Spinal Fusion Surgery

August 17, 2016
I wanted to pick up where I left off in my last post and continue telling my story of being in the hospital and getting a major surgery in China.

Here are the other related posts in case you missed them:

The Worst Experience of my Whole Life
What I Learned From Being Hospitalized in China
Thank You A Million Times Over
My Life in Numbers: Hospital Edition
An Honest Look at my Expat Life
My Hospital Story

After spending almost a week in the hospital and getting tests done, I knew that surgery was inevitable. It was time for me to schedule my surgery, but that ended up being very stressful. I must've gotten asked hundreds of times if my family members were going to come over from the States to take care of me. Both of my parents didn't have a passport or a Visa for China, and I needed surgery immediately. The doctors made a really big deal about me not having my parents here in China, and told me that this might cause problems with signing the paperwork for the surgery. Once they found out that no one from my family would come over from the States, they wanted me to have my Chinese bosses sign. Um...no. The problem of signing was going to delay my surgery, and I started to really worry. My doctors got special permission from my surgeon and said that it was okay for a non-Chinese person to do it. The person I asked to sign for me came over at the scheduled time, and I thought we were all good to go, but then the doctor wouldn't let him sign because there was no translator. I told the doctor that no one told me there had to be a translator, and then he tried to get my bosses to come and do it. They thought the hospital should provide a translator, but the hospital wanted my bosses translating. Meanwhile, I was stuck in the middle of this vicious circle trying to get someone to translate for me. Later, I found out why no one wanted to translate. It's because if they translated it wrong, I could sue them. Then, the first person that was going to sign for me backed out, which is still a very sore subject for me. I had to try to find another friend to sign. Rachael volunteered to do it, which I really appreciated so much. Finally, the doctors agreed to translate everything to both of us, we signed, and they set a date for my surgery. Whew! I was getting so concerned that they wouldn't perform the surgery with the way they were talking. 

Before my surgery, it was just a waiting game for me at the Shanghai hospital. Luckily, I had SO many visitors and they brought me books, DVD's, tv shows, and delicious food. By delicious food, I mean Western comfort food. Mostly what was important for me was just the company of others! People really came through for me, this ordeal strengthened many of my friendships, and I even came out of this with a few more friends than I had beforehand. It was so nice to have guests and various forms of entertainment. At the Urumqi hospital, there was no wifi and I only had 1/2 of an unread book on my Kindle. Basically, I was bored out of my mind! 

I did have to adjust to getting woken up at 5:00 AM each day at the Shanghai hospital. That's around a time the janitor would come into my room every day and mop. From there, people were in and out of my room all day. Other janitors, nurses, the ayi, and my doctors would be coming, so there was no going back to sleep. I had to change my schedule and just go to bed at 9 or 10. At the Urumqi hospital, no one even checked on me until 10:00 AM. The reason for this is that China is all technically supposed to be following the Beijing Standard Time, which is a little nuts because China is a huge country and Beijing is all the way over on the Eastern side. That would be like NYC and L.A. being in the same time zone. In Urumqi, they do have an unofficial "local time" which is two hours behind Beijing Standard Time. This causes a lot of confusion about meeting times, as I witnessed myself in Xinjiang.  My friend who lived in Urumqi told me that usually people started their jobs at 10:00 AM instead of 8:00 AM and that they would just stay at work two hours later. 

Before my surgery, I had to try to get used to working with an ayi (caregiver). The lady I had was okay, but also kind of shady, which I'll elaborate on later. I've heard from a lot of Chinese people that hospital ayis do not get paid very much, so they might be unhappy in life. My ayi was a bit forceful. If she brought me food when I wasn't hungry, she would try to get me to eat it over and over again to the point where I would start to eat food when I wasn't even hungry just to get her to leave me alone. She also came in and out of my room so much when I wanted to be left alone. I know in her mind she was being helpful, but I'm not going to lie--there were times I would pretend to be asleep just so she would leave. She also told personal details about me to any other Chinese person who entered my room, but I'm pretty sure that is standard. There just isn't a lot of emphasis on confidentiality and privacy here. I guess she could have been worse. It's not like she stole from me or was pure evil. 

