It’s official, I made it home from the hospital alive and well. The past week has basically been a giant blur, but as I promised I’d document my recovery, I’m going to do my best to recount what it was like having a major spinal operation, spending a whole week in the hospital, and everything in between!
1. The Day-Of and the Surgery
The morning of my operation (June 18, 2018) was a Monday. I had to be at the Hospital for Special Surgery at 5:30 AM because my surgery was slated to begin at 8 AM and a lot of prep time is required before you can even get to the operation room. We left my house at about 4 AM to make sure we didn’t hit any traffic (not that there would be traffic in Manhattan at 4 AM on a Monday but you never know.)
As soon as my parents and I got to the hospital, I checked in and was given a bracelet. Then, we headed upstairs to the operation floor, where I changed into a hospital gown and sat in the pre-op area for what felt like 2 years but was probably 30 minutes. I was super nervous because surgery is scary but I was also at the point where I realized this is happening, I’m locked in, so there’s no turning back. It’s like when you’re on a rollercoaster heading up to that first drop, and there’s no reason to be nervous because you know it’s gonna happen, and it’s gonna be fine, but you’re still a little scared anyway. I think I cried once out of nerves, which is pretty impressive for me! Finally, some nurses came in and checked my vitals and cleaned my back to make sure I was ready for surgery. Eventually, the anesthesiologist came to see me and starting pumping me with some meds that helped me relax. I met with my surgeon around the same time, and he walked me through exactly what he would be doing, and next thing I know I am on a hospital bed heading for the operating room. Saying bye to my parents was really hard because I could tell they were nervous and emotional, but I was also sort of drugged up at that point which definitely helped.
I barely remember being in the operating room because they knocked me out pretty quickly, but I do remember meeting a couple of the people helping with the procedure and having a conversation with my anesthesiologist about college sports. The OR was big, freezing cold, and bright. Soon enough, I was woken up in the recovery room surrounded by nurses and my parents.
The total procedure was about 8 hours. My surgeon later described to me in greater detail why it took so long. Basically, there are two kinds of metal implants that can be used for this procedure, and they did the whole thing with the more commonly used type of metal, realized my spine wasn’t cooperating with it, and so they had to undo everything things and start again with the other type of metal, which worked like a charm! Sorry if you’re a medical intellectual and this explanation is bland and lacking specifics but this is the best I can do!
2. Day-Of Recovery
I have no idea what time I woke up after my operation, and I don’t remember much of being in recovery, but I do remember that when I woke up initially, I didn’t feel much pain but I was exhausted and very out-of-it. About 30 minutes later, the pain hit me and I felt horrible. Like just excruciating pain and discomfort all over my body. I was obviously heavily medicated, but I was also hooked up to an IV that allowed me to dispense morphine for myself every ten minutes, so I spent that whole night waiting for ten minutes to pass, pressing the magical button for some temporary relief, and then waiting some more. That first night was definitely the most difficult. I just could not get comfortable no matter what I did, and I was unable to fall asleep. Fortunately, the hospital let my mother stay overnight with me, and she helped me relax through the pain. Another thing that made this first night difficult was that my anxiety was at an all time high, so I was fighting physical and emotional pain all at once. Obviously, I made it out alive, and in hindsight it didn’t seem so bad. At the time though, I was just a mess.
3. My Week in the Hospital
After that first dreadful night, I was moved to a room on the spine floor of HSS, where I spent the rest of my time there. I had a lovely view of the East River from my window, which was a nice perk! All the patients on my floor were also recovering from spinal operations, but I was the youngest person there by quite a bit because typically spinal surgery patients are older. So, the nurses loved hanging out with me and spending time with my family.
Each day, I was woken up around 6 AM by a nurse who would give me some medication. Then, my surgeon and internist would stop to check on my progress. Around 8 AM, my mom would arrive, and I'd spend the day sleeping, sitting in bed, taking medications, and sleeping some more. By the third day, I was finally able to stand up again (with the assistance of nurses and a walker) and go to the bathroom. I started working with the physical therapy team, who would stop by twice a day and help me practice sitting up, standing, and sitting back down. On my fifth day in the hospital, I was able to walk one full lap around the hospital floor (major accomplishment!! everyone clapped for me!).
I slept about 15 minutes for every hour of the day, but still never felt well-rested!
Learning to walk again was tough, but learning to climb stairs was even harder. I'm getting better at it now that I'm home and have to walk two flights every day.
I loved having friends visit me while I was recovering... it helped me take my mind off of all the pain I was enduring.
