First off, I’ll stay away from the “why me?” questions, as I went through that hell a few months ago with shoulder surgery and I don’t feel like going to the dark place again. Suffice it to say that another surgery — and a second spine surgery at that — was not what I wanted to happen two weeks after getting married and in the middle of a cross-country move. But, it happened, I did it, and now I’m recovering. So I thought it might be helpful to write a little bit about the microdiscectomy, if only to track my own progress.
I went to the surgery center (The Beverly Hills Penthouse Surgery Center, to be exact) knowing more or less what to expect. I had a microdiscectomy done in 2005 on L5/S1 and this time I was going in for a microdiscectomy on L4/5. A microdiscectomy is where your disc has ruptured or herniated and the surgeon moves aside your muscles and nerves in order to get to the disc and “shave off” the part that might be pressing on a nerve and causing pain. It really fucking freaks me out to think about someone in there manipulating my spine, so I won’t write more about the actual procedure because gaaaaaackkkk. Typically they won’t do this surgery until you’ve tried all conservative methods and/or you have started to lose feeling in one of your legs. That’s a sign that the bulge is pressing on a nerve and potentially causing permanent damage. For all the millions and millions of people who suffer from back pain, it is still not so easy to pinpoint exactly what is causing specific pain and therefore surgeons are reluctant to operate because there’s no guarantee that you will wake up with the pain gone. My neurosurgeon explained it to me that there are 30 moving parts in the lower back and any one of them could be responsible back pain.
I arrived at the surgery center at 6:30am. Weirdly, I had worked in the building before — producing the series “30 Days” with a production company called Actual Reality. My episode had been about a mom who binge drinks for 30 days straight. So it was a little weird to be in the same building but now be wearing a backless gown. The nurse made me put on compression socks, took my vitals, and made inane small talk about reality shows (“are they really real??”) with me and PCA until the surgeon came in. More inane small talk (“feeling steady today?” “Hope there are no earthquakes, ha ha!”). When I get nervous I do this high-pitched cackle that makes me sound like a moron.
In the weeks leading up to the surgery I had been listening to a guided meditation to help healing before and after surgery, and it had really assisted in keeping my pre-surgery fear and anxiety under control. Meditation was not something I had pursued consistently before, but this series was simply wonderful. I’m a believer. As I was waiting I kept reciting some of the affirmations and trying to stay calm and positive by imagining my family and loved ones giving me support. Soon enough it was time and I said goodbye to PCA. It would have been sadder if I could see his face but I had to take my contacts out for the surgery and they had already removed my glasses. I remember being wheeled into the icy OR and seeing my surgeon-blur. For some reason we chatted for a minute about the Dyson fan (the one with no blades). I made some absolutely stupid joke about those fans being made for surgeons since there was no chance a hand could get cut off by the blades and his hands were worth more than most (CACKLE CACKLE CACKLE) then I fell asleep. One wonderful woozy part was that I felt my Aunt Susie’s presence near me. She had just passed away a week before the surgery after many, many health battles which decimated her body but never broke her spirit. She was the strongest woman I’ve ever known and I felt certain that she was with me.
I woke up in the recovery room and couldn’t feel my right leg. At all. I started crying. People kept coming in and out and I kept telling them that I couldn’t feel my toes or my leg. The surgeon came in and ran a little spiky thing across my foot but I couldn’t feel it. I could see PCA’s face — he looked very worried. The surgeon said that it was “alarming” and left the room. I think I dozed. I remember crying a lot. This was my worst fear, as I had ended up with nerve damage from my 2005 surgery and I had hoped not to have any more.
My throat hurt a lot and it tasted like I had swallowed a helium balloon, with that powdery rubbery flavor. I felt really lucid but in retrospect I was high as a kite. My back didn’t hurt at all, but I felt stiff and uncomfortable in the bed and it was raised to an almost-sitting position. The nurse did not seem to have a clue at all. She kept telling me the surgeon was going to come back to see me because of my “complications.” We couldn’t get a straight answer from anyone.
Then they wheeled in a plastic surgery patient next to me. She was an 18-year-old girl who was getting a boob job and a nose job: a graduation present from her mom. Oh, LA…there are some things I just won’t miss.
I wanted to leave. I was miserable and completely believed that I had just made the worst mistake of my life. The surgeon called from his car phone. He wasn’t coming back. PCA asked him if my numbness and complications were normal and he said they were not typical. I got really upset and wanted him to talk to me face to face. He said that he saw no reason why I shouldn’t get feeling back in my leg but his response meant nothing to me. I was in full panic mode by then. My sister was there and she was worried too and I just generally felt awful and mad and worried and dramatic and like a difficult patient that everyone was either ignoring or patting on the head.
PCA and the nurse helped me to the bathroom. This was probably only an hour or two after waking up. I could not walk as my right leg kept buckling. I couldn’t feel the floor and so I didn’t know where it was — it was really scary. I spent the next few hours alternating between freaking out and pro-actively diagnosing myself online using my iPhone, then mapping out my recovery strategy. There is really nothing worse than an incapacitated producer. I kicked everyone out of the room so I could feel even sorrier for myself. It was not my finest hour, mentally. There was wallowing. Eventually the nurse fitted me with a back brace and helped me get dressed in sweats and a camisole top with a zip-up hoodie over it.
Finally, around 4:30pm I was discharged. The nurse wheeled me to the car and it was a challenge to get in. We had placed a trash bag on the seat so that I could slide on it easily to pivot without twisting, and a pillow to put behind my spine, and we had the seat reclined back as far as it would go. PCA drove us home and I made him stop at Jerry’s Deli for chicken broth. We got home, made it up the driveway with me leaning on him and hobbling along, and he helped me into bed.
Someone had posted on Facebook about a documentary on HBO called “Miss You Can Do It,” and it followed a beauty pageant that had been founded by a woman who has cerebral palsy. The pageant was for girls with disabilities and suffice it to say I cried through the whole entire movie. I truly do not think there were more than 3 minutes out of 90 where I wasn’t sobbing. I was lying on my back and tears were just running unchecked into the pillow. It was a wonderful documentary and such shot of perspective right when I needed it. Yes, I was scared but I had come through the surgery safely and had to focus on that.
I had come home with prescriptions for Oxycodone, Ambien, and an anti-inflammatory. I took the Oxy every four hours on the dot, trying to stay ahead of the pain. I didn’t sleep much the first night because I can’t sleep on my back and my leg felt so weird and foreign — like I had a wooden leg — that I couldn’t drop off comfortably. I think I slept in two three-hour segments and that got me through the night. I woke up feeling pretty good and with only minimal pain, but my leg and toes felt the same. The first thing I saw was the orange tree outside my window and the hummingbird feeder. I had made it through Day One.