Spine surgery is a marathon not a sprint

recovery from spine surgery @ Willow-Townsend ProductionsWe’re finally on the other side of major surgery for my son, and the good news from the doctor is he’s doing fine and the procedure went well. The headline of this post is inspired by this image. Mother and son, exhausted after 30 hours at the hospital (and counting). Both look as if they have run a marathon and they have in different ways, but we’re nowhere near the finish line.

My son has been trudging along this painful road for months now, ever since the keen eye of his grandfather, a retired orthopedic surgeon, spotted the issue. A specialist later confirmed he had Scheurmann’s kyphosis. (Read: “My son needs surgery not ‘sit-up-straight’ reminders.”)

We broke the halfway mark of this race yesterday, when we checked into the hospital at about eight in the morning. The preliminary forms and tests were completed. We met with the surgeon and his assistant who walked us step-by-step through the procedure and detailed excruciatingly what tubes and gadgets they would be poking into my son. But the best news my son could receive came from the meeting with the anesthetists, who said they could use gas to first put him unconscious so he would not have to suffer through the insertion of the IV (and worse). This made my son visibly happy. He is manic about needles and had been dreading the necessary jabs to the skin.

Pre-op moments help ease the worry
The whole family gathered into a private pre-op room where we made small talk and slowly started to see the effects of a pre-op, pain-relieving medicine he was given. Laughing at the streaks that trailed from his fingers as he waved them in front of his face, my son showed the biggest smile I have ever seen. I found myself reaching for my phone camera then stopped short, knowing that there would be no way I could capture the moment. When the time came for the operation, his brother and I kissed his cheek and said we loved him. Mom had put on a disposable surgical gown and walked along the gurney to the operating room.

When my wife returned with word our boy had drifted swiftly to sleep and the work had started we moved to a waiting room where other families were gathered. One of the nurses came by and said she was our “family advocate” and promised regular updates every two hours as the operation proceeded. Time crawled by. After a long while, our advocate gave us our first update. The preparations were finished and the actual surgery had just started. Just started.

A long day made even longer
We received three more updates before our advocate’s shift had ended. By then we had seen three or four families come and go from the waiting room. Obviously their child’s surgery was not as complicated as the one ours was going through. Finally the surgeon arrived with news that the operation went well. It was a very short meeting. Short is good he said, since there were no complications. But it wasn’t over. Another surgeon was now “closing.” A different nurse came to us a little later and said we had just another “few hours.”

By eight o’clock that evening, my son was finally being moved from the O.R. to the intensive care unit. We arrived just a minute before his gurney. They rolled him by us quickly and thankfully he looked good. Better than the mental image I had conjured up when the surgeon warned us what his face could look like after spending the day face down on a table. Another agonizing 30 minutes later we were allowed to go into his room.

He was moving. Eyelids fluttered. Sounds escaped his mouth. A very horse (and could it be deeper?) voice tried to make words but couldn’t. He was peppered with tubes and wires, but breathing on his own. He looked good. A great wave of emotion came over me and the last 12 hours – the last six months — lurched out of me. I wept. “He’s such a handsome boy,” I sobbed through the tears. My youngest son also cried, though his tears were over seeing his big brother in such seeming distress. Both of us were comforted by Mom.

Exhaustion, recovery and pain
Fast forward 15 hours or so and that brings you when that picture at the top of the post was taken. Mom had stayed with my son at the hospital while I took the train home with his younger brother, who had to go to school the next day. She helped my son make it through a pretty hard night with a lot of pain and very little sleep. She watched as my son took his first step out of bed and stood up for a physical therapist. She helped with the move from I.C.U. to a recovery room. That’s where I found them after seeing boy #2 off to school. The surgeon was there and was, again, very brief. A good thing he said, since his recovery was progressing well.

My son and I talked. He was in pain but able to speak and move. He didn’t have an appetite yet nor is he ready to do anything other than sleep. While I wasn’t present for the first (or second) post-op stand, I did notice he laid flatter on the bed. And yes his voice was deeper. That could be from being intubated during surgery, but it may also be because his body isn’t crushing his internal organs anymore.

I’m writing this back at the home computer. I could only stay at the hospital about three hours before I had to travel back to pick up my youngest from school. When I did that we tried to find a Christmas tree. That was one of two wishes my oldest son had for when he got back from the hospital. A Christmas tree and a homemade cherry pie (made by Mom). No luck with the tree. (Read: “Where are all the Christmas trees?” for the backstory on that.) But we’ll try again tomorrow.

Later I heard from my wife that after I left a nurse asked my son if he wanted to meet two players from the New York Giants who were in the hospital visiting kids. My son said, “I’m not a football fan.” The nurse apparently then looks at my wife who says, “Uhm … and I’m one of those crazy Seahawks fans.” She is. Really.

That’s it for now. We’re more than halfway through the marathon, I hope. As I wrote in the first post about my son’s condition, I won’t promise I will share every part of the coming journey, but if there is something that may help others I will.

Note: I’m being overly vague on names and places out of respect for my son’s privacy who isn’t thrilled when he’s the focus of attention. If you need to know more details please reach out to me.

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