On May 14, 2014, I under went a surgery that changed my life.
I am going to share my experience with this surgery and tell the ways it changed my life.
Disclaimer: This post may have graphic details and/or pictures that require viewer/reader discretion. If you are easily bothered or grossed out by medical details, this may not be an advisable read.
I was 19 years old at the time. I had just finished high school and started my first year in college. I moved to Gainesville, Florida with my at-the-time boyfriend. I moved to Gainesville to study at Santa Fe College, which is the community college in that area. I was majored in Psychology back then. I knew the surgery was going to happen but I didn't know when. The attending nurses told me it was possible to be during the summer. But I wasn't going to let that slow my education down. That's why I moved to Gainesville after graduating high school. I did have to move back to Miami, Florida with my parents for the surgery.
Spinal Fusion is rated to be number 1 most painful surgery to have. Second in line is knee surgery.
Where did I get that statistic? I don't remember where but I heard it years ago.
I have scoliosis.
What is scoliosis?
Scoliosis is a sideways curve in your spine. Often, it first shows up when you're a child or teenager. For me, I was diagnosed with it after a slip on the stairs. The pain was so bad that I went to urgent care, which is when they told me I had scoliosis. Wasn't until that fall at 13 years old that I went to see a specialist for my scoliosis. The angle of the scoliosis curve can be small, large, or anywhere in between. But anything that measure more than 10 degrees on an X-ray is considered scoliosis.
My spine was rotated and tilted to the right side of my back. I had the right side of my back lifted up more then the left. This made young me very self conscience and insecure. I was embarrassed of my back curvature. I ultimately, did the surgery for aesthetic reasons. Yes, I had pain. However, it wasn’t as bad as the pain I endure daily now. After the surgery. But we'll get to that.
What is spinal fusion?
Spinal fusion is a surgery where the doctors realign the spine and try to move it into its proper place. It is a surgery where doctors join two or more vertebrae into one single structure. The goal is to stop movement between the two bones so that the curvature doesn't continue. It is also done to prevent back pain. However, my doctor told me that it may or may not improve my pain.
This surgery can take several hours. Mine was around 3 and a half hours long.
They first make the incision on the back. They move the muscles to the side in order to expose the spine.
I had to have fused 14 vertebrae. It was my entire thoracic (mid-back region) and 2 of the lumbar (lower back) vertebrae.
In a spinal fusion, doctors will use screws, Harrington rods, or pieces of bone graft from another part of your body to connect the disks and keep them from moving. Bone graft can also come from donors. Bone graft is needed to "cement" down the rods and screws.
My doctors used bone graft from my body by scraping the tips of the vertebrae and my ribs. These screws and rods are stainless steel titanium. #TitaniumStrong
After Harrington titanium rods and screws are introduced to the selected vertebrae. In my case, I needed to be fused from T1-L2. But like said before, this surgery can be much smaller.
The way my nurses described the surgery to me is probably the best way I can describe it now. They open me up by cutting a line down the center of my back. They collect bone graft from areas mentioned. Then, they literally pick up the spine and move it to the desired location. as much as the body allows. Insert the Harrington rods on both sides of the spine and screw it in. After that they use the bone graft that they collected and created a ground beef or cement type of mixture on the spine. They close me up with staples and inserted a tube and bag that collects blood and whatever other secretions from my body. This was places at the bottom of my surgery. I was rolled back onto my back on the hospital bed and sent to the recovery room. From there, I would go back to my original room where I would stay 5 days.
My surgery was at around 12 pm, if I remember correctly. A physical therapist came to see me at around 4 PM. Well, at some point in the early afternoon. The therapist had me get up from bed and walk around the nurses station for a bit. The physical therapist said I was able to walk and should try to do so with help, of course. The way I got up was interesting to say the least. The bed can transform into a sort of sitting position like a chair and then I stand up from that position.
Now this is when it gets a bit messed up.
When I was back in my room, I was on a morphine drip that allowed me to push for more every 8 minutes. I was hopped on morphine and whatever else they gave me. BUT, I still had to be the one making the adult decisions. My mom and boyfriend were there but they were no help. They were nervous and scared for me. My mother is deaf and there was no proper communication access for her to communicate with the doctors or medical staff. My at-the-time boyfriend had never been in a situation like that and really isn’t used to having big decisions pressured on him. Take in mind, he was my age so he was a kid just like me. So basically, I was on my own. On my drugged-up own.
See, growing up with my mother being deaf and my grandmother only speaking Spanish, I was used to the adult pressures, conversations and decision making. But I was literally incapable of making decisions. I promise. I was drugged out of my mind with that morphine. Even though I wasn't taking the morphine every 8 minutes like I could. So, I could've been more drugged, I guess.
So, this is what happened. Well, the hospital bed I was supposed to be laying on is a special bed that makes movement so that my back gets used to the movement and won't be shocked when I begin to walk again. However, the specific bed I was on seemed to be broken as it wasn’t moving. This was mentioned to the nurses and another nurse came in and saw that the bed was indeed not moving. At this time, it was close night time and the night time nurses were in. Day nurses gone. These nurses apparently aren’t familiar with the whole spinal fusion surgery process.
