Recovering From a Spinal Fusion

September 5, 2016
A couple of posts ago, I wrote about my spinal fusion and decompression surgery. It was getting pretty long, so I decided to break it up and make a separate post about my recovery, so here I am! Just to warn you, this post has some major venting in it.

I left off by saying that the doctors would not release me from the hospital because my wound was not closing and that I was being monitored closely to see if I needed a second surgery. My actual surgery was on May 17th, but at the end of May, I still did not have permission to leave. At that point, I started getting a little depressed. I thought I was going to have to have another surgery, there was no end date in sight, and I was not doing so well financially. It cost me more than $330/night for every night in the hospital, and I had already maxed out my insurance. My doctors told me they wanted me to move rooms to another building. Apparently I was in the geriatrics ward (ha ha...I found that out later from my friend's fiancee who speaks Chinese). My doctors wanted me to move to their ward because they said they could check on me more often and give me better care. The rooms there were about $160 a night, so that would save me some money, but I would have to have a roommate and deal with the hassle of moving. I did decide to move because my doctors really wanted me to. A bunch of friends came over and packed up all of my stuff for me, brought it to the new building, and then helped me unpack it all. I "met" my new roommate who seemed innocent enough at first, but having to share a room with her was utterly horrific. Staying with her was a thousand times worse than sharing with 8 other people in Urumqi. Rachael came and visited me once and was getting so annoyed at how disrespectful my roommate was. She would blast the t.v., leave the light on at night only over my side of the room, scream and shout, and be loud at night. She even stole a roll of my toilet paper! I don't hate many people, but I think I despised this woman at that time for hurting my recovery because she made it so I could rarely sleep! I was mentally and physically exhausted at that point. I begged my doctors to let me leave and go back to the apartments at my school so that my friends could help me more and so I could be in a more peaceful environment, but they said my wound had to be cleaned once a day and riding back and forth in a taxi would be bad for my back. Luckily, my next roommate was a delightful woman who had just gotten hip surgery. She was really polite and her husband even helped me if I dropped something and couldn't pick it up. They smiled at me and were quiet and gosh...having her there was such a relief. 

Meanwhile, my doctors were discussing the possibility of my second surgery with my surgeon. The surgeon wanted to postpone it and give me more time to heal on my own. After weeks of saying there had been no improvement, my doctors finally told me that they saw signs that my wound was starting to heal! They had a specialist come and check it and she suggested that they remove my stitches so that they could really clean the inside of my wound. My doctors didn't want to do that yet, so I just waited in the hospital. 

The good news is that by the end of May I was starting to stand and walk again. I think in the States this probably would have happened sooner because I would have been on stronger painkillers and there would have likely been physical therapists there to push me. I didn't even attempt to get up until a week and half after my surgery because of the pain. I also didn't want to try to sit up or do things on my own with no one there in case I fell or got hurt, so I waited until my friends came to visit me. The first time I stood up on my own, Rachael was there to help me through it. It took forever and I started getting shaky and felt like I was going to pass out, but I was so relieved that I could actually stand again! Slowly but surely, I started walking around my room a little bit and then was able to make it to the bathroom on my own. My life improved dramatically just being able to walk back and forth to the bathroom. Later I got to where I could do laps in the hallway.

In the middle of June, the nurses stopped giving me antibiotics through the IV, and switched my medicine to pills I could take orally. My doctor also removed my stitches. I was getting excited because I thought that meant they were going to discharge me soon, although they didn't tell me that. I just had to get out of there for my own sanity. I was alone for most of the day and looked forward to the evenings because that's when my friends and co-workers visited me. Mainly, I wanted to leave because I don't think I got the best treatment from the staff or from my ayi, although my three main doctors were always kind and professional towards me. 

