Written on 16 January 2008
(It has taken me 3 months to get to write this brief diary of those months. I really wanted to do a daily diary with tips and some advice on how to survive back/spinal surgery. It’s only now, that I’ve been strong enough to set my notebook up on my tummy whilst lying horizontal, and able to write…badly I know, but the missive below is really for me and to thank the wonderful people who supported me.
However, if anyone wants any input/advice on surviving spinal surgery, seeing that I’ve been through this 4 times already, I’ll be happy to help).
In the process of recovering from major, lower spinal, surgery (the 3rd back surgery in 23 years!), at the end of 2006, I booked an airline ticket to San Francisco for September 2007 to visit my precious children and grandchildren. What a prize! I’d organized a full and busy 7-week schedule. After all, I’d been on my back (prone), mostly, or in an upright position, walking not standing, in a fibreglass brace for 3 months. After that, still in the brace, I could sit, (another 2 months), slowly weaning out of the fibreglass brace and into a soft corset. From the time I was “allowed” to sit and then drive (4mths after surgery), I took myself off to Biokinetic water aerobics, religiously, three times a week, for 5 months. And the goal was always to be strong enough to make the thirty-hour trip to San Francisco and be a granny & mom of quality for the duration, at least, of the 7-week trip.
Who knew… 3 weeks after arriving and having had  good weeks with my delicious angels and after spending a wonderful weekend with kith and kin, I slipped and came down hard on my butt on a stone floor. The pain shooting through me, and the stars I saw, even though I hadn’t hit my head, was enough to tell me that damage had been done. However, the Emergency Room I went to thought nothing too serious had occurred, after they’d taken [their version of] X-rays. The diagnosis: [merely] badly bruised, although they did pump me full of Vicodin-type drugs and fill my hands with prescriptions for many more, to be taken as needed! Perhaps they thought I didn’t have insurance and certainly thought I would be a burden on their precious time, personnel and other resources. My pain was too excruciating to think of questioning the professional (?) opinion, let alone to think at all. This was all about feeling pain. Why do our thought processes stop working totally under these circumstances?
A week later, with the pain getting increasingly worse (originally this didn’t seem possible), off I was hauled to an orthopaedic doctor. He reckoned, on examination of the same ER x-rays, (not of me), that it couldn’t be too serious. However, if there was no improvement in 3 days, on his prescription of high dosage pain/anti-inflammatory meds, morphine patches and cortisone amongst others, he would do a cordal block under anaesthetic. And the pain got worse: burning down to my ankles and up to my shoulder blades. It felt as if every organ in my body was on fire. I thought at some point I was having kidney stones (which I’ve had before) and then maybe it was gall-stones, though I’d never had those… and so it went on. Two full weeks and a day after this major mishap, we managed (my husband, B, had got to the USA a week before the fateful day), to get on a plane back to MY neurosurgeon and orthopaedic surgeon, whom we’d been in touch with during this horrendous time. Bent over a walking stick – I was called the upside down “L” – or, in the airline terminals, throwing myself over the back of wheelchairs, using my arms on the chair-arms to manoeuvre myself and get from one security check to another, (no compassion from the security personnel), hardly able to sit or lie in the business class seats our insurance managed to procure for us, – we got back to South Africa and my doctors, who by the way, saw me immediately, even though it was 6 pm. By this time I was a total lunatic from the pain, (being just a tad more than partial lunatic until the arduous return trip. Apparently at one point, my daughter told me later, while her friends came to say goodbye to me, I asked Nicki why I was in this position and what really happened to me… thanks to the morphine patches and other pain meds, I was totally ‘out of it’).
The result of the subsequent MRI: a fractured (crushed) L1 vertebra with a very large haematoma lying under the spinal cord in the L1 area. Possible loosening of the fusion done the previous year in the L3-S1 area could only be ascertained when they eventually opened me up.
Why was an MRI not done in the USA? I ask myself this every day since. And every day I actually answer myself: ‘I was the stupid one’. Being so befuddled with pain, the basic questions (and answers) that I know from experience and research, I could not even ask. I’ve read up and researched my particular back problem over the past 5 years, including every pharmaceutical medication, invasive surgery and alternative treatment offered to man and tried all but a few, including sometimes weekly sessions of 30 plus injections of lidocaine in one sitting for pain management, the most fundamental request, or rather, statement, I should have made, was “DO an MRI!”
Now I can say it. Three months after my fall and 2 months after 6+ hours surgery, (the 2nd within a year)…
… with another 2 months to go before I can sit (in the fibre-glass brace), I can actually say thank G-d I’m now in/on my own bed, in my own home with my own doctors looking after me and miraculously, I am alive and relatively pain-free. According to the doctors, it was touch and go – this body was actually hanging on a thread so to speak. The neuroma/haematoma could have broken or ‘shot’ off into the brain or lung/heart causing death or a vegetative state or even para/quadriplegia. And yet, here I lie, laptop perched on my tummy, back fused, with metal and artificial bone and wired from above my shoulder blades, back again down to my tail, writing these words and thinking how lucky we (as a family), are and how many blessings we do have to count.
Now if only the rest of my family could see it that way… at least my humer[o]us is mostly, still intact. :)
Words cannot express my gratitude to my husband and my children, afar and near, for their constant support and help. Tania, (my middle pip) for taking compassionate leave from her job in San Francisco for 5 weeks – you are my angel and my medication. You helped me so much and I love you, Nicki & family and Doron, to the moon and back. Doron, (my “baby” of 26) – thank you for everything and travelling so often from Johannesburg to Pretoria to “keep an eye” on me and Nicki (my eldest daughter) and family on the East Bay (San Francisco) for the daily telephone support. And B – you’ve had to do this twice in a year… I cannot thank you enough, but you do know how much I appreciate you and the children. And of course my wonderful friends & sister-in-law here in Pretoria – all the meals you cooked & brought and the shopping you’ve done over the past 3 months has been beyond the call of duty. And the daily visits… you all contributed to my recovery and although I’m not “there” yet, I’m on the road and coping, thanks to your unbelievable support.
A very important thank you, MUST go to my wonderful and supportive doctors, Dr Albert (Viljoen) and Dr JF van Staden, I’m forever grateful to you. You saved my life. If it wasn’t for the two of you, I know I wouldn’t be telling this tale right now. And last, but not least, Christa (Dr Visser), my long time Rheumatologist and friend. Your constant support thoughout the last 5 years or more, and especially over these horrific months, has been a saving grace for me. Thanks for being at my beck and call at all times of the day or night. You, together with Dr Viljoen and Dr van Staden, are my angels and you’ll always be in my heart.
I love you all.