At the end of January, I had back surgery to correct two herniated discs. One of them had been pressing on a nerve for more than a year, but it couldn’t be operated on due to an older bone infection in my foot. A month after I finally beat the infection with six weeks of intravenous antibiotics, I was cleared for the back surgery and it was booked. I was ecstatic. When I packed for the hospital, I packed three books, not realizing that I wouldn’t crack a single one. The first 36 hours were a bit of a harrowing experience, but I tried to right-brain my way through it by reminding myself that it would end. I needed no reminder that it was for the best. I’m only about ten days into my recovery now, but I feel like my fortunes are starting to turn for the better.
We got to the private hospital at 6:30 in the morning the day of and I was admitted. I wasn’t allowed any food or water after midnight, and I tried hard not to think about how thirsty I was. As soon as I got to my room we unpacked. Five minutes later, the nurses were already hustling to get me ready. The anesthesiologist came in. The surgeon came in. I was going to be first. I put on my gown, got into bed, signed some forms, and soon I was wheeled down. I glanced back at my husband as I rolled away. My left leg and foot felt numb. This is the last time I will feel this, I thought.
Just like during my foot surgery in December, I don’t remember going to sleep. I went under just outside the operating theatre around 8:00 am, probably in the middle of joking around with the anesthesia team. The anesthesiologist cut off my hospital bracelet so he could insert a cannula on my right wrist, and taped the bracelet to my upper arm. Then – nothing.
When I woke up, I was at the far left end of the recovery room. At first, I felt like I was nothing more than a floating awareness. A tiny speck of mind way deep down inside a host that was no longer me. Then I started to come up, to expand into my body, which felt smashed down by a weight I couldn’t see. I rather quickly became aware of a number of things.
I immediately felt a harsh, constricting sensation on both sides of my lower back – the razor sharp pain of the surgical wound mixed with the dull, tight soreness from removed bone and tissue. There were two nurses to my left, between my bed and the wall. One was sitting on a high stool. The overhead lights were irritatingly bright white. The oxygen mask over my nose had that smell, like new plastic and chemicals and sterility. I was hot, so hot, straightjacketed under a blanket. Ten blankets?
I felt waves of vertigo and pain. I couldn’t shift my weight but could turn my head. In dismay, I remembered waking up from my foot surgery and feeling sleepy and comfy. Nothing like this. I wanted desperately to get cold, to roll onto my side, to stop the spinning. The nurses were talking to each other and laughing. My throat ached from the intubation. The whole room was somehow so loud, every conversation and beep and shoe squeaking across the floor oddly magnified.
I looked over towards the two nurses as my vision faded in and out in a nauseating wash. I could not believe how uncomfortable I was. Calmly, start with one problem at a time and make this livable, my right brain flickered.
“Excuse me, I’m too hot,” I said, finding my voice. “Too hot. I’m thirsty. I’m dizzy.” One of the nurses pulled the blanket down, but the heat and desperate feeling like I was suffocating kept rising in me.
Trying not to panic, I pulled my mask off. She asked me to put it back on, said it was helping me breathe even if it didn’t feel like that. I saw a white styrofoam cup filled with ice chips on a table to my left. Go-go gadget arm! I took it without asking again and greedily chewed them two at a time, thirteen hours and counting without water. I thought about combative people in emergency rooms everywhere and felt a little sympathy and insight. Drugs are bad, mmkay?
I thought about a surgery I’d had in 2005; when I’d come to, my bed was surrounded by jesters and careening down a bright hallway at freeway speed. Their necks bobbed obscenely on springs, zooming close to my face, then ratcheting back, bouncing close to me again, with frighteningly impossible speed and animation. Their makeup, their wigs and costumes in horrifying technicolor. The overhead fluorescent lights streaked by as if I were in a freeway tunnel. How! Why! But I only shrieked and cried incoherently which made more of them come, their faces bobbling in my face. Someone please make her stop, sobbed an invisible nearby patient. No more propofol for me.
