The paper table covering crinkled under me as I squirmed anxiously waiting for the door to open. The paper reminded me of parchment or wax paper you use for cooling your no-bake peanut butter oatmeal cookies. As I waited for the surgeon to come in, the nurse was asking me all these questions that sounded like white noise in my ears. I was only fifteen and I had just signed a form stating that I understood surgery could lead to paralysis or death. What?! I felt numb all over, my mind was racing about all the things I hadn’t done in my life. I hadn’t had time, I mean fifteen years isn’t quite a lifetime. But what was about to happen was necessary if I wanted to have any chance at a normal life.
Months before this moment I had been sitting in the living room floor at my grandparent’s house visiting with a couple of my aunts that lived out of town. In the middle of the conversation one of them touched my shoulder blade and made a statement that changed my life forever. She calmly stated, “You have scoliosis.” I was perplexed. I had never heard the term before, which I later learned that my school or family doctor should have been examining me on an annual basis.
I wanted to learn more about this diagnosis, so I went to the library. There was one, yes one book, in the entire county library about scoliosis. It included black and white pictures of crooked spines, wearable devices, and surgery options. I was utterly terrified. The flashback scenes in Romey and Michelle’s High School Reunion included a big nod to scoliosis and the back brace (the wearable device). Unfortunately, that movie wouldn’t come out until much later and I had never seen anyone wear that type of brace before. The contraption, as I like to refer to it, looked binding, uncomfortable and down-right ridiculous. High school is hard enough, but let’s put this contraption on someone and see what happens! Ugh! I could feel the tears well up in my eyes as I played out the scenario in my head.
My aunt that originally diagnosed me also happened to be an experienced x-ray technician. With her expertise and knowledge of orthopedic physicians, she was able to get me in to see one of the top doctors in the field, Dr. Greene. Another fortunate turn was that Dr. Greene practiced his craft in the fine city of Nashville, Tennessee at the very prestigious Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. This was only a couple of hours away from my home. So began the journey to learning my options for fixing my crooked back.
After what seemed like a thousand x-rays of my spine, there was only one that sealed my fate for the next move. An x-ray of my hand revealed that at fifteen I was done growing. This revelation determined that a brace, or contraption, would not be helpful. My curve was calculated to be 56 degrees and spanned my thoracic spine. My only option….a spinal fusion. Everything after that moment felt like a dream. So many instructions and information that my brain could not process it all. Go to the Red Cross every two weeks to give blood in case it’s needed for a transfusion during surgery, schedule your pre-op appointment, don’t eat after midnight, and on and on the words filled my head. Oh and by the way, this surgery could lead to paralysis or death.
It’s important to know that giving blood was not my idea of a good time. First of all, I didn’t even meet the weight requirement to give blood, so I quickly realized the toll it would take on my body. I just didn’t have enough blood to give and during the third visit it was very apparent to everyone. There should have been five visits in total, but as I sat there with the needle in my arm and the pint sized bag next to me I noticed something odd. The pint sized bag was half full of my blood but then it stopped. There was no more blood flowing from the needle through the tube to the bag, like a vampire had sucked me completely dry. I watched this with complete fear and immediately pointed it out to the volunteer nurse. Was I still alive, where was all my blood, how is this happening? These questions pounded in my head as they removed the needle and then I was out like a light. I lost consciousness. That was my last visit to the Red Cross.
My surgery was set for October. My parents and I stayed in a hotel near the hospital the night before the procedure. I had to be checked-in and prepped way before the sun was expected to rise. A nice surprise during prep work included numbing cream on my hand for the IV, it’s a perk of being in the children’s hospital. I was amazingly calm right before they wheeled me back to the operating room. I’m certain it had something to do with some magic liquid they placed in my IV, which had me giggling before I was rolled down the hallway.
The surgery, or spinal fusion, was the epitome of invasive. Not only would my back be sliced from top to bottom, my right side near my hip bone would also be cut open. This would be used to graft bone fragments from my pelvis. The bone fragments would be used to fuse metal rods to my spine, essentially creating one massive bone structure. Later I would learn just how limiting this would be, although the alternative of not straightening my spine would be much worse.
After lying on my front side for at least five hours during the surgery, I was finally woken by cool air blowing on my face. My parents and sister were allowed to see me. I could tell something was up when my sister came around the curtain and had a weird look on her face, like she didn’t know what, or who, she was gazing upon. I later learned that because of all the fluids pumped in me and lying face down made my face swell like I had suffered an allergic reaction to a bazillion bee stings. I am very thankful no one decided it would be a good idea to show me what I looked like.
Although the surgery went well, the first night in the recovery room became chaotic as I lost feeling in my right leg and down through my foot. Panic set in as the nurses and doctors managed to x-ray my body while I stayed in the hospital bed. The form I had signed earlier raced back to the front of my mind. So this was it, no more running, riding my bike, swimming, heck even walking normal again. The numbness was actually due to nerve damage from the bone grafting site. This caused my right foot to temporarily turn sideways. I spent weeks training it to turn in the normal direction during my recovery at home. The nurses would come in every two hours and check my vitals and every time they had to ask me to state my name, my age and my location. I had had enough of the x-rays, the bustling around my bed and all the thoughts of paralysis that I could take. The nurse says, “Can you tell me where you are?” Well yes, yes I can. With all the calmness I could muster, “I’m in hell.”
That “hell” lasted for a full week. It included the loss of all modesty while I endured sponge baths from total strangers. However, there was a ray of light that came when I laid eyes on a very cute male nurse named Brian. Remember I was fifteen so the hormones were churning and the morphine drip had me feeling loopy. My mom and I giggled about how Nurse Brian was the best nurse I could ever ask for. Unfortunately his shift didn’t last long enough, but I digress. The doctor reminded me that I could not be released until I was able to walk the entire hospital hallway two times around. Challenge accepted! I went home after five days, but in hindsight I should have stayed longer.
Back home, our living room became a hospital room, complete with my bed, television tray and all the gauze and tape you could want. It took me months, even years, to feel like myself again. This new, straighter self endures daily back pain that has become the norm. I am proud to mention my rods and my fusion whenever someone comments on my great posture. I joke that I have no other choice but to stand up straight and tall. Although the spinal fusion was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever faced, I know it saved my life.