When I woke up in the hospital, I had been moved from the main emergency room to a side area. It must have been a full 24 hours later, because my wife was next to the bed. She had driven back home from North Carolina as fast as she could. I asked about the kids, and she said they were OK. I could see that she was stressed and concerned. Heck, everybody I could see looked stressed and concerned. The nurses did, the orderlies did, and even people passing by in the hallway got very quiet as they walked by. I was told that I’d need spinal surgery, and that the doctor on duty had been paged, and would be there shortly.
When you’re sitting in a normal waiting room, it may seem like a long time. In the ER, waiting for anything seems like an eternity. I could hear the clock, ticking, ticking, ticking…and I had nothing I could do other than count its ticks…..or count my breathing or count my own heartbeats…which I took to be a good sign.
Eventually, I heard a bunch of voices talking in the hallway, and the doctor came into the room. He was holding a clipboard, several reports, and what looked like a copy of my x-rays. The spinal surgeon, Dr. Childs, stepped up, and gave me his assessment:
“You’ve been through a lot. You’ve got an explosive burst fracture of your L2 vertebrae on 3 axes. It’s essentially been broken into a lot of pieces.”
“You’ve got 60% compression of the spinal canal, and we’re going to have to take you into surgery.”
“We’ll do everything we can, but…..”
“We don’t know if you’re going to walk again.”
Wow. I knew this was bad, but now, I had to think about how bad it might be. I had been in a lot of accidents growing up, with more than my share of bumps, bruises, stitches and even broken bones. At age 6, I even got hit by a car. We were pulling up to church one Sunday, and before checking traffic, I burst out the door and ran across the street….right into the path of an oncoming car. Fortunately, they weren’t going that fast, and after taking a corner bumper shot off my backside, I popped up in the air, landed upright on the sidewalk….and took off running. I wasn’t seriously hurt, and the worst part was that when I got to the hospital….my Mom got to see that I was wearing holey underwear.
This was much more serious. As I lay there, I wondered what life would be like if I couldn’t walk. I’ve been in accidents before, and have had broken bones, but never had any news as life altering as this. I tried to distract myself from thinking about the possibilities.
Dr. Childs explained that they were going to use a bone graft from my hip to aid in providing enough solid surface to literally glue my L2 vertebrae back together. In addition, they were going to perform a laminectomy (where they remove bone that may be pinching on nerves) and a 4-level spinal fusion, from T12 to L3. Because the surgery was going to be extensive, I waited another 2 days to stabilize before the actual surgery…and by this point, even though I was on a completely liquid diet with no solid food, I had a catheter inserted, and had to wear an adult diaper, because I had little to no ability to control that function, and clearly couldn’t get up and go to the bathroom. The only control I had was one button to provide a timed morphine drip…and another to call the nurse.
I was prepped for surgery, given an anesthetic…and drifted off. Surgery took over 6 hours, and I was moved to recovery, where I spent a long time coming out of anesthesia….and when I came to, I was fitted for a TLSO (Thorasic Lumbar Sacral Orthosis) brace. It was a big plastic clamshell with straps that held it (and me) together to keep my spine from moving. It went from my armpits all the way down to my hips. While it provided me stability, I was essentially like a turtle on its back, unable to do anything other than push the button for the nurse.
For the next 10 days, I was in critical care at the hospital. The staff checked my surgical incision, I was X-rayed, scanned, sampled and studied. Post surgery, I was still in a lot of pain, however, feeling was coming back to my right leg. It was a lot weaker than the left, but my foot responded to being poked with a needle (OUCH!) and I could wiggle my toes. With the brace, I could raise my bed slightly to watch television, but going to the bathroom on my own was out of the question, so I was 100% dependent on the nurses.
While the morphine helped with the pain, it didn’t help with sleep. I was awake for about 20 hours every day, drifting off when I could no longer keep my eyes open. I tried to read a bit, but for the most part, I watched NOVA on PBS and classic movies on other channels. Even the movies seemed to blur into one another.
I had a couple visitors during my critical care days. My wife would come by daily, but she had the kids to take care of, so her visits were pretty short, and by this point, I could tell she was pretty upset with me. A couple neighbors came by to let me know they’d be helping with the kids as much as they could, too. I got to talk to my parents and siblings on the phone, and while I could report improvement with my right leg, I didn’t know what the prognosis would be. Dr. Childs reassured me that the improvement was a good sign, and that things would keep getting better.
After 10 days, the critical care team felt I was ready to go to a rehab hospital…and since the move was planned for a weekend day, they wanted to see if I could stand or take any steps prior to the move. I felt pretty weak, but agreed to try. The nurses helped steady me as they sat me upright, and held a walker in front of me. I placed my hands on the rails, and with their help, started to push off the bed….
…and I went straight to the floor. I folded like a cheap lawn chair.
While I had feeling in my right leg, I had ZERO strength. I couldn’t support my own weight. The nurses helped me back into bed, and while there was concern, the hospital needed the critical care bed, so I was slated to be moved that next morning. That verdict remained in place, even though the effort to stand and subsequent fall caused me to get nauseous…and start vomiting the most foul substance I had ever seen or smelled. Turns out that the impact had caused blood to pool in my stomach….which was now going to make its way back out through the shortest path possible. Not.Fun.At.All.
I heard lots of discussion about whether to reschedule the move, but the decision was made. I was being moved, whether I was ready or not.