To the bottom and back – a story about surviving back surgery

A sporting accident at age twelve resulted in more than just a band-aid. This is Anita’s story, a super mum and strong, resilient woman. Living life with a chronic back injury, years of invisible pain and dormant demons. A story about the importance of family support.


Anita's journey:


There is darkness outside. It’s just before dawn and I am lying on a hospital bed in what feels like a very wide corridor. There are other people in beds beside me and we are separated by curtains but all very close together.

I have been waiting for this day for over 3 years. This is going to fix things.

I chat to the anaesthetist and he gives me some idea of what will happen once I’m in theatre. My surgeon enters the area and catches my eye and all of a sudden I panic.

'' I’m not ready, I don’t want to do this. I can’t breathe.''

He comes to me and tries to help calm me down. I know he’s talking and his face is friendly but I can’t hear what he’s saying. My husband knows me well and has been waiting for my calm demeanour to crumble, and here it is. He squeezes my hand but I just can’t get myself out of it. The anaesthetist comes back and they inject me with something so I calm down. I don’t remember anything else.


24yrs earlier:

It was 1991. I was 12 years old, 45kgs and 159cm tall. I was a fantastic athlete and I loved it. My focus was sprinting but I would try anything. My first carnival for high school was the very next day and we were doing trials to see which division we would compete in. I was keen to be in the high jump.


I was doing well and it was between me and one tall girl. I got ready, crouching low, then I ran. I flung my body over the bar and cleared it easily and landed, but not on the big soft matt, on the hard-compacted clay ground. I felt a sharp pain sear through my body. I lay there. I didn’t think I could move. I felt dizzy and sick. Something was wrong in my back.

Everyone was looking down at me. I lay there gasping to get my breath back. Maybe I was just winded.


My teacher, who was a 22-year-old in her second year of PE teaching and the strongest woman I knew, lifted me off the ground and carried me off to the sick bay where I spent the rest of the day. 

My Mum and Dad were overseas. I was living with some family friends and I was very shy. They were told what had happened and I told them I was fine.     


I still competed in the carnival the next day (except the high jump) and did really well making it into the interschool carnival.

A month later Mum came home. I cried and told her how much it hurt and she was angry that I hadn’t told anyone else. I had x-rays, CT-scans and started seeing a physiotherapist. They found I had a genetic issue called a pars defect in the vertebrae just above my coccyx. It had cracked, causing that part of my spine to slip forward slightly and press on my sciatic nerve.


They called it Spondylolisthesis.

Over time, the pain lessened, and the physio told me as long as I kept my core strong I would be ok. And I was ok. I had back aches but nothing terrible. I never took pain medication. It was just normal for me.

I made it through school and I continued to excel at athletics, in fact it was most likely athletics that kept me so well and strong.

When I finished school and started University I joined a gym but I stopped running. When I moved interstate I stopped going to the gym. I was thin and this was my saving grace. Had I put on weight the pain would’ve become unbearable much sooner.



The years passed and I got into Pilates which was amazing. I’d never been fitter; my core strength was amazing and I had little or no pain. How I felt about my body was better than it had ever been. I was so happy and I was proud of the commitment I’d made. 

In 2007 I fell pregnant with my first child. My pregnancy was good in every way but as each day passed my back got worse. I saw a physiotherapist who put me in a brace that helped to lift my heavy belly. Unbeknownst to me, my vertebrae was slipping further and further.


Becoming a mother

My labour was horrendous. The baby was posterior, which is a nightmare for anyone but so much worse when you have back issues. When a baby is posterior their spine lies along the mother’s spine during labour. This means the baby’s forehead is the part of the head crowning and their spine grates along yours with every contraction. Women are not designed for this. My beautiful boy was born by emergency caesarean after 23hours of labour. He was perfect. 

I was fortunate enough to be put into a mother’s group with a wonderful woman who was a former PE teacher, passionate about us all regaining some fitness whilst caring for our babies. She engaged a Personal Trainer for the group. We met once or twice a week, lined the prams up along the window and got to work. I got fit again quickly. 


A few years later I’m ten pin bowling with my family and it’s so much fun but I feel something pinch. I ignore it and keep playing but the next day I feel the pain. It lingers for weeks and eventually gets the better of me so I see a Doctor who refers me to a Physiotherapist. She suspects a displaced disc but we can’t find out for sure because I’m pregnant with my second child. 


We start to plan a move home to Tasmania where we will have more support and our little girl is born 4mths later, but before she’s even 3mths old I can’t bend into the cot to put her to sleep without my back-giving way. I created a habit of co-sleeping and my husband gently takes her to her own bed once I’m asleep, bringing her back to me when she needs feeding. 


I find a GP who I immediately feel comfortable with. She sends me for scans and tells me, very honestly, that one day I will have to have an operation. My vertebrae have slipped too far, the disc has disintegrated. I meet a surgeon and we make a plan to wait until I’m 40. Until then we have to hope I can manage with pain medication. 


I struggle with my fitness because of the pain. I see an Exercise Physiologist and try to maintain my weight but I’m depressed. Depression is common for people with chronic back pain. I gain weight. Not much but enough to make me uncomfortable and cause feelings of unworthiness. Enough for other people to notice when you’ve always been thin. Enough to know what they’re thinking when they see you after a while. Enough to make me not want to go anywhere. I don’t try to make any new friends after that. I’m happy with the few I have.


Weight

I lose weight but I put it back on. I go to the gym but I fear the pain too much. By the time my daughter is 2 I can barely walk. I book the surgery, 4 years earlier than planned. I’m on so much medication and it has all compounded. 

I need to have a spinal fusion, fusing two vertebrae together to stop the constant pinching of my sciatic nerve. The surgeon has to pull my slipped vertebrae back into alignment and then bolt it into place with titanium rods. 