I had a couple of complications during my recovery that caused me to have slower progression than was expected, and I ended up being in the hospital for a full week (as opposed to the five day stay that was initially expected). I also had no appetite the entire time I was there, which was something I've never experienced before. I started out slowly adding liquids like apple juice back into my diet, but my body just did not want solid food. I ended up easing back into eating with plain penne pasta, but it wasn't until my fifth day post-op that I could stomach it.
Because of those complications, I also had to deal with X-rays, blood tests, CAT scans, doctors checking on me at all times of the day and night, tons of IVs in my arms, constant nausea and dizziness, and overall weakness. Fortunately, I had my friends and family supporting me, and it was wonderful to have so many visitors cheering me up!
Heading to get a CAT scan to figure out what was wrong with me!! CAT scans are way less scarier than they sound... they take about 5 minutes and are totally painless.
Selfie with my mom and one of our favorite nurses. All the nurses at HSS were so kind and helped make my experience there super relaxing!
4. Overall First Week Experience
After seven days, I was finally discharged from the hospital. I still felt horrible, but I was so ready to be back in my home with my family. HSS was a really wonderful place to recover and have this operation. Now, I'm at home recovering and spending lots of time watching The Office and Will & Grace. I don't have a lot of pain, but I just feel weak and dizzy and tired, so I have to take a lot of medications to get thru the day. I'm optimistic and each day is a little easier than the day before.
Having this spinal fusion was a really challenging experience. I have been dealing with scoliosis for years, and each time I visited my doctor's office, I would get anxious and teary-eyed at the prospect of having to undergo such a serious and scary operation. But, when I decided to finally have this surgery, a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. Between January (when we scheduled the surgery) and June, I felt very little stress. I was excited to have less back pain and to fix my curved spine, but in the weeks preceding the surgery, fear and anxiety started to set in. I couldn't stop thinking about that possibility, that what if I was the 0.01% operation that wasn't successful. Fortunately, I had an amazing surgeon, incredibly kind nurses, and a supportive team that helped me get through this first week!
5. Things To Know Before Having a Spinal Fusion
This is really intended to help anyone out there preparing for a spinal fusion operation, so if you're just here to follow my journey this part won't be super relevant for you!
Here are some things that helped me get through the operation and the first week in the hospital:
Wear your hair in braided pigtails the morning of your operation. You're not going to be able to shower or fix your hair the whole time you're in the hospital, so you'll want to have a hairstyle that allows you to comfortably rest your head and that you won't have to mess with.
Expect to lose weight. My doctor told me most people lose about 10% of their body fat following this operation, because you're basically not eating for an entire week and you're not using any of your muscles.
You'll have to deal with a catheter and bed pan situation. I wish I had more of a warning on this, but since you won't be able to stand up for a few days, the hospital gets creative in helping you go to the bathroom. It sounds ick, but you're gonna be so drugged up that you won't really have any shame, and you'll get through it.
Also expect to get your period. Another ick one for the ladies out there, but having operations is known to induce your period (not sure how this works medically, but a friend warned me about this). Pack pads for the hospital because you might need them!
Your emotions might be out of wack. I cried all the time at little things, like if there were beeping noises that were too loud or if my stomach hurt, I would just start bawling. I was also aggressively nice to all my nurses and doctors, like they would come to stick IVs in my arm or take my blood or give me injections and I would thank them profusely. The medications will do that to you.
Another thing the medications will do to you: hallucinations. This was kind of scary because I wasn't expecting it. I would have hallucinations after taking my medicine, and I wouldn't be able to remember if the hallucinations were real or fake. Nothing majorly weird, but for example I'd hallucinate that a nurse came in to check on me, and then I'd snap back into reality and would be unsure if it really happened or not. I also had a few episodes of lucid dreaming, which in hindsight was pretty cool! Overall the meds just mess with your mind, so expect to not feel quite like yourself.
Take it slow! There is no rush to push yourself out of the hospital. Everyone recovers at their own pace. I had this idea in my mind that I had to be discharged by the Friday after my operation, so when I still wasn't well enough to go home, I felt really discouraged. There's no reason to push yourself, just take it day by day and know that you will feel better soon!
I will try my best to continue posting updates as I feel better. Thank you everyone for the kind words & support!
PS: If you're someone who is considering having a scoliosis operation, or you've already had one, and want someone to talk to, please feel free to email me firstname.lastname@example.org to ask more questions, share more experiences, etc!!