A funny thing happened on the way to surgery…

This past Friday, I went through lumbar microdiscectomy for the second time in five months. Apparently I’m an overachiever because of the people who have the surgery, only 4-5% have a recurrence afterwards. Woohoo! That’s me, always trying to outdo the odds. I blame my uber-motivating parents who always pushed me to do my best…I just can’t imagine they had something like this in mind.

In any case, this story really isn’t about the fact that I had to have two almost identical surgeries only 163 days apart. It is interesting to explore the possible reasons for a recurrence happening so quickly, however. Of course, my first thought was “have I done something I shouldn’t have?” I would be shocked if it was because of what I did, because I don’t feel like I pushed myself at all. Hannah has almost completely taken over the responsibility of the laundry, as that chore was certainly one of the largest triggers of my back pain. The kids are on KP duty, so another one of my nemeses, the dishwasher, held no power over me. I even tried to get the kids to take over vacuuming and floor cleaning. Sometimes I feel like I’m pawning off all the housework on them, but then I consider what a valuable commodity these children will be as they grow up–for their own households and for their future spouses. Regardless of whether it’s to assuage my own guilt or I really am preparing them well for life, this is how we’ve been rolling around here.

So, no heavy housework, no lifting more than maybe two gallons of milk….Hmmm, gallons of milk. Could pushing a shopping cart have caused such a profound reinjury? I didn’t even go shopping alone until I was cleared by the surgeon the first time in late November to slowly return to normal activities. Perhaps it contributed, but surely didn’t cause it…?

No accidents, no trauma, no hauling heavy materials….. I honestly couldn’t think of anything, and yet, starting in early January, a pain started slowly creeping back into my life when I had so gloriously returned to a pain-free lifestyle. At first, although it was again on my left side, it was in a completely different place. My hip was giving me a nagging pain that kept getting worse and worse, but not constant. Finally, I gave in and went to see my doctor, half embarrassed. “Really, Deb?” I imagined her saying. “What could it possibly be this time??” (Even if she thought it to herself, she never once vocalized it to me. She’s much too sweet for that.) Nagging pain progressed to the kind of pain that makes a person cry in the doctor’s office two weeks later because walking around is getting tough. Crying led to different treatments and a prescription for a round of physical therapy. The physical therapist went along with the initial diagnosis of hip bursitis until I started reporting symptoms like shooting pain down my leg when I raised my hands over my head and unrelenting pain from my sciatica down to my foot that got so bad it would keep me from sleeping at night and made finding a comfortable position almost impossible.

One day after about a month of PT, my thoughtful therapist at Bauman Physical Therapy, mindful of how many visits my insurance would allow me, strongly suggested I stop coming to him and call my neurosurgeon for a follow up visit. He was convinced that something was going on in the same area as before. How disastrous.

After scheduling an appointment for the middle of March (in the middle of February; my neurosurgeon is sought after, apparently, and it didn’t help that he had a vacation in there as well), I thought I’d just wait it out. When that worked about as well as instructing a fish to climb a tree, I went back to a different doctor in my GP’s practice (since she was in Thailand; I have fantastic timing), feeling ridiculous to come back again yet helpless in regards to getting relief. He immediately assured me that I wasn’t imagining it and referred me for an MRI the next day. Once I had the CD of the MRI in hand, I proceeded to spend the weekend examining and re-examining the images of my spine. I’m not a trained professional and don’t even play one on tv, but it didn’t take a genius to compare the current MRI to the first one I had in July. It did not look good. In fact, it looked pretty obvious that that which was supposed to be on the inside of my disc was once again on the outside. Devastation magnified.

Then came the waiting. From the March 1 MRI to the March 14 appointment with my neurosurgeon seemed like an eternity to say the least. I was convinced that my disc had reherniated, but started to wonder if, when I finally saw him, my doctor would say, “Well….it’s really not what it looks like.” or some other such nonsense, such as “There’s nothing we can do for this. Stinks to be you.”

The day before my appointment, though, I heard from two different doctors who didn’t know me but had seen my MRI images. One of them called it “a catastrophic herniation.” The other was reported to have simply exclaimed, “Oh shit.” Neither, to be honest, sounded especially encouraging.

As we suspected, the next day the surgeon confirmed what I had “arm chair” diagnosed: my disc had reherniated in the same level, same side. He used terms such as “impressive,” which made me cringe. I’d rather be impressive in my speaking abilities or in my organizational skills–not in my injurious proclivities! Regardless, he suggested a redo procedure. Usually, the surgery is successful the first time around, but in the rare occurrences when it happens again, it was still more successful than not. It looked as though it was the option for me. I knew that for quality of life alone, surgery was a good option, but the likelihood of the disc healing itself (which can happen if caught earlier and if the injury is to a lesser degree), was almost negligible.

At quite possibly the worst time in our homeschool schedule–memory master testing, end of year testing, spring fever, and other events not even mentioned–we scheduled my redo procedure. I had eight days to get my ducks in a row to prepare myself for an identical surgery and recovery. I wasn’t excited about it, but felt it was the best option for my situation.

