I’m too young (in my own mind) and active (also in my own mind) to be hunched over with back pain. For 7 months I couldn’t stand up straight, couldn’t walk and quality of life was significantly impacted. 6 months of physical therapy, two surgical opinions, all kinds of medications and steroidal epidurals could not change the results of the MRI showing surgery as the best option to cure the degenerating situation and stenosis. So… Onward into the breach….
Day 1: Surgery Day
You wake up from surgery with head spinning, a smashed face, a mouth feeling like it’s full of cotton and people doing things to you that you can’t quite identify. You’re dizzy as hell. But that’s all pretty much expected.
Then comes the ‘bums rush’…..something like a ride at Disneyland where they push you out of the right side of the small world boat so they can push the next guests in on the left side.
They dress you like a 4 year old dressing a Barbie…. No underwear, pants half pulled up and twisted and your shirt half on with no bra. Shoes? Forget that….too much trouble. They hand you some barf bags, stick you in a wheel chair and out the door you go like a drunken party guest they can’t get out of the house fast enough. You climb into the car hoping no one sees you (because you’re at least coherent enough to have a LITTLE vanity), but at the same time you don’t remember your own name or if that really IS your car you’re getting in to. You hear your mother’s voice in your head about the proper attire to wear if you get in a car crash. You proceed to stress out about not having underwear on the whole way home.
Later that day: It’s euphoria – you’re cautiously walking around, but most of all, standing up straight. HOLY SHIT…. YOU’RE ACTUALLY STANDING UP STRAIGHT!!! That hasn’t happened in over 7 months! (You don’t really completely realize at the time that the anesthesia and mega pain killers are still coursing through your system and THAT’s why you feel so stinking good.) Like a repetitive drunk, I couldn’t stop yelling at my husband to “Look, look, LOOK! I’m straight!”. I was just ready to kiss Dr. Palmer and offer him cash, a house in the Bahamas, bricks of gold bullion, first born children, etc. You’re cured. Here come absolute tears of joy. (well, tears flowing from joy, the drugs or maybe both).
Day 2: Doing Pretty Good….
You’re dutifully taking your painkillers knowing in the back of your head that there’s no way you could feel good for long and you know that the full surgical painkillers will wear off eventually.
You think those Percocet are going to keep the pain away but…. Uhhhhh……Let’s put a pin in that for now.
(Side note….those painkillers make you incredibly thirsty. You’re sucking down water like a drowning fish. Just keep in mind what side effects come along with that….. “foreshadow for suffering”.)
So night one, you’re up 2 or three times heading to the bathroom. A little painful moving, but you can walk. You wobble across the room and lean on whatever you can to make sure you don’t fall. You say a silent prayer to your physical therapist who forced you to build up core strength over the last 6 months. You can feel yourself purposefully diligently engaging your core as you move. You assume the little pain you’re starting to feel is related to those lovely surgical painkillers wearing off and the weaker oral painkillers not being quite as effective. All manageable (so far).
You get to the bathroom feeling accomplishment, but also remembering you haven’t really “sat down” or “stood up” without help since you got home. You’re facing a new reality here in the bathroom in the middle of the night. Okay, it’s a small space, you can brace yourself against the two walls… Yup. That will work. Then, not to be too indelicate, but there’s a whole bunch of things you have to deal with now….one handed. Worst thing is holding yourself up and then attempting to deal with yoga pants and underwear. (The same underwear you were so concerned about the day before). Against your better judgement (and again, with your mother’s voice in your head) you change into a night dress with the underwear flinging into the laundry basket. We’re going alfresco. This will become the single best decision you make in 5 days.
As time goes on, the painkillers are there, but frankly, don’t seem to do much at all. You assume that if you weren’t taking them at all, you would be writhing in agony, so they MUST be doing something. Then you think, the pain you’re feeling right now is still too bad for the painkillers to be actually working…. so maybe you aren’t taking the pills right….you read the label again…you make sure you overlap them by an hour so they don’t ever wear off. You try 2 in 6 hours instead of 1 in 4 hours. Nope, no change. You still have a super sad face on the old pictorial pain scale.
At the end of the day, you still hurt, still are taking painkillers religiously, and still moving cautiously and slowly. You add a little lead time to all of your trips (particularly to the bathroom) and you time your movements ONLY when you know painkillers are fully kicked in.