The night before the surgery, my head was spinning. I just really wanted to have a successful surgery, but I kept thinking about paralysis and brain damage or even death. Eventually, I had to just push those thoughts out of my mind and try to stay positive. 

Then, one of my doctors came in and freaked me out! He told me that the nurses told him that I owed all of this money and that since I didn't pay, my surgery might have to be delayed. I told him I was angry about this because earlier that day, a bunch of my Chinese co-workers and bosses were there from my school, and my principal took my bank card and paid off my balance for me. (The screws and cages that were to go into my spine cost more than $10,000 USD!) My doctor told me that he was just the messenger and then saw how worried I got. He said that they would make an exception and let me have the surgery no matter what and then I could pay the balance when another Chinese person visited me. Later, when a Chinese person came, I gave her my card to pay what I owed, and it turned out those nurses were completely wrong and I owed nothing! I don't really get why the nurses said that when I didn't owe anything. By the way, I couldn't pay for myself because the finance department was in another building and I couldn't walk. At a later date when I asked my American friends to pay off part of my balance for me, they were gone for over an hour and came back confused without having accomplished the task. The two friends I sent are quite capable, but it can be hard trying to understand the Chinese hospital system with only very basic Chinese! It was also a Chinese holiday, so that complicated matters further. 

On the actual day of my surgery, Rachael was there to wish me good luck and I got placed on a gurney and transported to another building. I was wheeled to this waiting area, where there were about 8 other patients in their beds waiting for surgery, too. I was getting really antsy in there so I was glad that I wasn't in there for too long. They took me to the room where the surgery was going to be performed, and I got asked some routine questions. In less than five minutes, the anesthesiologist put the mask over me and told me to take some deep breaths. I think I had about two deep breaths and I was out. Apparently my surgery was about 5 hours. I wasn't conscious again until my surgery was over and the nurses were pushing me onto a rolling bed. I remember moving onto the bed and being in an extreme amount of pain. Then I was unconscious again until I woke up in the ICU. When I regained consciousness, one of the nurses offered me some water, but I was scared to have any because I was worried about having to use the toilet. No one told me that I had a catheter in! I guess I was naive to think that I didn't, but since no one told me that I would have one, I just assumed that I wouldn't. (I realize later how silly that sounds, but please keep in mind I never had a major surgery like this before). Hours later, I saw that other patients in the ICU had catheters, so I tried to see if I had one. I was lying on a long tube, so I lifted it up to see if I had a catheter in, and to my horror it was a bag filled with my blood that drained out of my back from the surgery! I was really unprepared to see that, and wish I would have been told about it ahead of time. I had three of those blood bags. They were stitched to my skin and I'll have three scars from them. 

A doctor came over and told me that I should be trying to move around. He kept telling me to I should be able to lift my "ass." Yes, he used that word...I don't think he was trying to be unprofessional. I just think that he didn't know a better English word for it. I told him that I couldn't do that yet, and he had some nurses roll me over on my side. That was probably the most painful thing I've ever had to endure in my whole life! I begged them to stop. That's all I really remember from the ICU. I have no idea how long I was in there for. 

When I had to leave the ICU and roll from my bed onto a gurney, I was terrified of the pain. It was unreal. I was screaming and crying, and then they brought me back to my room where Rachael and a lady from my school were waiting for me. When they were pushing me onto my bed, it was awful again and I was sobbing in pain. It was so bad that Rachael started to cry because she empathized with me. Then the lady from my school started to cry, too! Rachael and I have been good friends for three years, and she has never seen me cry, so I think she knew this pain was the real deal. I'm pretty sure in the States, I would have been on a morphine drip. I've said this in a previous post, but in China, they just are very stingy with the painkillers. The nurses told me to be tough like a Chinese person and to bear the pain. They said they don't give a lot of painkillers because they are worried about addiction. I found out that before the Cultural Revolution here in China, there was a huge drug problem with many people being addicted to opium, heroin, and morphine. That might explain why I wasn't given (what I thought) was an adequate amount of painkillers. For the next few days, I kept asking for more pain meds, and I was given these pills that were like the equivalent of Ibuprofen. They didn't really help at all, so I just quit taking them. 