My ayi could be nice and all smiles sometimes, but I felt like she tried to take advantage of me! At the beginning when I checked in, her supervisor told me her rate. A few days after my surgery, a nurse came in and told me that the ayi wanted to almost double her daily rate because her other patients left and I was the only one there. I informed the nurse that made no sense because she was still doing the exact same job, and I was told that I couldn't do things for myself yet and had no choice but to pay her. I asked my Chinese co-teacher if that was normal, and she said to her it seemed like my ayi was dishonest. One day she also refused to wash my hair (after she had washed it a couple of other times) and told the nurses that she wanted me to hire someone from a salon to do it. That made me seriously mad because that was the main thing I wanted done and I only asked her once a week! I told her that if she wouldn't do it, I would fire her and find a different ayi who could be more helpful towards me. In the end, I think she was okay about washing my hair since I had to pay her double. She did eat some of my food, too. Not the food that my friends brought me, but the Chinese food I was given at the hospital. Every day for breakfast I was given a bowl of noodles and two eggs. Mind you, my friends brought me other types of food, so usually I'd eat something that they brought and have one egg, so I'd tell the ayi that I didn't want the noodles. I'm pretty sure she ate them, but I didn't care because she knew I didn't want them. One morning, I woke up and saw that there were two eggs and a bowl of noodles in my room. I went back to sleep, and the food was moved when I woke up. Then the ayi came and gave me an egg, but the problem with that was that I had no other food...Where were my noodles that I had paid for??! She didn't bring me any and the bowl of them was nowhere to be found, so I can only assume that she ate them while I was sleeping because she thought I didn't want them, but to me that's really wrong because she didn't even offer me my own food.

Also, the nurses in the geriatrics building lied about me several times to my doctors! It's not like it was a miscommunication because of the language barrier between us--these were just blatant lies. Right after my surgery, one of my doctors came in and told me that the nurses told him I was walking around the room a lot. My doctor asked me why I was doing that because he had given me orders not to. When he told me that, I was just in shock because at that point I hadn't even attempted to walk yet and was physically incapable. I told Rachael that, and she just started to laugh because she knew I couldn't even really sit up yet! The doctor also asked me why I refused to let the nurse take out my catheter and kind of lectured me about how I could become dependent on it. I told him that not one nurse even tried to take it out and that the only time I ever saw the nurses would be when I buzzed them to change my IV bags. A few weeks later, again my doctor came in saying, "Lisa, I heard a bad thing about you. I heard from the nurses that you're not wearing your brace when you walk around." I told him that was untrue and that he knew how badly I wanted to get out of the hospital, so I followed his orders very closely. I feel like he believed the nurses and not me. It drove me insane that they were lying about me. I really have no idea why they did...maybe they hated me? I don't know why--I never did anything to them and thanked them for changing my IV. The last time the doctor told me one of those lies, I told him to bring the nurse in who said that because I wanted to talk to her. Of course that didn't end up happening. I don't really like confrontation, but I was ready to confront the nurse that said that about me at that point because I was just fed up.

The other issue I had was about the way the doctors and nurses called me fat. I could understand from a medical perspective if they had said something like,"I recommend that you lose weight to take the pressure off of your back in the future." If only I could've been so lucky. They told my friend Scott that I needed to wear a back brace after the surgery but that I was so big and fat that none of the braces in the store at their hospital would fit me. They told me I had to spend $1,000 (USD) on getting a custom back brace because I was about a 6X. WHAT? Okay, I know I could stand to lose some weight, but a 6X? Really? I asked my friend Kelcey to buy the largest back brace they had in the shop, and she came back with an XL one. Guess what? It fit perfectly and cost $100 USD. I'm so glad that I didn't listen to them. Then, when my wound wasn't healing, I asked my doctor if it was because I didn't have enough stitches in that spot. He said, "The problem isn't this stitches. The problem is that you're SO FAT." Then, his minions (about 7 other doctors/nurses) all burst out laughing. I felt like I was in middle school getting bullied or something and immediately started to cry. I was already in such a bad spot--a little kindness could've gone a long way. I only asked about the stitches because two nurses in the States saw a picture of my wound and said it looked like I needed more stitches. Those are just two examples, but really occurrences like this kept on happening. Normally, I have pretty thick skin (ha ha...thick skin), but I felt like this was becoming almost verbally abusive. This one doctor with a gray tooth kept doing it over and over, even when I asked her to please stop. The last straw was when she told me I had to lie on my back instead of my sides because I was too fat to lie on my sides, even though five other doctors and nurses had said to avoid lying on my back because I was starting to get bed sores. I called her out on her "advice" and when she started calling me fat for like the 20th time, I just said it would probably be better if she didn't come back into my room again. Maybe that was harsh of me, but you know what? I felt way better without her presence! I just thank my lucky stars that my friends, co-workers, and students' parents treated me SO well during this ordeal. They kept me from going insane in that place!

