The Aftermath of Spinal Surgery

It's been almost 5 months since I had a disc replacement and spinal fusion. The surgeon dubbed it "a great success". But I couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel. The road to recovery was longer than I expected. Much, much longer.

I've had some wonderful people reach out and ask how things are going, so thought I'd provide an update, which might turn into some useful insights for those on a similar chronic pain path.

The op itself was relatively routine, but not exactly delicate. The body takes a battering. One nurse told me that she'd seen a bruise in the shape of my surgeon's handprint across another patient's stomach thanks to the force needed to move the skin and bowel out of the way so they could access the spine (apologies if you're squeamish!). Makes one wish for a surgeon with small hands. My scar is about 4 inches long and even goes around my belly button. Bikini days are over (mind you, the kinda were after the birth of my first child!).

The image above shows my new-and-improved spine. For those who are interested, here's a really interesting animation of the procedure. I have a new disc, a cage with 4 screws, and someone else's bone in my back used to act like cement for the screws. Kinda creepy, huh? And because of this, it takes longer for my body to accept the bone and heal, as I need to produce extra protein in order for my bone and the donor bone to fuse. The plus side of all this is that I'm now 3 centimetres taller, which is great for me who has a husband who's 6'5", but as I said, the body takes a battering and it's no wonder the recovery period can be rough.

And the surgeon and physiotherapists aren't exactly the most sympathetic. In fact, I've gone so far as to call my physio a sadist after he had me up and walking just 28 hours after the op. The smile is thanks to either the painkillers, or Troy being a bugger and making me laugh (remember that I've just had surgery through my stomach. He can be such a sh*t!).

Walking after surgery

After 8 days in hospital, I came home and tried to not do any of the household stuff that a working Mum usually juggles. After 2 weeks, I was finally able to drive and slowly build up pilates exercises. My trusty little brown pillow was replaced by an ice pack, which I was using as much as I could as an analgesic as I was desperate to reduce the amount of painkillers I was on.

And to prove to myself that there was still a big wide world out there that needs workplace happiness, I presented at DDD Brisbane in early December, about 5 weeks after surgery. This was a fabulous boost to my morale, which was sorely needed, and really helped with my confidence as I proved to myself that my back was indeed getting better. Subsequently presenting at Microsoft's Ignite conference further bolstered this and helped re-ignite my passion for boosting happiness in the workplace.

Fast forward 3 months to today. Right now, I'm still on painkillers. This upsets me the most, as I'm frustrated beyond belief that I still have pain. It's awesome that it's less pain than before the op, but frustrating nonetheless, particularly as I was told that 90% of my pain would be gone by 3 months post-op. Well, it wasn't even close to that for me. The specialists all said it will take time as there was more nerve damage than first thought, but that doesn't help me deal with the effects of the meds i.e. my concentration span is the same as my 4 year old's, I have the memory of a fish, and near-zero motivation. And I get cranky. Really cranky. Not just that I'm still sore, but that I'm not able to do things with my family that normal people do. Remember that for me, this has been the case since January 2016. I had the op in October 2016, and it's now March 2017. So that's more than a year of watching my husband and my kids go off for a jetski, go bike riding, play tennis together, or go paddle boarding.

And then it really hit home just how much my back was affecting not only me, but my kids. I saw this in my son's classroom last month. He's 7 years old:

Aris classroom note

It reads: "My mum has a very bad back. She can't paddle" (board).

Now I knew that I was progressing and improving - despite my frustrations at its pace - but it's been such a long journey that it didn't dawn on me until I saw this that my kids needed to see that I was getting better. This was a huge incentive for me to push myself harder. I upped my pilates sessions from twice a week to three times. My physio and I came up with some rather unique exercises build up the muscles used for paddleboarding. At the time, I had very little confidence that my body could actually do any of these things. Confidence in my body was very, very low. After all, this whole issue with my back came to a head not with me twisting, or being under heavy strain, but when I stood up. That's all I did.

It was only when I tried new movements (such as simulating paddleboarding, or tennis, etc.) in a highly controlled environment with my physio, that I realised I could do them.

My confidence in my body's ability grew. And having confidence in the capabilities of my body was, I realised, incredibly important. Imperative, in fact, if I was to continue my journey along this (very) long road to recovery.

So last weekend, I paddleboarded. I didn't go very far, but that doesn't matter. Mummy paddled.

And yesterday, we played tennis together.

Tomorrow... will be another step along the road to recovery. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and I can safely say, it's not an oncoming train.