The standing-up nurse came back and swapped my mask for one of those little double-nostril tubes. Still annoying, but less smell, less feeling of suffocation. There have been times when the mask and that sweet easy air felt like a relief to me, but this was not one of them.
Long minutes passed. The nurse sitting on the stool didn’t move, looking intently at something that I couldn’t register. The room was spinning, spinning. She gave me a rimmed collapsible barf bag. I clutched it and nothing happened. I wondered how long I would have to stay in that hot, loud, bright room. I felt like she was waiting for me to demonstrate some kind of eligibility to leave, but I didn’t know the terms. She said, You’re in recovery. Rest here a while.
I imagined myself somewhere cold and dim, laying curled on my side. I moved my toes, and was relieved that the numbness down my left leg and foot felt gone. I kept telling myself, Hold on, hold on. Endure.
I mentioned a couple of times that I was starting to feel better, trying not to show the extent of my dizziness. I chatted lightheartedly. Finally it worked and my bed got wheeled back upstairs. The elevator ride almost sent me into zero gravity. My husband was in the room waiting. He smiled expectantly. I said something like, It hurts. I’m too hot. He told me that we would fix everything.
I saw the clock on the the wall and was shocked. It was well after lunch. I’d thought the surgery would only be 90 minutes or so. The surgeon came to talk to us. It was extraordinarily hard somehow to maintain eye contact and pay attention. I heard, more damage than the scans showed. Scar tissue. Took quite a bit longer than usual. Pressing on the nerve root. You did great. It is going to get better. I kept saying thank you and trying to be polite, wanting to drift away.
The next 30 hours were difficult. I continued to react poorly to the anesthesia, to the pain medication. I pushed the little remote button looking for relief and at some point I realized that it was making me feel worse. How the hell does anyone get addicted to fentanyl?
Dizziness. Vomiting. Inability to eat. Feeling too hot. My husband drew the blinds from the Australian summer sun. I asked to disconnect the oxygen and pain medication several hours later, but the nurses said it was too soon. I resolved to not push the button and see if that was contributing. I took a couple bites of a protein bar that I’d brought but it tasted disgusting, like cardboard. I left it half-eaten, something so rare for me – I love food. So. Much.
I felt an urge to get off my back, to get up. I claimed I needed to use the bathroom, but really I just felt trapped. With help I got to a sitting position, but was too dizzy to continue. A nurse added a bag of anti-nausea medicine to my IV stand. That first day, I eventually got up and went to the bathroom three times, only needing help to the bathroom door. The ward doctor was impressed and said most people use a bed pan. He said, You’ve just had major surgery. I told him what I told them at Sierra Nevada Memorial last February: I don’t do bed pans.
At night my husband left and I somehow fell asleep. Every hour or so a nurse would come to take my blood pressure, and I would always wake up and chat with them, trying to be a good sport.
The second morning the surgeon said I could be discharged if I wanted. I was considering it. A colleague of mine came to visit and brought a bunch of balloons. They had smiling flowers and smiling kites and she said they reminded her of me (another of my colleagues has dubbed me a “happy warrior”). I felt better, but still dizzy.
Later that afternoon rather suddenly my whole body started shaking with tremors, harder and then harder still. I tried to control it, but I could not. My teeth started chattering and I couldn’t stop that either. My husband got the nurse, who got the ward doctor, who initially suggested that I was cold, or scared. I made it crystal clear that I was neither. He asked me if I’d ever had a seizure. I said no. He looked at my allergies and said that I don’t do well with narcotics. Correct.
The tremors and teeth chattering continued off and on during the afternoon, but I was comforted to know that nothing new was wrong and that the medicine would soon cycle out of my system. I drank tons of water even though I was still receiving IV fluids. I declared my Dramamine for motion sickness and the doctor let me self-administer it. Someone suggested I should stay another night. I agreed. I had a feeling that if I went home, I would end up back there. It wasn’t the pain, at all. It was the damn medicine.