Rachael was seriously so good to me during this time. She would read books out loud to me to distract me from the pain and tried to talk about other topics so that my mind wasn't focused on my back. We watched some t.v. shows, too. It was just a relief to have her there! She also called my parents to tell them my surgery went well. The next day, the school gave my friend Lauren permission to miss some of her classes and to come stay with me. That was wonderful of them because they also didn't cut her pay or anything like that. We got caught up on Game of Thrones episodes and just talked a lot. Scott came for a few hours the following day. Right after my surgery, I really couldn't move much. It was hard for me to even feed myself. I couldn't roll onto my sides without it being unbearable. 

Later that week, I had some scans done to check to see how the surgery went. My doctor said that it "looked perfect," so that was a huge relief!!! Even though the recovery time was going to be brutal, the most important thing was that the surgery was a success. Although my back pain was bad, immediately after the surgery, the shooting pain that was going down my left leg from a pinched nerve was gone. 

The doctors told me that I could be discharged from the hospital two weeks after my surgery when I got my stitches out. Unfortunately that did not happen. About a week and a half later, one of my doctors said that I had a complication with the wound in my back. He said it wasn't healing like it was supposed to be. I don't know what caused this complication, but I was told several different things. First the doctors told me my wound wasn't healing because of fat liquefaction. Supposedly, my fat turned into liquid and was causing problems. Later on, the wound specialist told me that I was allergic to the stitches they used on me and that's what caused the problem. I'm no doctor, but I couldn't help but notice that whoever stitched me up left a big gap in the part of my wound that wasn't healing properly. It looked like it was missing at least two stitches! Then, later I found out that wounds can have trouble healing if the patient isn't eating the right kinds of food. At the hospital, the cook thought I wouldn't like the Chinese food, so he ordered me Pizza Hut every single night for dinner and gave me McDonald's three times a week. They also weren't changing the dressings for my wound every day. It would be going on three days and I'd have to ask multiple times for the nurses to call the doctors to clean it.

About a week after the surgery I started burning up and got a bad headache. I had a mild fever, too. The doctors on my floor told me that I had a blood infection from the surgery, and I was so worried. For two days, I was completely out of it and slept almost the whole time. When my Chinese co-teacher came to check on me, I asked her to find out more details about my blood infection from the doctor on my floor. That doctor told my co-teacher I didn't have a blood infection and that I was normal! Say what??! I told my co-teacher that several nurses and doctors from my floor came in and told me verbatim, "You have a blood infection." They told me that I had to get three IV bags full of antibiotics every day for this infection, too. When my doctor finally came to see me after the weekend was over, he explained that I just had a high white blood cell count but no infection.

For the next two weeks, the doctors monitored my wound and said it was not making any progress healing. One doctor told me that I was probably going to have to have another surgery. Not another back surgery, but just a surgery where they would reopen the wound and cut out the bad tissue so I could heal and then stitch me back up. He said I would have to be put under again for it, too. To me, this was very bad news. It felt like a step backwards, it would lengthen the amount of time I needed to be in the hospital, and I was scared about my financial situation as I'd already maxed out what the insurance would give me back. My doctors talked to my surgeon about my lack of progress, and he suggested we give it a little more time to see if it could heal on its own. About a week later, my doctors said they saw it starting to heal a little bit, so they decided to keep waiting. During this time, I still had a visitor/some visitors almost every day. My friend Kelcey told me she had so much fun visiting me, which of course I found humorous because I felt like the worst company ever. Seriously, most of my friends and co-workers did SO much for me; they're just great people and the kind I want to be around.

I'm going to end my post at this point in my story, and write a separate post about my recovery. Writing about this is helping me process and deal with everything that has happened! Thanks again for all of the nice comments and for even reading a rambling post like this.
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