The nurses said they needed to change my bed for one that functions. I said ok I'll stand up. But they were freaking out and kept saying I couldn’t walk or stand up yet. I explained that I already did so with the physical therapist earlier that day and they said that's with the therapist. Not alone. They refused to let me stand up. They wanted to move me from bed to bed. This is what doesn’t make sense. My mom, boyfriend and me all looked at each other thinking this was a bad idea but they put the decision on me. Again, the drugged-up, tired patient. I tried to fight the nurses about me standing, but I had no energy to keep pushing. So I let them move me their way.
Big mistake. Here is what they did. They brought the other bed next to the one I was currently laying in. They then called for other nurses to help carry the blanket under me (with me on top) and drag me to the other bed. Normally, this IS the correct way to move an immobile patient. However. I JUST had surgery on my spine. The spine they were dragging across two beds. This was the worst pain I have ever had. Yes, I was in pain before but now it felt like I was on fire. My entire back was on fire. I screamed in pain, I was crying and requesting more morphine. Before this move I would be able to fall asleep a bit and wake up to press the morphine drip, which is why I said I wasn't pressing the drip button too often. However, after this I was not sleeping anymore. I was just pressing the morphine drip the entire time because it wasn’t enough pain medication for me. The drip was on for every 8 minutes but the pain I was in required more. They wouldn't let me do more. So, I was just pressing the button continuously.
I remember hearing a head nurse yelling at the nurses who moved me. I don't know if I hallucinated that or if that happened. Again, I was drugged-up.
But I'm sure that is where my nerve damage comes from. Remember they just "cemented" down my spine and then dragged it across beds. Its like dragging something across a newly cemented side walk. Whats going to happen? There will be movement of the cement itself causing the nice evenly flat sidewalk to not be perfect.
I'm pretty sure that where my chronic pain comes from.
The stupid night time nurses.
After that, my body must have gotten addicted to the morphine or something like that, because when they were removing the morphine I was super shaky. And constipated. Badly.
The rule is that they aren't supposed to let me leave the hospital until I was able to make a bowel movement (poop). However, they tried giving me enemas, laxatives, other suppositories, and everything. And nothing made me poop. They ended up letting me go home with the condition that I had to call the office when I had a bowel movement.
Which I didn't for 14 days.
Do you know what it is to not poop for that long?
It was awful.
My stomach was so bloated. I looked like I had a 4 month old pregnancy. It was a poop baby. I was 2 weeks pregnant with a poop baby.
The doctor said I didn't need physical therapy. Just to try to walk as much as possible at home. The pain was so bad.
I was taking 4 percocets every 4-6 hours and it was hardly working for me.
Everything hurt to do.
I had to relearn how to go basic things like breathing, walking, talking, showering, eating, sitting, getting dressed, and really everything. Every step I took hurt me. Every deep breath I took hurt me. I couldn’t bend so I needed help getting dressed.
It took me almost a year to figure out a new way to put on socks because the old way, the normal people way, doesn’t work for me anymore as I can't bend my back.
I had to learn how to drive again. How to get in and out of a car. Every tiny bump or hole in the road killed me.
That car ride back home from the hospital was hell. I yelled at my mom about her driving so much. When it really wasn’t her fault, but the horrible roads in Miami.
I need help getting in and out of bed.
Eating was difficult.
I cant emphasis how much breathing hurt. The most essential thing to survive.
I had to relearn how to live.
How to survive.
Even now years later, there are things I forget how to do in my "new way of living" and end up hurting myself when I revert back to the old way of doing something. For example, I tend to forget how I must enter cars now and I hit my head doing it the old Elizabeth way. The pre-surgery Elizabeth way.
I was given an incentive spirometer to practice my breathing and so my lung can get used to deep breaths again. This is what that looks like:
It hurt so much to use it and the doctors said it wasn’t totally necessary. So, I didn't pay much mind to it. That's how I believe I developed my asthma. My breathing problems, I mean. My lungs had gotten used to tiny breaths. This is also why I think when I started smoking, my asthma improved. My breathing improved. I think smoking was the same as doing those breathing exercises with the spirometer they gave me. Taking deep breaths in and slowly out.
It's weird I know. Smoking helped my breathing.
But I was doing a lot to try and improve. I was taking medications to improve my breathing and nothing helped.
Up until I started smoking. So I really think it was that.
I'm not saying to start smoking to improve your breathing. I'm not saying that at all. My case was different. My case had to do with my lungs not going to its potential. Smoking started training my lungs to open up more. But that's not the correct way to do this. Nor is it recommended. Nor is it safe. Please don't do this at home. There are better ways.
I needed help carrying groceries, pouring milk in a cup, pouring anything in a cup, reaching for things and stretching.
I stopped putting my bags on the floor. I stopping doing things that would make me bend because that hurt to do.
It was like I was a 19 year old baby right out of the womb. Learning to do everything from scratch.
I don't regret my surgery. Because, if you remember, I didn't do it for pain reasons or anything but aesthetic reasons. I don't regret it. But it sure has made my life a bit more difficult every day. The silver lining is that my scoliosis was improved and it will never get worse.