Probably the worst time I had there was when I had the room to myself for one night after my first roommate left. I was looking forward to that night, thinking that I could probably get some decent rest for the first time in a long time since it would finally be nice and quiet. I got up to go to the bathroom, and while I was in there, someone started speaking in Chinese to me through the door. I had no clue what they were saying, but they turned off the light on me and left! I started to panic! I was already very unsteady on my feet and didn't want to try to fumble around in the dark. That could cause me to fall, which could really mess with my recent surgery, as my bones were not yet fused. I yelled for help and no one came. I kept on screaming more and more loudly, hoping someone would come check on me. No one ever did and I got REALLY upset. I think I started having a panic attack, honestly. After screaming for 20 minutes, I very carefully got up and inched my way over to the sink for support. I held onto that and made it out of the bathroom, but I was crying and so upset and enraged that someone (another visitor) went into my room when they weren't supposed to be and took it upon themselves to turn the light off in the bathroom KNOWING full well that I was in there. What angered me the most was what if I had fallen or really injured myself and no one was there to help me? I thought that whole situation was messed up. The next morning, my hospital shoe was falling off slightly and that did cause me to stumble, but because the light was on, I could very easily grab the metal bar in the bathroom to catch myself. I left a voice message to my boss crying saying the hospital was a cruel institution, and I'd do anything to leave it. The doctors wouldn't let me because my wound was still too deep.

Every day (since I started having problems), my doctors came by to change the dressings for my wound. They would clean it, and it was beyond painful. They were pouring alcohol and/or iodine into it and would also cut parts that they referred to as "bad meat" out. I really dreaded when they would come in and do that, but it was necessary.

Since my wound was not healing quickly, they brought in the specialist again to get her opinion. She told the doctors to take my stitches out so that they could really go in and clean the wound. They did that, and then a few days later my doctors told me I could leave the hospital and go back to my school's campus, where I live. I was overjoyed!! After 55 days of being in there, two of my co-workers came and "broke me out." They helped me pack up my stuff and watched as the doctor cleaned my wound. One girl had a short glimpse of it and said it was enough for her and went and sat over on a chair because she didn't want to see it. Recently she told me that it was so deep and that if she looked closely enough, she felt she could probably see all the way down to my spine. A month after I was released from the hospital, my friend's mom who is a nurse in the U.K. saw a picture of my wound and was alarmed that they had ever released me in the first place. She said in the U.K. I would have never been allowed to leave with a wound that serious. What's scary is that she said that a month after I left there!! Even though I probably shouldn't have left when I did, I'm glad I was able to go. My friends were still on campus for a week after I returned, and they visited me a lot. A friend of mine was staying in Shanghai for an extra week, so she was able to stop by after everyone else had left.