After the ward doctor saw me vomit uncontrollably in the middle of our conversation, the pain medication pump and oxygen mask were finally, blessedly removed. I rolled onto my side. My husband put a cold cloth on my neck. My leg cuffs constricted and released with whooshes and clicks every 30 seconds, and I happily fell asleep.
Time passed. I started getting to and from the bathroom alone, wheeling my IV along with me. I went for slow hallway walks. The physical therapist came and taught me how to safely get in and out of bed. He told me that to be discharged I would have to walk up and down a flight of steps. So I did. My husband brought me a frappuccino. That night after he left, I stayed up late watching episodes of Forensic Files on my iPad, closing my eyes intermittently when the room would gently shift.
On the third morning, a nurse removed the drain from my back as the head nurse and a medical student looked on. It wasn’t as bad as they prepared me for. The nurse who did it was in training, and he had never done it by himself before. They asked my permission and I said everyone has to learn sometime. They have no idea what I’ve been dealing with! In the hallway an elderly lady with a walker flirted aggressively with the male doctors and staff. The kind of thing you can only get away with at a certain age, darling. I took a shower and put on a little makeup. I was slow, but feeling solid. The dizziness was gone. I’d sat up and eaten all my breakfast. And then I signed some papers and we went home. My colleagues sent flowers.
Understanding that recovery means correctly balancing pain and activity, I still decided after one more try that narcotic pain medication is not for me. Luckily, the pain is not that bad and can usually be controlled with over the counter meds, as long as I don’t overdo my activity. I honestly think that the pain I’ve been feeling the last year has been significantly worse than this. I can feel my leg and foot again. The difference is that now I have to be so careful to not damage my spine as it heals. For six weeks, no exercise besides slow walking. For three months, no bending. The physical therapist had also told me not to lie in bed all day, no soft couches, and to sit in a straight-backed chair as much as I could. Ten minutes walking, twice a day, and add 5 minutes each week.
We live on the edge of a towering wood. Our street has houses on one side, and on the opposite side there is undeveloped land filled with trees and brush backing up steeply to a highway you’d never know is there. Our front room faces this solitude, where we frequently see bouncing kangaroos and laughing kookaburras. Our short street dead-ends to a walking path, which is paved and straight and gradually slopes up through the pine forest ridge. Somewhat secluded, beautiful natural conditions for walking that my health has not yet permitted me to fully enjoy. But it beckons.
The first week I walked haltingly in my cotton sleeping dresses, hair askew, gripping on to my husband’s arm like an old woman. It took me ten minutes just to walk past a few houses, down to the roundabout and back. Sometimes when I was being lazy, my husband would come in and say, “It’s walk o’clock!” Yesterday there were summer rains and I walked on our treadmill in the garage instead, albeit a bit too quickly as I discovered hours later when I couldn’t sit down.
I have spent the last several days reading, watching movies, sitting on the back porch. Sleeping. It’s weird, so weird, to not be at work. It’s the longest I’ve ever stayed home since 2005, except for the three week government furlough of 2013. I’m trying to embrace it. My husband got a new job, but it hasn’t started yet, so we’re home, like rich people. Or retirees. He runs errands, does the housework, putters in the garden. I do little of nothing, for now, for once. The luxury of being able to stay home and indulge myself in whatever pleases me for day after day is unfamiliar, but delightful.
I found out yesterday that one of my A-100 colleagues has cancer. A malignant and inoperable brain tumor. She will start chemotherapy now to fight it. In the Facebook post where she talked about making the most of the time she has left (her words, not mine), she was wearing a unicorn headband. It was a sobering reminder that I’m getting better, no matter how crappy I feel at a given moment. Although health is relative and everyone has their own burden to bear, hearing about an illness like hers makes people stop and take a grim pause. She is young, and strong, and smart, and funny, and effervescent. She’s a fighter. I think she can win.
Even when we pick a card, we only pick from the dealer’s offerings. And then we play. And so we shall.