Back Attack

Ahhh yes, the ripe old age of 27 when most people’s backs give out and herniated disks occur. No, wait, that’s not normal!! But it totally happened to me, and you know something’s not right when your 70-year-old grandmother says tells you her friends are going through the exact same thing. Yikes. On March 24th, 2011 around 7 AM I had a minimally invasive endoscopic microdiscectomy or more simply put, my surgeon put used something the size of a pen to go through my side and clear off debris from a blown disk that was sitting on (and slowly killing) my nerve.

It all began back in January of 2011 when I decided to get into shape for a show I was cast in; rehearsals started ended of February and I wanted to be ready for the physically demanding schedule. Little did I know that all of my working out was make my disk bulge more and more. I was using this DVD and switching between intervals of walking and jogging. I know this won’t make sense to most people, especially runners and other athletes, but for the first time in my life I was running almost three times a week and for the first time in my life I was experiencing excruciating pain. It started as a pinching in my lower back and then morphed into a stabbing pain that would go down my whole left leg. At first I just thought I needed to stretch out more before and after working out. But then getting ready in the mornings became so painful (I guess your nerve shortens in the night and has to stretch out again in the morning), and I was crying for a full hour before I went to work each day as I forced myself to get ready. As the day progressed, the pain got better and I would be OK… until the next morning when it started all over again. My next thought was that I was sleeping funny on my back and so the Scottish bought me a special pillow for under my legs, but things only got worse.

Finally I saw my doctor and got a prescription for physical therapy. I went to my first session and was told I had sciatica, a condition where you experience pain, tingling, or numbness down one or both legs due to irritation of the sciatic nerve, usually due to a bulging or ruptured disk. By this time I’d started rehearsals for my show and boy was it demanding!! Lifting wooden boxes, voodoo dancing, and rolling around on concrete were just few of the grueling tasks. Normally, I wouldn’t be phased, I actually really enjoy physical theatre, but I was going from uncomfortable to miserable and I couldn’t figure out why. Then on St. Patrick’s day I literally couldn’t get out of bed, so I called my boss and told her I was going to rest all in day in hopes that laying down might help. Again, no improvement, and the pain just kept getting more intense. By that evening I was frantically calling the Scottish to come over and take me to the emergency room. And there we sat. For 4 hours. In pain. Have you ever laid on the dirty tile floor of an ER waiting room? Well, I had no choice, laying flat was better than sitting and the place was packed. Worst four hours of my life.

Finally, I was admitted and stabbed with a shot of morphine and told I could leave once the pain subsided. But the pain didn’t subside, so they stabbed me with a shot of demerol. And then I started puking. retching is awful in an of itself but every time I did it, I also screamed in pain because of the stress it put on my poor little nerve. Finally I begged to go to the hospital because the ER doctor was ignorant and too busy to be of much help. I waited 6 more hours before they wheeled me to a hospital room. The Scottish sat next to me the whole time, from 9 PM on Thursday to noon on Friday. Once in a room, I waited impatiently for a cortisone shot that I was praying would help. I waited another 6 hours for the pain specialist to come and administer the cortisone shot in my spine. And with that, the pain was gone, it just floated to the heavens like a cloud… but I was left with something worse, no feeling down the back of my entire left leg starting in my butt. I had no idea what this meant at the time; I was just so deliriously happy that the pain was gone. I sent Iain home for a shower and chatted with my awesome and very hospital-educated roommate. I spent the rest of my time there happy as a clam until they told me I needed an MRI.

Sidebar: I can’t even BEGIN to get into the stress and insanity that it was dealing with my insurance company, the hospitals, and doctors in the months following surgery. Things happened that shouldn’t have happened and I decided to fight for discounts and asked for some bills to be absolved by the hospitals themselves. But in the process, I lost hours and days of my life sitting on the phone with rude and apathetic people, tears were shed constantly, I dreaded going to the mailbox and seeing bill after threatening bill, and I had to become someone I didn’t like just to get my voice heard through all of it. The healthcare in this country is a joke and that is why I had to pay almost 6K out of my own pocket. But this story isn’t about my struggles AFTER surgery, so back to the first hospital visit…

I beg them to give me an MRI right then and there but they say they don’t do MRI’s on the weekend and I question why an MRI wasn’t schedule for yesterday when I was laying in bed all day??? But it was no use and I was tired so I went home Saturday night and scheduled an appointment with my doctor for Monday and an MRI for Tuesday. By the time I left the hospital my leg was so numb I was limping and having trouble walking. I described it as walking with a huge log taped to your leg. Cut to Tuesday and a few hours after successfully lying still during my MRI, I receive a phone call from my doctor and she says, “your disk is huge.” She tells me a number but I don’t know remember what she said, and I have no idea what a small disk number should be let alone one that is HUGE. She tells me I have to see a surgeon from the Chicago Back Institute immediately. So she schedules an appointment for hospital two (and for the record, hospital two turns out to be way better than hospital one). And I’m like, “but that doesn’t mean I’m going to need surgery, right?” She says she doesn’t know. I asked the Scottish to take off work and accompany me to this appointment because I had a bad feeling about it all.

