Prelude: In late January 2014 I had a disc herniation in my low back at L5-S1. There was a series of appointments, MRI, epidural steroid injections, physical therapy, and a lot of sciatica pain and numbness for a long time. Sometime in November that year, I was finally free of that pain and back to hiking. On February 15th, 2015, it came back, but worse, with less numbness and a lot more pain than I previously believed possible. And muscle weakness in my left calf, which prevented me from walking correctly at all.
Opening: Even though I’m living on the Coastside now, I wanted to return to the neurosurgeon with whom I had consulted last summer in Solano County – I’d really liked the way he communicated with me, giving me all the information I needed to make the right decision and to understand what was best for my condition, and I know how important it is to have trust in your practitioner when something like this is on the line. Also, back then he told me that I didn’t need surgery, so I figured surely he would tell me the same if it were still true this time! But the motor weakness was the deciding factor, as I knew in my heart it would be. I met with this surgeon on Monday March 16th, and was scheduled for surgery with him in Sacramento on March 20th. That’s incredibly quick, and says something about the need for the procedure.
Sacramento is about 2.5 hours from where I’m living on the Coastside, so my mom and I stayed at a hotel the night before. We were told to report to Admissions at 5:30am to begin the odyssey.
The Real Fun Begins: I’m brought into pre-op. It’s still early; I’m only the second person brought in. It was still and quiet in there then, with a sense of a lot of activity soon to come. I change into a gown, and my nurse places an IV catheter and starts the drip as he’s asking me all the questions about medical history and making sure I’m still me.
Now, when I’m in a setting like this I turn into a performer. I am just about the most easygoing, unafraid, and hilarious patient ever. I’m joking around, being a wiseass, and I crack up almost everyone. I am exceedingly proud of my record making 3/3 doctors laugh during X-Ray epidural steroid procedures over the past year! So when they ask me what surgery I’m having I say things like: short sides and back, and a couple inches off the top. I should possibly note at this time that I’ve never had surgery before, or had general anesthesia for any reason. Only heavy IV sedation in 10th grade to have my wisdom teeth pit-mined out of my skull before they gave me trouble.
Time passes. I’m on an IV just regular drip, I’m sweating in the multilayer gown until I say something and they tell me it’s ventilated! They attach a hose to it and turn on the fan and I’m all of a sudden the Michelin man but oh so comfortable with the breezes cooling my body. I get an injection of some particular steroid I hadn’t heard of, for the surgery. I meet the nurse-anesthetist, her assistant and one other surgical nurse. But still more time passes and the room empties out as everyone else goes into their surgeries. My Dr hasn’t arrived.
All Dressed Up and Nowhere To Go: Finally, Glen pages the doctor. When the phone rings, this is what I hear Glen say on our end. “Your patient is ready….[my name]….Oakland?….she and you are on our schedule….I understand….I’ll tell them.” He doesn’t come right back to us. Instead, he draws in the whole team, plus the Head Nurse, and they huddle in conversation in the one place in the room that’s invisible to us. The Head finally comes over. We know what happened already, it was pretty easy to tell. My mom says to him, “you drew the short straw, huh?” He’s profusely apologetic – the problem is something I’ve noticed before: this particular hospital system is unusually siloed – different sites do not communicate well. The surgeon had been double booked.
So we start gradually moving towards the idea of rescheduling. I’m accepting of it. There’s no point in throwing a fit, none of these people has any fault in the situation. But for some reason, they are in no hurry to get me out of there. Everyone comes up to me at one point or another and apologizes. They are all clearly upset that this is happening, and it’s obvious that they want so much to help me. Eventually, they pull the catheter and I get dressed. They give me a Vicodin for my pain for the ride home, and a couple glasses of water (they offered juice and crackers too, but I wasn’t interested). My mom eats a Clif bar and offers me some but I decline for some reason.
But as we are all still talking – my mom is complaining, gently, with clear concern for me but no anger, just frustration shared with all of us – my nurse notices a doc sitting at one of the computer stations. We can tell he’s eavesdropping. Glen says “hey doc, you busy?”
A Ray of Hope: They talk briefly, and the doctor comes up to me and introduces himself, says “we might be able to help, may I look at your record?” Of course I say, please do. While he’s doing that the nurse tells me, this guy’s really awesome, he was the Chief Neurosurgeon here for a while, and he does the type of surgery you’re having. So maybe he can do it, and if he can that would be really good.
A little more time passes, the doc is looking at my record – I can see my MRI on the screen. He picks up the phone and I hear him say “Hi doctor, do you have a minute?” He disappears, presumably to talk with this other doc, and I’m starting to feel pretty hopeful at this point.
More time passes. Two docs return and ex-Chief introduces me to current Chief. (Who the nurse later tells me is the one that brought this procedure (hemi-laminectomy and micro discectomy) to this hospital.) He is able to and agrees to do my surgery that day, and I agree to have it done by him. But now there are no ORs available, so we wait.
And wait. I get re-gowned, another IV catheter, read two National Geographics cover to cover. I’m still clowning around every chance I get, and smiling at everyone that goes by. This is some superb people watching and I’m not one to let an opportunity like that pass! I’m backstage in an operating theater, and the full chorus of the everyday and the emergency is swirling around me as teams of nurses and doctors work with a patient wheeled in to recover with beautiful gratitude from a complicated neck surgery or to finish a work-day much differently than it started with a surprise ambulance ride and installation of some hardware to hold together what had been a perfectly good tibia prior to the forklift incident.
Dénouement: Eventually, I’m taken in for surgery at around 1pm. I think I even made a joke right before they pushed the anesthetic. Time passes, but this time I don’t notice it. Waking up is pretty easy. My throat is sore but I have no other problems. They tell me they won’t let me go until I can pee. This proves harder than anticipated, but I succeed after several tries. As I’m waiting for my bladder to remember its role in this play, I’m still clowning around, even making other patients laugh at one point as the room winds down for the day and people are discharged or moved to their rooms for the night.
I was finally discharged at about 6pm. Drive home takes 2 hours 15; in another stroke of good fortune, we’ve missed most of the evening commute traffic through the East Bay and San Francisco. The Bay Bridge was as easy as it can possibly be and we passed through the City easily.
Got home. Ate soup. Took 1 Vicodin. Bed at 9ish. Woke up at 4. No pain. Almost none. The next day I will discover that I was indeed still under the influence of some of the better pain drugs from the surgery, but this day is bliss. I feel a minor ache at the surgery site, but the terrible radiating pains to my hip and knee joints, the knotted ache in my calf, the taut-feeling tendons, all these are gone. The muscle weakness in my calf is still present, but I already knew that this would take the longest to resolve. Nerve mending is a slow process, but it’s very likely that I will be able to walk normally again.
I still have a long recovery between those nerves and the just plain weakness from nearly a month in bed, but I am so amazed and humbled by my good fortune. I know for sure that my cheerful attitude and sunny disposition made the difference in this event. If we had been condescending or angry towards anyone this would have not turned out the same. I simply let things work out – I made space for the best outcome, and it appeared. I am so blessed.