Life After a Spinal Fusion

Flashback to Monday (4/08/2019)…

This was just another day. I log rolled out of bed, my feet hit the floor and for a moment I pretended to know what it felt like to wake up happy. This was a mental exercise I became quite good at after the birth of my son. It usually started with some quick, internal guided imagery. I would blast back to somewhere around 8 weeks postpartum:

I would visit a memory of my husband holding our son, in his nursery, while also holding me.

“Rhett this is your room. Mommy and Daddy made it just for you.”

That memory has always been enough for me to evade my pain and remember, it’s not about me anymore. A little 9 month old wonder is completely dependent on me.

This Monday I did my normal thing. I quickly glanced at my Outlook calendar, while sipping my coffee, while the local news radiated in the background.

What meetings do I have today?

Any with my superiors?

How many details do I HAVE to disclose about this surgery scheduled for next week, that once again has been denied by my insurance?

Who will think I’m full shit of today?

Should I stop wearing make-up?

Maybe if people see the chronic black circles under my eyes they will take me more seriously. I guess…then I should stop wearing sunless tanner…and heals. But then, will people tell me to “smile” and ask if I’m sick?

Damned if I do…and damned if I don’t.

I’ll stick to my usual. At least when I look in the mirror I will be able to feel beautiful for a moment. For my own sanity. Even if my body is screaming at me in pain.

For three years I have been viewed as a liar. Our broken healthcare system did not want to treat me because I’m “too young.” Before I make this all about chronic pain, I’d like to first point out the mental agony this type of bullshit has caused me. That’s the side of pain that people don’t know exists, unless they themselves are chronic sufferers. For three years I’ve heard:

If your back was broken or hurting you’d be crying (side note: for the first 2 years I DID cry. I just tried to do it on my lunch break, outside, in my truck).

You are too young to have back problems.

You look fine (see orange text above).

Sack up!

Oh my friend had back problems and he is on disability. If you were bad your doctor would give you pain pills. You’d be on disability.

Must not be that bad if you are carrying (with child) a baby.

To address this small list of bold statements in their entirety would require me to write a book. So I will focus on the last one.

My husband and I made the executive decision to have a child no matter how much pain it would cause me. We knew pregnancy would be hard(er). We knew that it would challenge me mentally and physically. We also planned for the reality. My husband promised to be there for me. He left his job when I was 6 months pregnant. It was now or never. We weren’t getting younger.

  • We wanted a child.
  • We budgeted our income.
  • We renovated our entire upstairs into what was my dream floor plan.
  • We created incredible memories together preparing for our son.

And we did it all as a team. He came through with his promise, and then some. I have no idea how we as a family would have ever survived without him here daily.

To get back to the main point of this first post, in a series about my health condition (stay tuned) the back pain was second. The mental hell I lived in daily was first. At first my own family, in-laws, boss and even husband weren’t sure of what to make of my sudden complaints about pain. It really seemed that no one believed me.

My husband began to believe me when I stopped doing everything I loved. The gym had been my sacred space for coping with some awful shit that happened to me years ago. Due to my new back condition I simply could no longer find refuge at the gym. This was alarming. When I met him I had two gym memberships and told him,

“Gary, if I’m ever off do these two things. 1. Ask me if I need to eat. Offer me a cheeseburger. 2. Send me to the gym.”

Being judged about my pain, and constantly doubted, made me hyper defensive. I felt I  had to validate my next round of physical therapy, or my lengthy appointments at Cleveland Clinic, why I need to physically be dragged out of bed on a rainy day, or why mid-lecture at a college I would need to go sit down instead of stand at the lectern (despite being one of the youngest and fittest employees). 

What made everything worse was that my own insurance company was unwilling to see that I had a problem. This is when my own colleagues and friends, and colleagues who I viewed as friends really started to think I was nuts.

Well, if it’s so bad why won’t your insurance approve your surgery?

I did not have an answer. I had nurses telling me that a peer-to-peer would clear it up. It did not. So then the speculations of me having a “made-up condition” continued to grow.

Remember how I said I lost friends? People I really loved and valued from my younger years were suddenly enemies that only hindered the little bit of optimism I had left in me. I try to be a forgiving loving human. But to you–you few people know who you are. FUCK YOU! 

I walked down the aisle in chronic pain. I went through my masters program in chronic pain. I started a new job in chronic pain. I went through 42 weeks of pregnancy in chronic pain. Three years of broken sleep. Numerous nights of fighting with my husband all because I thought no one cared or believed just how bad it was.

Cue Dr. Brian Dalton and his incredible team. They were the first people who listened.

On April 15 when I awoke in the ICU recovery room after a 4+ hour surgery I knew that my life was going to be better. Instantly. All of the screaming pains that once radiated out of my left hip joint and lumbar spine were silent. I called for my nurse smiling and said,

“I feel so much better! I have to tell my husband!”

When they called my husband and he turned the corner to look at me I will never forget it. I grabbed his hand and started to cry. This time tears of happiness.

My surgery went longer than expected, because my lumbar spine had more complex issues going on that weren’t expected. Finally. It all made sense. The doctor had to spend more time chiseling an almond size bone spur off of my left hip joint. I had spurs and cysts around my spine. My L5-S1 were almost completely touching. Nerves were tangled up in the mess. My spine had to be jacked 8 mm apart. Two levels up required laminectomies. I had a bone transplant scooped from my pelvis, put in place for my planned spinal fusion. Two titanium rods, 4 screws, a 7 inch incision, and 15 staples later I was shipped to recovery.

The first thing I told my husband was how sorry I was.

You see, my husband is not the normal Dad. He does MORE. He does more than both of us ever expected he would need to do. He has changed every single night-time diaper, because at night I could not get out of bed quickly enough to safely function with a locked up back. When I nursed at night, he would carry Rhett to me every single time. After Rhett turned 6 months old, it became almost impossible for me to carry him at all. So, Gary did that too. And now Gary takes care of both of us. Although the surgery is so far a huge success, for 10 more weeks I am not allowed to pick up our son.

Although my husband and I have been together for almost 5 years, 3 of those were wrecked by this whole situation.

For the past 15 days I have greeted each day with gratitude and optimism that we might be able to get our old lives back. Someday we might be able to cuddle each other to sleep, hug, race each-other across the yard, or surf the fields baling hay like we used to.

I’ve wiped the tears away from my eyes several times writing this, and it’s time for me to retire to my bed…where I now sleep in peace.

I have now made it a daily practice to pray for those around me, but also people I do not know who are in chronic pain.

Thanks for reading.

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