Bent but not Broken: Scoliosis and the Spinal Fusion

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.

Three words I learned during Grad School

Disclaimer: the three words have more than four letters and do not have to be censored with fun symbols like #@%. Maybe I’ll save that for a future post. Now on to the real story.

This month I am focusing on the word “courage”. I’m sure you are wondering why I am sharing the story of my journey through graduate school while referencing the word courage. I know there are thousands of people that make that journey every year, so I’m really no different than the next person. Just to be very clear, I know there are people that do way more courageous things than go back to school. This post is not for them. It’s for the people that may think they can’t go back to school because they’re too busy, or they’ve been out of school for years and the thought of homework, research papers, and exams are down right terrifying. I had the same fears, but somehow I muddled through about three and a half years of it and came out alive. To be honest, I experienced an exponential amount of growth and confidence throughout my journey.

The journey started in August of 2016. It’s important to understand that this was 13 long years after I graduated from college the first time. Not only that, but during those thirteen years I did some things. I landed a full-time career (which changed directions at least four times, but that’s for another post), I married this amazing guy and then we had babies. Two boys to be exact. All these things are part of my journey and brought me to where I am now. Literally, now means on my back porch enjoying a day off from work and writing. Figuratively, now means an MBA graduate that learned a lot more than what my assignments, exams and research papers could have ever imagined.

First Word: Courage

I was terrified of taking the leap and applying for graduate school. I mean, could I even pass the entrance exam at this point? I had no idea and the thought of even trying and potentially failing made me want to hide in a corner and never come out. Confession time, I’m a life-long perfectionist. There, the truth comes out. I have the overwhelming need to know everything, even the overall outcome of things, before I feel comfortable doing it. It’s crazy and debilitating all at the same time. Luckily, I have a great support group and they are known as my family. From my husband to my mom and even the in-laws, they provided me with the support I needed to step out of my C-zone and go for something more.

I took the first step and applied and then I studied for the entrance exam. Funnily enough, my oldest son (a mere seven years old at the time) helped me with some of the math practice questions. You can imagine how intelligent I felt at that point. The second step came easier than the first, which was actually signing up for my first graduate course. I didn’t know what to expect once it started, but I was in and it was time to do the work.

All of this to say, I was scared of taking the leap, but I did it anyway. In my own words, that’s the definition of courage. Looking back, of course I am happy I took the first steps. Without them I would never have realized the other two words I learned about on this journey.

Second Word: Confidence

In high school you could always find me walking the halls, sometimes with my head down, unwilling to make eye contact with others. Not because I was unfriendly or “too good” to speak to anyone, but because I didn’t think anyone cared if I spoke to them or not. I was quiet, shy, and assumed I was the last person on earth anyone cared to talk to or be friends with. Good grief, high school is tough and reminscing on that part of my life makes me sad for her. Confidence in myself was nonexistent, but that all began to change when I experienced college for the first time. After being on a college campus for two semesters, I began seeing a change in myself. My confidence level increased incrementally after I was elected president of a co-ed business fraternity. At the time, I thought my confidence had peaked, but that all would change over the next several years.

Various experiences helped shape my confidence, like the times that I am required to speak in public at board meetings for my current career. Of course, the more times I’m in front of an audience the better I get at it. Every time I’m finished I feel a sense of accomplishment. But the real kicker for me came more recently when I finished my last graduate course. After submitting my final assignment and taking my final exam, I immediately began crying (okay, okay…I was practically sobbing). The overwhelming feeling of knowing I actually made it through three and a half years of graduate work all while taking care of my kids, being a wife and working full-time made me feel like I could do anything. ANYTHING! That, my friend, is confidence.

Third Word: Determination

When I started the journey through graduate school, I was unsure of what to expect. Every time I enrolled in a new course, I felt extremely anxious about the amount of work it would involve, including the amount of time it would take to finish it. One of my goals during this whole exprience was to do whatever it took to minimize the interruptions in my daily life. I didn’t want to miss out on family time because I had homework. I was determined to go to every karate tournament, baseball game, and any other fun activity we had planned. This was a lofty goal, especially when taking courses in the summer, due to compressing a semester of work into four-week sessions. Assignments were due every other day and an exam was every week during June and July.

