I have springs in my spine

2011-07-20 00:00

I WAS out riding my horse, Pollyanna, with a close friend. We were enjoying the clear winter’s day and catching up on things that had happened since we had last seen each other. Our reins were long and our feet were out of their stirrups as we let our horses choose their own way across the reaped mielie field. Suddenly, Pollyanna spooked and reared up on her hind legs. I had no time to gather my reins and put my feet back into my stirrups, and I slid inelegantly off her back and landed on my coccyx.

Subsequent X-rays revealed that the impact of the fall had slightly narrowed the space between two vertebrae in my lower back, L4 and L5. It wasn’t very serious and once I got over the initial pain, life returned to normal and I didn’t give it much thought after that.

Until one day, eight years later, when I came in from my morning run. By that evening I was screaming in agony. There was no position that relieved the searing pain in my lower back and I could not stand upright.

My husband rushed out to the pharmacy and returned, bearing armfuls of pain killers, anti-inflammatories and muscle relaxants. I took handfuls of pills, I used an ice pack and a hot-water bottle, I phoned my mother, nothing helped. Eventually my husband could not take it any longer and, with the help of our domestic worker, got me into the back seat of his car and rushed me to casualty. It was like something out of a TV medical drama — my husband disregarding red traffic lights, wheels spinning round corners and shouting at me to “hang on, we’re nearly there”, while every jolt, bump and turn elicited fresh howls from the back seat.

When we got to the hospital, my husband ran into casualty. He re-emerged with a nurse following closely on his heels pushing a wheelchair, the sight of which brought on more hysterical sobs as I knew that I would never be able to sit in it and I had no idea how I was going to get out of the car. Assessing the situation, my husband pushed the wheelchair aside and putting an arm under my legs and one around my back, unceremoniously hauled me out of the car. Valiantly ignoring my screams, he carried me into the hospital.

I spent the night in hospital and a series of X-rays and an MRI scan showed that the disc between L4 and L5 had herniated and was bulging out of the space, pinching the sciatic nerve. Some physiotherapy, a few injections and I was released the following day. From that day on for the next two years, my back was in constant spasm. I could not bend and do simple tasks like tie my shoe laces or carry grocery bags. My running days were over and picking up my children was out of the question. I dreaded going to bed as I did not get more than two hours’ sleep at a time. I could not stand for more than 10 minutes and when my foot wasn’t numb, arrows of pain would shoot up and down my leg.

When I realised that my family was treading on eggshells around me because they did not know how I would react from one minute to the next and having exhausted all alternative options, I finally acknowledged that I would have to consider surgery. I saw a neurosurgeon in Umhlanga who uses a modern, less invasive technique than the traditional spinal fusion. Called the Dynesys Dynamic Stabilisation System, it consists of two tiny spring-like structures that are attached to either side of the vertebrae, widening the space between them and allowing the nerve to be released. Because the structures are slightly sprung, the spine is not rigidly fixed into place.

Left: Diagram of a herniated disc bulging out of its space between the vertebrae.

I never thought that I would look forward to an operation, but I could not wait for the day to arrive. The surgery took three and a half hours, and I woke up in ICU feeling as if the lower part of my body had been hung, drawn and quartered. ICU is not the place to be if you want to rest.

Right: Diagram of the Dynesys Dynamic Stabilisation System in place.

My blood pressure was taken every half an hour and I was constantly jabbed with injections. Bizarrely, I was given a sponge bath at 4 am. I’m still not sure why. The worst thing about ICU though was the other patients. A young girl in the bed next to me had tried to commit suicide by overdosing on insulin. Her distraught mother spent the whole visiting hour beseeching her to wake up. It was heartbreaking. In the early hours of the morning, screaming and wailing down the passage woke me and the nurse told me that a young man had just died. He had been involved in a serious motorbike accident the week before.

The morning after the operation, the physiotherapist arrived and announced that if I wanted to leave ICU, I had to get out of bed, walk and go to the toilet. When she saw my look of terror, she quickly assured me that she would not make me do anything that I was incapable of doing. Within minutes I was gingerly standing, hanging on to my drip stand as a tenuous support with one hand and desperately trying to keep the back of my hospital gown closed with the other, so as not to reveal the sexy hospital bloomers underneath. With the physiotherapist close by, I slowly shuffled down the passage — it was a revelation. You see, although there was pain from the surgery, I could already feel that the nagging ache in my spine and the debilitating muscle spasms were gone.

I spent a week in the general ward and after a few days the injections for pain stopped, the nausea from the anaesthetic disappeared and I started to see a faint glimmer approaching from the bottom of that long dark tunnel I had been living in.

While I was in hospital, the physiotherapist came once a day to help me with back-strengthening exercises, every so often I took a painkiller and a nurse would check and clean the 50 or so staples that snaked up my spine. I was booked off work for six weeks and was not allowed to drive. Unlike recovery after a spinal fusion, I was allowed to sit immediately, but as sitting puts the most pressure on your lower back, I found that at first I could not sit for any great length of time.

Right: On the road again — running the Maritzburg Half-Marathon in February this year.

I was told that I could have physiotherapy if I felt the need but that it wasn’t strictly necessary. My biggest aid in making a full recovery would be patience. The surgeon stressed how vitally important it was to my recovery that I not push my body in any way, so we moved a bed into the lounge and I spent my days watching TV, reading, sleeping and drinking hot chocolate.

It’s three years later and although my back sometimes aches if I sit for too long (an occupational hazard) and there are certain things I can’t do like run the Comrades, play squash or lie on my stomach, my life has returned to normal. I am able to run half-marathons, mountain-bike, get a full night’s sleep and even ride a horse.

 

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