When I first wake up in recovery I feel fine but I can’t move. I am in a room with very low lighting and one nurse. There is a constant low hum. They have put me on ketamine for pain but there’s a searing burn in my left leg from my hip to my big toe. I tell one nurse about it but when she hands over to the next nurse she says the pain is psychosomatic. This makes me paranoid.


I’m moved to a private room two days later and they are already encouraging me to stand. I eventually get on my feet and after 9 days I can go home.

I still have awful pain on my left side and the medication isn’t helping but I don’t want to make a fuss because I’m still not sure the pain is real. 

After 6 days at home I can’t handle it anymore and I get taken to emergency, admitted and they start me back on morphine while my surgeon tries to figure out why I have pain in my leg. He knows it’s coming from the nerves in my back but he doesn’t know why. I have a lot of bruising so first they tackle that by draining the fluid to see if it will take the pressure off. It doesn’t work. Next they try a cortisone injection and I’m sent home. It doesn’t work.


The pain is so bad that when people walk past me, the movement of the air feels like knives flying at my foot.

My big toe feels like all the bones have been crushed and my leg feels like it’s on fire. I can’t stand it and 5 days later I’m back in A&E and once again I’m admitted. I have an MRI and the surgeon comes to see me. He informs me that I have to go back to theatre. He suspects something is pressing on the nerve but he can’t see enough on the images. 

He is right. He flushes out the area of the spinal fusion and finds disintegrated disc particles wedged in the area where a sciatic nerve leaves the vertebrae. 


I wake up from surgery and find the pain from my hip to my knee has eased but the bottom half of my leg and my foot are still very painful.

A week later I go home again but the pain is still really bad. I wait but I can’t manage. We see the surgeon in his rooms and my husband explains to him that I have never complained much about pain and that this was very very real.

He explains how hard it is to get to know patients when you only meet them a few times and pain affects everyone differently so it is true and very real that some people can talk themselves into pain that isn’t necessarily there. He understands now that that is not the case for me. He books me in for operation number 3.



This time he removes all bone matter that is no longer of any use to me now that I have titanium rods holding everything in line. He flushes the area out with extreme care to make sure this will be the last time he has to operate.

Exactly two weeks later I wake to find the broken bone feeling in my big toe gone. After that the pain gradually eases along the rest of my leg. It never completely goes away but I can ignore it and get on with things.


The recovery is slow and much more intense than I expected. There is so much pain medication, including opioids which I have become dependent on, and extreme feelings of uselessness. I start to slip into depression. My GP and I make a schedule to ween me off the addictive medications, reducing them every fortnight. I survive the first fortnight but I experience the type of symptoms you read about, the type people who survive a heroin addiction experience. I can’t keep doing that so I stop the opioids cold turkey. It is disgusting but I am fortunate to have a loving, supportive family around me. I sweat, I am constantly nauseous, I have aches all over my body and stomach cramps, but the worst symptom is insomnia.

It torments me and reminds me how long this recovery is taking.

I feel like I see the hour on the clock change 24hrs a day. It is torture.

I slowly come out of the withdrawal and try to get my life back. I cook my first meal for my family after about 4mths. I’m proud but it reminds me how useless I’ve been. 

I realise that I can’t get through the mental health stuff on my own so I get referred to a Psychologist.

She is amazing and constantly reminds me to be proud of the little things I ‘am’ doing instead of worrying about all the things I think I ‘should’ be doing but can’t.

I am terrified of what the future may hold. My anxiety is out of control.

I worry that I may never be a reliable employee ever again. What if I need time off for back pain? What if my leg plays up again? I am used to being a very active person. Now I can neither sit for long, stand for long, nor do physical work for long so where on earth am I going to find work? 

I still have my littlest at home with me, so I do have time to figure things out, but my anxiety makes me worry about everything. My friends, family and neighbours have been an incredible support, but they can’t help me this much forever. 



It’s been a year and a half and my youngest is starting Kindergarten. I look for a job but I am not confident. I also join a Cross Fit gym. I love it. It’s excruciatingly hard at first but it becomes addictive quickly. I go 4-6 times a week. The people there are so much fun and encourage everyone to be their best self. I lose some weight. I tone up and I am not in any pain. I have my limits and I am strict on them even when everyone else is increasing their weights. I cannot afford to hurt myself.


I get a job working with a chiropractor, but I immediately see it isn’t going to work. He disagrees with the surgery I had. He insists on treating me 3 times a week and we have very different lifestyles. I haven’t had this much back pain since before my operation. His spinal manipulations are literally hurting me. I quit and he is glad. I am back in a state of anxiety, worrying if I’m ever going to be a useful, contributing part of society again.


I have become used to being at home and not seeing friends. Used to being just a Mum and more introverted than ever. Even talking on the phone makes me feel anxious.

I get a new job working from home and it’s exactly what I need right now. I don’t have to talk to anyone. It’s all online and I learn a lot but then I start to feel more isolated. The work is empowering but it isn’t enough so with the encouragement of my employer I start looking for something else. She makes me a fantastic resume and I apply for jobs I really want, where I can use my people skills and my creativity.


I miss out on 2 great jobs but there is one I really want.

It takes forever to hear back but I get an interview. The people are wonderful and I feel confident but then nothing happens. I don’t lose hope though and three months later I get a call. The job is mine.


I am a Community Inclusion Worker at a Child and Family Centre. My job is to ensure social inclusion is an integral part of the very low socio-economic community I work in.


I offer support, I teach, I sing and dance, I tell stories, I help connect people, I don’t sit, stand or do physical work for too long and my back is coping beautifully. I continue my health and wellbeing journey with daily exercise including circuit work, yoga and long walks.

I am going to be just fine.

 

Written by the incredible strong and inspiring Anita.







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