But man…the euphoria of day 1 and the confidence of day 2 is starting to evaporate as everything in your body is starting to scream at you.
Day 3: I’m going to die…
Next morning you stand up (just like you were doing before) and you fall back down to the bed… You get close to emitting a full on ‘scream-queen-horror-movie’ type of noise. Maybe you just bent the wrong way…. Let’s try this again a little more slowly…. Same thing. Can’t get up. Try one more time leaning on the bed at a different angle…. STILL can’t do it. No amount of “core” can help you now.
You sit on the end of the bed and take another painkiller then wait quietly without moving for 30 mins (even though you have to….uh…’go’). But you know you have to have every appropriate ounce of painkiller possible in order for you to get up. At the 31 minute mark, you try again. Nope. (Foreshadow: this is the next 2 days of your life.)
Now you HAVE to do it. You HAVE to get up. You use every core muscle you have at your disposal (again thank you physical therapy) to slowly stand yourself up and maintain a low crouch. Without moving anything unnecessarily, you slide one foot after the other in an “eye on the prize” desperation to get to the next closest piece of furniture to grab on to. You take one slow cautious step every 60 seconds because it takes that long for the pain to abate and for you to be able to MENTALLY try another step.
And it’s funny, over the last year that you’ve been in pain (before surgery), you’ve learned every trick in the book on how to avoid it by doing weird pelvic tilts, bending over, leaning on anything and everything, putting one foot in front of the other, bending your knees, leaning to the right, sleeping in fetal position….but none of those little tricks are going to work for you this time….. Your body just f’ing screams pain with ANY weight in any way you try to set it down .
Time passes slowly as you claw your way forward. You’re in the bathroom. You reach out and brace yourself with hands on both walls to keep the weight off your back. but you know you’re going to have to let go. ….this isn’t going to be pretty but thank god all obstructionist clothing are out of the way and you can concentrate on how to maneouver while putting all your weight on that one hand that stays on the wall. (I sure wish we practiced this one in PT!)
After 20 minutes of painfully negotiating your way to and from the bathroom, panic sort of starts to set in. What have you done to yourself? You now begin to picture Dr. Palmer with red skin, devil horns, a pitchfork and a tail. You decide when you get used to the wheelchair you’re going to need for the rest of your life, you’ll roll on down to his office, find his (presumably expensive) car and slash his tires every day for a month.
But, that aside, you must carry on. Next time, it’s time to try something different. Genius husband brought a chair in a few days ago to sit rather than stay in bed all day. In the middle of the night, you ease yourself up (this time muffling the screams to not wake anyone up), grab the back of a chair, turn around…..then drag it a foot….lean on it….take a step….turn around…drag it a foot…lean on it… take a step…and do that all the way into the bathroom. Surprisingly my hard sleeping husband didn’t wake up during this Quasimodo style series of movements. It worked okay, with something to lean on, the pain was much much less, but the dragging part still hurt like hell.
Once you figure it out, you realize you can alleviate the worst of the pain by leaning on something, anything. Just enough to take the pressure off your back.
Before we figured out a couple of genius tricks, my lovely husband holds out his arm for me to lean (heavily) on as I walk slowly and cautiously stopping only to rest on the dresser before starting again.
He says “wait a minute…you just need something to lean on right?” Yep. So off he goes (leaving me stranded and clinging to the dresser like a life preserver). He comes back with a small cabinet and puts it in the bathroom next to the toilet. He walks me to the door and leaves me leaning on the cabinet in perfect position. He steps out, both of our dignities maintained. He waits dutifully outside for the procession back to bed afterwards.
The cabinet approach worked brilliantly and I was able to get back to the door where I could take his arm again to get back to bed… by the time I get back, I feel like I’ve run a marathon.
Later on, when I wake up from a nap, I see there is furniture all across the room, lining a pathway to the bathroom. The (admittedly misplaced) anger at Dr. Palmer was replaced by overwhelming joy. The furniture bridge let me go hand over hand, leaning the whole time and getting where I needed to go without help. Genius.
Next (presumably) genius hack appeared as an old walker that we had in storage. That should be awesome, right? Nope. It was perfect to lean on, but putting ANY pressure on my back made it scream; I couldn’t lift the walker up even ½ inch…and certainly not enough to move it forward enough to take the next step. The best I could do was to stand up in front of it, then angle sideways and drag it behind me into the next position then take another step. Just as bad as the previously attempted chair method. Not tenable for short or long term.
