Monday, May 6, 2013

Road to Recovery

Well... it finally caught up with me... over the past 18 months... I have taken an untold number of Naproxen and Flexeril tablets.... 6 Cervical Epidural Steroid Injections (CESI)... countless hours in Physical Therapy... hundreds of dollars in Massages... and many sleepless nights due to neck pain... I gave the "Conservative Approach" my best effort... but it all finally became life consuming!

At my initial consultation with Dr. Lee Warren at the Auburn Spine and Neurosurgery Center last year he told me... "when you are ready for repair... I can fix you!" I opted for the Conservative Approach in hopes that I could put off the inevitable... in his words... "it is not IF you have surgery... it is just WHEN".

I was doing great this year... after some time off during the Winter I got back on the bike and started a Winter Power Improvement Program... I was making great strides in my power production... Then, the day after Thanksgiving I started my Hal Higdon Half Marathon Training Plan... and in February I ran a new PR and hit my target time at the Mercedes Half Marathon in Birmingham. Following that Sunday run I took the next week off and the following Monday I hit the bike. Now... I woke up on on Tuesday morning with that "I slept funny" feeling in my neck... no worries... just from getting back at it right? Yeah... that is what I thought too so I continued with the plan... I was still seeing the Physical Therapist and told him what was going on the next week and he was convinced that the Half Marathon was culprit and not the bike. Anyway... we continued with the Conservative Approach... with little relief.. the 2nd round of CESI's did nothing to alleviate the pain shooting down my back under the left scapula and down my left arm. Over the course of a few short weeks it continued to get worse and worse... I ended up in a really downward spiral that led to another round of ER visits... more and heavier narcotics... MRI... and significant down time with little relief! Following another visit with the NS I received a terse warning from him... he "did not need to see me again unless I was ready for surgery"... I left hoping I would be able to get back on track but started seriously considering my surgical options. He gave me two of them... a minimally invasive procedure where he would enter my neck from the posterior side and shave off the herniated discs in hope of relieving the symptoms... or a full on Anterior Cervical Discectomy and Fusion (ACDF) at the C5/6 and C6/7 levels. I bounced back and forth... until the pain began to ratchet up and the tingling in the left arm with associated weakness continued to increase... nearly everyday... until it started to seriously affect my quality of life. Over the course of the one weekend I went from considering my options to "when can I get in for ACDF... Sherri worked miracles with the NS office, Tricare and the base clinic to get all of the authorizations approved and surgery scheduled as I just tried to maintain my existence.

We went back to see Dr. Warren and this time when he walked in the room that Tuesday morning... me laying on the now horizontal examination table... all I could utter was... "I am here because I AM READY!" He briefly explained the process and the procedure and said... "I will get you on the schedule in the next couple of weeks"... A-HA... no you won't because my wife the superhero already has be scheduled for Thursday at 0930... a miracle to say the least! Following the visit we headed to the East Alabama Medical Center in Opelika to complete all of the preliminary steps for surgery. It was an agonizing couple of hours of paperwork, interviews, data collection and bloodwork. Over the course of the next 48 hours I simply tried to exist by wishing time away... I could hardly wait for Thursday as the pain had continued to increase in both frequency and severity to the point that I could only maintain a standing position for about 30-45 seconds before the pain would literally drop me to my knees... I move swiftly between laying on the couch and laying in bed... getting up to do anything was out of the question and I was as bad off physically as I have ever been in my life.

Finally Thursday arrived and Sherri drove me to the East Alabama Medical Center where I would have my surgery. It was an uneventful ride as I laid in the fully reclined passenger seat. We arrived and proceeded to walk from the parking lot to the Surgery Center where I proceeded to find the closest chair as Sherri got me checked in... I sat and focused on simply trying to not lay on the waiting room floor as we waited for my number to be called... to be honest I really cannot recall much of what went on during that time... I lost all since of time and situational awareness... I remember them pinning a red number on me... then someone getting me and walking down a long hallway to another waiting room... that was even worse... the only thing I really remember from that room was a guy praying with someone... and his voice appeared to be on volume 11... then they called me and I headed into the pre-op area...

In the pre-op area I was finally able to laydown after discarding my clothes and dignity for a hospital gown... but laying down was okay... the pre-op nurse was really nice and she asked me a lot about my situation as her husband was a triathlete and battling a herniated disc in his neck... she put the IV in... asked a ton of questions... then the Anesthesiologist came in... after some basic questions he asked if I was in fact Navy and what I did... I told him I flew... he asked "What?" to which I replied "P-3s... but you probably don't know what they are..." and he surprised me with "The hell I don't... I was a Navy Flight Surgeon!!".... after exchanging some timelines we realized that we knew some of the same people as we were nearly the same age... too funny... he talked with me for about 45 mins until he was late for his next surgery... LOL!