My students' parents were very concerned when I said I didn't want to have an ayi over the summer, but my only experiences with ayis flat out sucked. My co-teacher told me that there were definitely some helpful ayis and I just had had bad experiences. One of my student's moms was worried about me and sent her ayi over to help out. At first I was a little wary, but this ayi was from the Philippines and could speak English, so we were able to communicate! After 2 minutes of talking to her, I could immediately tell that she was very kind and truly wanted to help me. She came over for a few hours each day and cleaned my place, brought me food, and washed my hair. Looking back, my students' parents were right...I totally needed someone to help me, especially since all my friends had gone. I did like the idea that she would come by every day to check on me just to make sure everything was okay. The ayi was also able to pick up a few items I needed at the corner store, too. She asked me what all of my favorite foods were and told the cook she worked with to make them for me. My faves were snow peas, thinly cut slices of beef with peppers and onion, shrimp, dumplings, broccoli, and pumpkin soup. My co-teacher joked that I was going to get used to having an ayi as good as she was and said that I would not want to give her up! The ayi helped me for about three weeks, and I really can't thank her and my student's parent enough for their kindness. After she left, another student's ayi came three times a week and brought me food and cleaned my apartment.

Meanwhile, there was another great ayi that works at my school who was available to help me.  I paid her to get me to and from the hospital. I had to go three times a week and couldn't go on my own because I still couldn't walk well and if someone bumped into me at that point, it would have been bad. Chinese public hospitals tend to be crowded and the possibility of getting knocked into is extremely high, so my ayi had to basically guard me from that! Even though I was walking slowly and wearing a back brace and it was obvious that I was visibly injured, she still had to push people from walking right into me. Most of the time it was by accident, but sometimes people just didn't care. My students' parents took me to get my wound cleaned almost every time I had to go. It's really incredible how much they helped me when I think about it. Some of them gave me home cooked meals and brought me groceries.  Sometimes they just visited me. One parent even lent me the entire series of The Good Wife, which helped to keep me entertained while on bed rest. Anything nice you can possibly think of that would help out an injured person was thought of and done by them. They really helped me get through a very difficult time.

For the first month after I got released from the hospital, my doctors and the wound specialist told me that my wound was healing quicker than before and that I was making nice progress. Then that seemed to stop. The top and bottom parts were fine, but there was just a hole in the middle of it that was super deep and wouldn't close. That really affected my life because I could've been out practicing walking, but the doctors didn't want me doing that because they didn't want the wound to stretch and they didn't want me to sweat because bacteria could get in and infect the wound.

I knew it wasn't normal to have such a deep wound months after my surgery, so I went to a private clinic to get a second opinion. That doctor told me that it was infected and recommended I get surgery on it right away so that they could cut out all of the bad tissue. He said that if the infection spread, my whole surgery would fail and that I could get brain damage. Well, that was NOT what I wanted to hear. He ran blood tests on me and he said that all of my results were on the higher end of the normal range, which meant I had an infection but not an acute infection. He said he could do some debridement in his office, but that my wound was so deep that I would need to get an actual surgery, and those were not performed in his clinic. It really was awful when he started cutting out the tissue in my wound. It seriously hurt! He told me to stop screaming and to just suffer though it because it was good for me.

At that point, I relayed all of what had happened to my sister who told my dad. He called me and said he didn't care about the cost and he would do whatever it took to get me back to the States. I told my doctor that I saw another doctor (which he probably didn't like that I did that), and my doctor said that I had no infection and to trust him because he was familiar with my case and that he was responsible for me since the surgery was performed at his hospital. I really considered going home, but the specialist suggested that they put more stitches in. That was not pleasant either. They put four stitches in my back with some kind of thick, non-dissolvable thread. Getting the stitches hurt, and then for the next two days I was in a lot of pain until I got used to them being there. Within a week, there was a huge, noticeable difference and finally my wound had stopped leaking (gross). The four stitches they put in were in such a small area, and initially whoever stitched me up only used about 8 stitches on the whole entire wound!! I really don't think I had enough in initially.

As of now, I still have stitches in, but the doctors said that everything is looking good. I was really put through the ringer with this, and couldn't have been happier to hear the positive report from my doctors.

The best news ever is that I believe the worst of this is now behind me. My road to recovery will be a long one and it will be strenuous, but at least I don't have to worry about acute infections and brain damage from it for the time being!

Have you ever had a complication after a surgery?
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