But I was determined not to let the course work interfere with my life. So what did I do? I woke up at 4AM to study, I stayed up late to take exams. Now, don’t get me wrong, I had a few Saturdays that I spent several hours at a desk writing research papers or working problems in my economics class (ugh!). I also endured two summers of karate tournaments lugging around my laptop so that I could do homework either in the hotel room or in between competitions in the hotel lobby. All this to tell you that I never had felt determination to finish something like I did during those years. I proved to myself that with hard work and the right mind-set I could do anything.

As I mentioned, I know there are more courageous things others are doing, but from my perspective, this was a major accomplishment for me. Getting my MBA was never on my bucket list, but I am so thankful that I had the opportunity. The process taught me things about myself that I may not have otherwise uncovered.

Just a side note, my favorite assignment was a research paper about competitive strategy. I had to choose a publicly traded company and research their external and internal environments, finacial activity, and company culture. My company of choice was lululemon athletica inc. Not only are their products premium, but their company culture is modern and sustainable for the future. #thisisnotanad

The Write Word: Courage

It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are. — E.E. Cummings

What does the word courage mean to you? The dictionary, or in my world, the Google search bar, gives me the following definition: “the ability to do something that frightens one.” I am totally being courageous right now just by typing this post. Yep, I’m new to this gig and I know that everyone reading this will nod their heads and secretly think, “yep, poor gal has no clue what she’s doing.” But I’m doing it anyway.

To be quite honest, I’m not writing this post to focus on my courage, but to actually write about something more substantial. I’m a mom (oh great, here comes the mom of two kids, a dog, work from home, blah, blah, blah speech). Yes, I’m a mom of two boys and we have a dog. No, I do not work from home. I have a full-time career outside of the home. Now that it’s out in the open, let’s continue with the important stuff.

Cliche alert: being a mom is the hardest job I will ever have. I get some very tough questions from my kids, like, “how do you get to heaven,” and, “what does God look like?” The list goes on. Not only are there tough questions, but there are some tough situations we all encounter as well. My kids are athletes and they enjoy karate and baseball. When first starting these sports journeys, both boys were not eager to participate, especially in front of a room full of parents or bleachers full of fans. They were scared, worried about what people would think and terrified that they would not do well. The normal emotions that most humans experience when faced with an audience.

As their mom, I would struggle with finding the “write words” to say to them in their time of need. I wanted whatever I said to them to be perfect and make it all better. So much pressure, right?! Do I tell them there is nothing to worry about? Do I tell them to be brave? Do I tell them to suck it up and do it anyway? I actually tried all of those things, but always felt I was coming up short in the advise department. I needed something better.

So I turned to my BFF for advice. Google is my BFF when it comes to researching what to do’s, how to do’s, and where to go’s. I searched and searched for advice on things to say to your kids when faced with something scary. The writing was on the wall, or the screen, over and over again and the theme was all about courage. Not just telling them to be courageous, but defining the word for them. I finally believed that I had gained the write definition for our situations.

So now, when faced with worry, doubt or fright, I tell my kiddos that I understand their feelings. I tell them that even if they are scared and do the thing anyway, that means they have courage. That is something they can be proud of and courage will help them grow into the person they are meant to be.

I have watched my kids be courageous when competing in front of an audience and judges during karate tournaments. My oldest son, now ten, has been competing in sport karate for three years. He has performed on a stage in front of hundreds of people more times than I can count. He does it all with poise and professionalism. Yes, that’s what I said, poise and professionalism. He is ten. I myself hate being in front of an audience, but my current career exposes me to it on a quarterly basis. My support, my inspiration, and my own courage comes from the example my son has set for me.

My youngest son had a fear of sparring and competing in dojo filled with parents and other students. After speaking to him numersous times about having courage and doing things even though you are afraid, his fear has morphed into excitement and adrenaline. He looks forward to the fight and it has been a privilege to watch him grow in confidence.

The same principle of being courageous has bled over into other sports, school projects and extracurricular activities. It makes my heart pound and my eyes fill with tears. I am so proud of them. It gives me courage to continue to be an advisor to them as they grow into young men.