On Wednesday I hobble in for my appointment and meet with a surgeon who strongly recommends that I have surgery and points out just how much strength I have lost in my left leg. I ask if he recommends this path for everyone and he says no, explaining that when some people describe a herniated disk, they don’t have an actual ruptured disk, but in my case it was full herniation and there was debris from my disk sitting on my nerve. It was downright shocking. He then tells me his colleague could do a less invasive version of back surgery if I qualify, so I go meet this other surgeon and I fall in love with him right away (as much as you can fall in love with the person cutting you open). He was confident and smart, he made me feel better by agreeing with me that this wasn’t fair for a 27 year-old and he was straight with me when he flat-out said, “I can’t guarantee you’ll get all the feeling back in your leg, it’ll be a gift if you do.” Shocked again. My surgeon explained that the numbness is my leg is actually very dangerous and could lead to more serious stuff. He said step one is numbness (check), step two is loss of motor skills (check). and step three is loss of vaginal and rectal control. Pretty neat stuff, huh? Having control over your bladder is not something most people think about very often but I can imagine if you were to lose it, you might think about it a tad more often. He went on to say that when you lose vaginal and rectal functions, you do not get them back. Needless to say, these guys were serious about surgery. I needed some time to think so the Scottish and I went to get chinese food, I calmly called my mother and then we went back and they scheduled me for surgery for the very next morning. Then it got crazy and they sent me to get an EKG, urine sample, blood work, and a physical so fast that I might have made a new world record for shortest pre-op visit ever. After all that, I do remember going home to my condo, my boss stopping by to check in and grab keys, and then the Scottish making us pasta for dinner before going to bed early in preparation for the big day ahead.

Truthfully, surgery was easy. I had an epidural type shot in my spine that numbed me and even though surgery took longer than expected, my recovery was great and fast. I barely needed the pain medication, and overall I felt good, except for the lingering numbness in my leg and the difficulty walking. The surgeon had hoped he could do the less invasive pen size surgery (which has a three week recovery time) but he had to wait until he got “in there,” just in case he needed to through my back tissue and do the more invasive one (which has a three-month recovery time). My surgeon said he trouble getting around my big bones, cheers to my Swedish heritage, and that he didn’t get all the debris out, but most of it was retrieved. He was contemplating going back in the following day (thank goodness he didn’t have to) but once he saw me and noticed a slight change in my leg and body, he decided it wasn’t necessary. The worst part about surgery is that I have a small bladder and they pump you with IV liquids and so I had to urinate in a bed pan more than once while lying down…. that is so not fun. But overall, my surgeon, who studied in Germany and is the best in this country for endoscopic back surgeries, saved my leg and I’m ever so grateful.

Following surgery I spent a few weeks recovering and then went straight into physical therapy for 8 weeks. These days my left leg is almost as strong as it used to be and getting better all the time. And I’m happy to report I got almost all the feeling back in it!! A gift indeed. My last few toes, the bottom of my foot, and some of my calf are still a bit numb but it’s surprising how well the body adjusts and you just forget about it. My surgeon told me that this is a life-long battle for me (because 1. you can’t grow a disk back and 2. it’s possible that others will herniate as well). He said if sees me in 20 years he’ll consider that a success, but it’s more than likely I’ll be back in 5. In the meantime, I’m supposed to work on strengthening my core and I was told never to run again. Fine by me! In fact, whoo-hoo, I don’t have to run!! My surgeon also told me I’m now ready for childbirth because I’ve survived nerve pain. Hmmmm, we’ll see about that. Regardless, I hope I never have to feel that kind of pain again!

Looking back, I just feel lucky. I’m lucky because I had amazing people in my life to help me through it and that gives me hope that I can make it through whatever else comes my way. Having unexpected surgery made me so aware of the good people in my life and how my family and friends can be counted on in times of crisis. But I’m normal and I do worry about the future. I worry if I’ll have to experience another herniated disk, if I’ll be able to afford more surgeries, or if I’ll be able to carry children without requiring bed rest. But the worry is not constant, and I’m so much wiser having gone through this experience. I’m grateful that I don’t have a chronic disease that keeps me in hospitals all the time like so many people, I’m grateful for every day I wake up without pain, when others have no way out from it, and I’m grateful that is was something my doctors could figure out when there are so many conditions that go unexplained.

Life is a series of stories, some good, some bad. This is just one story from one part of my life. It’s one notch on my belt, one piece of my puzzle, and one more blog post to share. Thanks for reading.

2 Responses to “Back Attack”

  1. Jackie Liston January 11, 2012 at 4:34 PM #

    So I noticed your blog today in my fb updates and gave it a read. I then clicked on your tab about your back and read your story. I was flattered to see that I was mentioned in your story. I felt such a connection to you in the hospital and I really think we were put together in that horrible hospital room to help each other out. I was the old pro at hospital stays there to give you the low down and you and your man where the company I needed at that lonely time. I did not realize how bad it was for you after we met at the first hospital. I’m glad that everything worked out the way it did for you. I’m very thankful I met you during that horible time in both our lives. Looking forward to your future blogs to come!
    – your hospital roomie

    • Stephanie January 11, 2012 at 5:24 PM #

      Hey Jackie!! I was just thinking about how you were doing and wanted to check in with you! Thanks so much for commenting. You are so right, we both were there for each other in different ways, thank you again for all your help that weekend! It was fate. šŸ™‚ How have you been anyway, how is your health now?

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