Day 3: Greatest Hack of All
Next there was a cane borrowed from a neighbor. That worked great….for one side. I still couldn’t’ put down enough weight on the opposite side to move the cane forward and then shift weight back again.
Genius husband had to go off to CVS for a second cane. BINGO! That was the best solution EVER. Now I could move around. Lean left, move the right cane, lean right, move the left cane. Hallelujah.
Showering was another adventure. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to stand up in the shower or sit down in the tub. Of course we had no shower chair. Yet once again, my lovely husband comes up with a genius hack and brought up a patio furniture chair and put that in the shower. We fortunately had a hand held shower head so that was pretty stinking smart and worked great.
The only thing was, after getting up from the lovely shower, I had crosshatch marks across my bum from the webbing on the chair. Hilarious, but somehow not so attractive. Next time I used a towel. 🙂
And It’s All Downhill From There…
Day 4: Talked to Dr. Palmer. Might have a little fluid build up causing the excess pain. Need to get steroids and new painkiller.
He says…Some people take up to 6 weeks to fully walk….wait…what? Oh no you don’t….that’s not going to happen! Mental fortitude shows up, ‘I’ll prove you wrong’ attitude appears and with it a new concentration on doing everything right to make progress. (Too bad physical fortitude doesn’t always pay any attention to the other fortitude.)
Today’s the day to give up on the Percocet. Doesn’t seem to do anything anyway.
Day 5: Ray of hope…slightly less “leaning” pressure needed to keep the pain away. Have to be careful with twisting too much….still some shooting pains in low back. Dr. Palmer checks in.
Day 6: More improvement – few steps now and then with just one cane…more practicing…. “I’ll show you” attitude still hovering about…. I’m going to be walking dammit. Dr. Palmer checks in again. (At this point, it’s getting harder to consider slashing the tires of the guy that calls to check on you every day.)
Day 7: Few cautious steps without either cane, can briefly stand up with no support…. Still have to be carefully centered, pelvic tilt, handhold close by… Euphoric again knowing progress is happening daily. Terrified of falling…
Day 8: Progress continues – Had company so spent a lot more time on my feet. Still used 2 canes, but used only 1 more often.
Day 9: Spent half time on canes. Had a party for 4th of July. LOTS of walking and standing, some with cane, some without. A lot of time on my feet. Felt great! (but that was probably the wine….)
Day 10: Spent more time without canes than with. Can walk comfortably and UPRIGHT. Have to be careful not to get too cocky….but almost can’t help it! Did two 10 minute slow treadmill walks (leaning on bars).
Day 11: Dr. Palmer visit. All is well, but no PT for awhile, keep doing what we’re doing. Come back in 4 weeks. Did 4 rounds of 10 min tread-milling plus all the walking to and from the Dr’s office. (and rest assured that his tires on his car remain intact.)
Day 12 (Today): Got a little cocky? Yes. Yes, I did! Everything is sore today. Probably overdid the company, party, the trip to the Dr’s office and tread-milling. Will ignore the Fitbit nagging and slow down just a bit today. It’s a holiday after all!
Things I forgot to mention:
I wore the brace and used ice, ice, and more ice religiously. I even slept in the brace to hold the ice pack in place. I actually think the ice helped more than the Percocet did in some cases. I love it!
Make sure the ice pack is in a giant zip lock so no leaking. I put it behind the brace while I’m sitting but it keeps slipping out. Get some of those big “chip clips” to clip the ziplock to the top of the brace. No more slippage!
And I also had a couple of support buddies. Never underestimate the power of a furry friend. 😉
Ready to start training for a marathon (okay….well… maybe not so much….) But am looking forward to getting back to PT and maybe toward the end of summer doing some activities again like SUP and playing a round of golf or two.
Have experienced sincere tears of joy over the elimination of the pain I had before surgery. That includes the previously underappreciated ability to stand up straight and tall. (and just to be clear, the tears were without the influence of sedation and heavy narcotics this time!)
And lastly, I no longer envision Dr. Palmer, red with devil horns against a backdrop of flames and am back in love with him. The desire to slash his tires has fairly dissipated and been replaced with something more closely resembling a great deal of gratitude and appreciation.