The surgery had a couple of complications. Beforehand, the doc went through worst case scenarios with us, one of which was a dural tear when removing the scar tissue from surgery #1. He did say that it was rare–only 1-2% incidents in these procedures. Yeah, that happened, resulting in a killer spinal headache and an overnight stay instead of an outpatient procedure. Maybe I should have played the lottery? In addition, I had a small incident in recovery called vocal chord paralysis that caused my blood pressure to drop and me to stop breathing. Thankfully with an ambu bag, a couple breathing treatments, and a shot of epinephrine, I was back to the land of the living. I was also glad to hear of this complication after coming around; I have no memory of the event.

Now that I’m home, I’ve had no additional surprises. My recovery has gone slowly, but well overall. My goal, as after the first time, is to “keep moving forward.” My prayer is that this time will be the last time. I’m hopeful that it will be a more permanent fix (at least longer than 163 days!) and I can move on from back issues for a long while.

On the day of my first surgery, other than getting an IV placed, the only other dread I had was getting weighed that morning. By October, after suffering through a summer of inactivity and pain, I had become quite the blob in my own eyes. I hadn’t really done anything to remedy the problem, though, either–other than moaning and complaining.

I had the brilliant plan to close my eyes when I stepped on the scale in pre-op. The nurse would write down the hideous number and I’d never have to know. I mean, I knew already, but I wasn’t interested in having the reality of the numbers attached to it.

My plan worked until a different male nurse came back to do yet another pre-op exam. He checked me out, left, and then returned in a bit to complete something in my chart. As he filled out whatever it was with a couple other nurses, he asked, “What do you weigh?” I admitted that I didn’t know and hadn’t looked. Clueless, he left to get that number and then when he learned it, he hollered down the hallway to the other nurses in my area. My plan was foiled by the man who announced that hideous number to anyone who had listened. Ugh! was all I could think. Worse than I’d feared! As my sister-in-law once astutely observed, “Everybody’s got a number.” She’s right, and THAT was not mine.

After surgery #1, I don’t think I could say that Clueless Male Nurse was my sole impetus for getting my ‘house’ in order, but he definitely played a leading role. That number seemed to follow me everywhere: from my bathroom scale to my mirror to my follow up appointment post surgery. I had to lose that number somehow!

At the same time, a friend on Facebook was beginning a challenge with her friend to commit to walk or run at least one mile every day between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day in an attempt to keep holiday weight gain at bay. I had been dabbling in short walks by that time: not daily and not more than around the block, but at least something. I’d read that one of the best ways to recover from my kind of back surgery was by walking. So I did. The more I saw her accountability updates to her friend on Facebook, the more intrigued I was. On December 5, I started my own challenge. I committed to walk a mile every day until January 1. I was late to their party, but thought I could still start my own. In addition, I downloaded a food tracking app on my phone, set up my “No Longer That Number” goals, and jumped in (but not literally. Jumping is kind of still off limits).

I was successful at walking every day–even on Christmas Day. I really began to enjoy my walks during the days. Some days I walked in the rain or snow, and a couple days I walked in the dark. But that 20-30 minutes were really important to me. I practiced the Timeline for memory master or listened to praise and worship music…or some cardio 80s. I also successfully avoided gaining weight throughout the holiday season, with all its sweets and goodies that I love so much. It wasn’t that hard, actually. I made the decision that I would fast from Christmas Crack entirely and kept my promise. (With that stuff, once you have one piece, it’s pretty much over. It’s called Crack for good reason!) For probably the first time ever, I lost weight during Christmas and didn’t feel deprived.

I had strung together around 60 days in a row of waking without a break when my hip and leg pain got so intense that I could hardly walk back to the bathroom, let alone walk my two miles. I was completely devastated the day I broke my chain. I say devastated only because I couldn’t think of a word stronger than that, but that’s how I felt.

Fast forward to the day of surgery #2, when I was not only able to keep my eyes open when limping on the scale back in pre-op (remember, jumping = colossal no no). I haven’t reached my end goal yet, but for once, I didn’t have to hang my head in my own personal shame. As I waded through the déjà vu of going through the exact same thing as I had just five short months before, imagine my surprise when Clueless Male Nurse popped his head around the curtain. (I guess I shouldn’t have been all that surprised, but he hadn’t been imprinted in my mind as my favorite person.)

“How much did you weigh today?” he asked. I couldn’t believe it, but this time I was able to answer him without delay.

“There seems to be a 17 pound discrepancy between your weight today and what’s in your chart,” he explained. Then he went on to tell the nurse who was taking my blood pressure what the chart said. It was as if I couldn’t escape him and that number!

But actually, I have been able to escape that number. It is now 17 lbs. away, to be exact. I’m a huge fan of irony, and believe I had a large dose of it that morning, right before my huge doses of anesthesia.

Maybe I should have taken the opportunity to thank Clueless Male Nurse for motivating me to finally get started on my goals! Hopefully my back will heal quickly enough that I can continue to outrun “that number.”


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Claire Hanssen
    May 03, 2013 @ 12:21:01

    I notice at the end of your post you said, and I quote “…outrun that number.” I’m sure you meant that literally and are going to start running soon, right? 🙂 Join the club!!


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