Then it was my turn... they gave me a shot of feel good juice then wheeled me down the hall and into the ER... I remember being moved to the ER table and being placed on my back... then the "Are you ready for the good stuff?" question... YUP... BRING IT... and suddenly it was dark!

NEXT.. I wake up not knowing where I am... my throat hurts... I feel like I cannot breathe... I am reassured by the Recovery Nurse that everything is alright... I then wiggle my fingers and toes to make sure everything still works... ALL GOOD... so as I slowly come out of my post-op funk I begin to take in my surroundings...  occasionally a nurse stops by to ask me how I am doing... ALL GOOD... I made it through... I am stoked... and very much looking forward to seeing my wife's face... so after some time they tell me I am headed to my room... YEAH!!!

They wheel me in and a couple of dudes transfer me to my bed.... that is when I realize I have on leggings that are connected to an air pump that cycles every 15 seconds or so... okay... the Floor Nurse comes in and takes my vital signs and gets me settled... she offers me something for the pain... HEY... NO PAIN... HOLY CRAP... NO PAIN... so I decline for now... she gets the TV on for me... gets the bed just right and tells me that if I need anything to just ring her! A few minutes go by and Sherri walks in... RELIEF! I was thrilled to see her... she tells me about Dr. Warren coming out to tell her that everything went as planned... "text book procedure" from his perspective but that he was somewhat surprised to see C7 and it was way worse than he had anticipated... tell me about it! Anyway.... we sit and talk through the afternoon as the nurses cycle in for the occasional vital... and pain med... NOPE... still don't need it. Miraculously I feel wonderful... now I have some incision pain and a sore throat but not anything that requires medication at this point. The relief was instantaneous... I went from literally having knee dropping pain to zero pain... simply awesome!

Eventually it had to happen... dinner is delivered... well... they called it dinner... I lifted the lid and took a glance and knew instantly that although I was somewhat hungry... that was not on my agenda. Sherri then went out and brought back Chik-Fil-A.... I managed to literally choke down a few nuggets and fries but swallowing was difficult. I was feeling so good that we decided there was little need for Sherri to have a sleepless night on a recliner in my room and she took off to drive home and give everyone an update...

My night was actually peaceful... I eventually got up to pee and it was pain free... I stood for about 10 mins and had ZERO pain... it was awesome... I decided to try and get some sleep so I turned off the TV and put the night lights on... but I just tossed and turned... the night shift nurse came in and offered some morphine which would help me sleep... so I obliged... I also asked if I could take off the leggings and he said sure... then... for the first time in weeks... I rolled onto my side... a position I had been unable to get into in bed... this time... ZERO pain... and minutes later I was asleep. Now... I know the nurses continued to check on me throughout the night but it was a restful 7 hours of sleep.

I woke up at 0615... flipped on the TV and watched the morning news... Dr. Warren came in around 0715 to check on me... very routine stuff... he was pleased with the surgery... told me I could go home... and scheduled my first followup which is this Thursday. His orders were this... DO NOTHING FOR 2 WEEKS... no work... no driving... don't lift anything heavier than a gallon of milk... no yard work... no house work... NOTHING! This... with the promise that if I followed his orders he could almost guarantee that in 6 weeks I would get the green light to do all the swimming... biking and running I desired!!! Sounds like a dream doesn't it??? IT IS HARD when you are a naturally active person but given I want to get back to being active I did my best to comply... although others (READ: Sherri) will tell you otherwise.

So... breakfast arrived... and I ate like someone was going to take it away from me.... everything bad about the dinner option was alleviated with breakfast... it was awesome... scrambled eggs, turkey sausage, grits, biscuits, juice and coffee... AWESOME! Sherri called and asked if I wanted anything as her and my Mom were headed my way... just a good cup of coffee...

They arrived... I got up... showered... put on my clothes... packed up my stuff... signed some paperwork... had a nurse unsuccessfully take out the stitches from the drain.. but soon we were on our way! Now... as much as I looked forward to walking... hospital policy required that I be in a wheelchair... I could not wait to walk as I hoped it would be pain free... what followed was an uneventful ride home... and by all accounts I would call it a success.

Okay... fast forward to today... I feel great.... have been pain free... still some muscle soreness in my neck but ZERO nerve pain... a few days of tingling down the left arm but that subsided... I actually started driving today and spent a half day at work... it felt great! The prognosis looks good but I report otherwise if the Doctor comes up with something later this week... the next hard step will be trying to not do too much too fast.

The incision is healing nicely... the dark line is the Dermabond... hard to believe but it is looking good!

I want to thank everyone for the words of encouragement and support. I want to thank my Wife for all of her support and tenacity to get the system to work for me.... I want to thank my Mom for dropping what she was doing and coming up to help out and keep me company during those 2 weeks... and of course my kids who took care of me once I was home... without all of them and skillful hands of Dr. Warren I am not sure where I would be today. So far so good and I look forward to continued recovery!