctor that you know well and feel comfortable enough with to ask as many questions as you want.

Be mentally prepared for what’s to come. Going into the surgery as a 20-something-year-old by this procedure’s standards means that you are old. I know, I know 30 is the new 20 blah blah blah. Not in this case. Scoliosis surgeries are most typically done on teenagers and young adolescents. Our body’s ability to heal at 15 years old is significantly better than at 24 years old. There’s only a 9 year gap, but boy, does it make all the difference. When I was doing my research, I assumed the following: I might only be in the hospital for two days instead of the typical four, if I wanted to, I could ride the three hours back home to Charleston as soon as I was out of the hospital and I would probably feel 100% after about 4-6 weeks.

False. False. And False. I think all of the above could have been possible for a 15-year-old, not for an old fart like myself. I was in the hospital for 5 days. I barely survived the car ride from the hospital to my parent’s house, let alone a three hour drive. And I am now 8 weeks post-op and not at 100% (I still have to bend down very slowly and can only sleep in certain positions, for example).

Hopefully, this post isn’t discouraging or disheartening. I wanted to be as honest as possible so as to know exactly what to expect. Even though it seems like all I had to say was negative, know that so far, I would not have changed a single thing. I definitely think this surgery was worth everything that I have gone through and am so thankful for the medical technology and advances that exist! After all, straightening your spine does have its advantages: Pre-surgery I was 5’5. Post-op I am now 5’7 holllaaaaa, my posture is much improved and I now have an excuse to shop for a new wardrobe!

Here’s a quick before and after shot:

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Night before surgery                                                        1 week post-op

Pretty cool, huh? Here’s my post about the Day of Surgery.

xoxo, p.

The S Curve, part I

When I was in 8th grade, my mom took me to get a routine physical. I remember the doctor telling me to bend over and touch my toes. Ok, that’s normal. Sure, doc. But then I remember standing that way for an unusual period of time as the doc moved her hands up and down the upper ride side of my back. It’s actually kind of hard to listen to someone else’s conversation upside down, so I don’t know what the doctor was telling my mom but we left the appointment with a recommendation to see a pediatric orthopedist about a possible curvature in my spine. 

When we went to the orthopedist, Dr. Michael Wattenbarger, we had no idea the man would become  a staple in my life for at least the next 12 years. Turns out I had scoliosis, an idiopathic condition that causes curvature in the spine. Some people have scoliosis and carry on life normally because their curves are inconsequential. I don’t remember what my curve was when I was first x-rayed, but I’m guessing somewhere in the upper 30s, lower 40s. Scoliosis progresses in the spine until the body is finished growing. If it progresses far enough, it can lead to back pain, restricted lung capacity and pressure on the heart. Also, as you get older and gravity continues to pull down on you, you’ll get a nice big humpback. Unfortunately for me, at the ripe young age of 12, I had lots o’ growing left to do. So, I was fitted for an unsightly back brace which was essentially a thick, plastic cast starting just below the sides of my hips, encasing my entire torso, and continuing up just below my right armpit to keep the curve side of my back as straight as possible. I was instructed to wear the brace 23 hours a day – isn’t that nice, they give you a whole hour off! Instantly, Dr. Wattenbarger became my enemy. What 8th grader wants to be confined to a body cast at all hours of the day? I have friends to gossip with, boys to crush on, sports teams to play on, tank tops to wear, body glitter to apply! Instead, I turned inward, avoided boys, skipped sports, bought baggy jeans and hoodie sweatshirts and confined the body glitter to the only part of my body visible (my hands, basically). I was definitely not a cool 8th grader. 

Unfortunately, at that age I was young and naive to the world around me. I allowed my situation to control me and I was pretty much a miserable person filled with all kinds of teen angst. Sorry, mom and dad.

After a year of wearing the brace, I made a decision to stop wearing it (against my doctor’s – and parents’ – wishes) when I started high school. It was a childish, selfish, ridiculous decision but I did and I was noticeably happier going into 9th grade. It took me about another year or so to realize how easy I had it compared to so many others afflicted with pediatric cancer, disability, etc.

Anywho, all of this is back story leading up to my recent adventures. By the time I finished high school my curve was around 50 degrees. Borderline surgery territory but since I was finished growing, my doctor and I decided I would be OK without surgery. 

Fast forward six years to the summer of 2012 when I started having back pain that keet me up at night, sometimes paralyzing me for minutes at a time. Reluctantly, I went back to the ever-reliable Dr. Wattenbarger – who is actually a lot nicer and more pleasant than I remember from my teen angsty days – and find my curve has progressed to 62 degrees. No bueno. I need surgery. A posterior spinal fusion to be exact, a procedure that isn’t as common in 24-year-olds as it is in 13, 14, 15-year-olds. I found this out the hard way. The first thing I did when I got home was Google “posterior spinal fusion” (terrible idea by the way, especially if you accidentally click the “images” section). I was frustrated because I couldn’t find information on the procedure relevant to women my age. The lack of information was worrisome and it stressed me out even more. That’s why I decided to blog about this, because if this information can be helpful to even one woman who has a similar situation, I think it will have been worth it.