Surgery Spring part 2

Continuing the story of my spine surgery. This might be TMI for some. For the first chapters, go to my previous post.

I checked into Oakland Kaiser March 12 and was in the hospital two nights. I got good care but hospital personnel seemed like they were trying hard to look calm and relaxed when covid-19 had become the focus. Two covid patients were already there in isolation. Staff were flustered and distracted and their assignments changed continually. Some wore masks, but most did not. Our floor of the hospital was emptying out. I might have been the last elective surgery, just under the wire. We couldn’t wait to get out of there.

The nadir of the whole surgery experience was the hour-long drive back home from Oakland to Santa Rosa. In excruciating pain, I got overly familiar with every damn bump in the highway. What a relief to lie (carefully) down in my own bed!

I Love My Wife

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We finished the puzzle!

Working construction when you come home after work so tired that all you can do is throw some food in your mouth and go to bed, we tradeswomen often wished for wives like our male coworkers had. We all needed a wife. Well I now have a wife and I can tell you that it’s just as great as I imagined, especially when you’re laid up after surgery. My wife Holly was chief nurse, cook and bandage changer while I recovered. When I first got home from the hospital just getting in and out of bed was a painful chore. I needed help to do everything. What would I have done without my wife? I began to think about what people do when they don’t have a partner to care for them in situations like this. If you have money you hire someone. I would’ve had to hire someone to be here 24 hours a day, at least at the beginning. Holly, sleeping in the guest room, woke up in the middle of the night to check on me and give me pain drugs. Or maybe the hospital would have sent me to rehab or to a nursing home. We have a friend who, after she suffered an injury, is now stuck in a nursing home that is locked down. And Holly‘s mom is locked down at her assisted living place in Windsor. No visitors allowed. I feel thankful and lucky.

Did Rush Ever Shit?

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Our Bacchinalian garden goddess

During the time he was addicted to opioids and was caught buying them on the black market, did Rush Limbaugh ever have a shit? Perhaps he was literally full of shit. This is what I couldn’t help thinking as I faced my own opioid crisis. I just don’t understand what people see in these drugs. They didn’t get me high and they totally fuck with my digestive system. I couldn’t wait to get free. In the meantime I resorted to disgusting and painful methods of evacuation which I will not go into. You can imagine.

Recovery has been like baby steps. You mark every significant newly gained ability. I can reach up to put food in the microwave. Yay! I can bow my head to look at the computer screen. Yay! I can carry five pounds. Yay! I walked a half-mile neighborhood loop up and down hills. Yay! Now lately I have been able to do a bit of cooking and Holly’s telling me she appreciated the several weeks when I was not leaving messes in the kitchen. Most recently I tried cooking rice pudding with some 2% milk that had been substituted for half-and-half by our Instacart shopper. I guess some people think there’s no difference? Anyway it turned out fine except, while I was resting, it burned the bottom of two pans. Milk is a binder, once used in paint, and my brother said that in his activist days they used evaporated milk for postering. You can never get it off, he said. Stuck milk sucks! So at least for the time being I’ve ceded most of the cooking back to Holly. 

I Grew!

The first week of April I put my shoes on to go out for a walk, looked down at Holly and said “I feel taller!” Looking up at me she said “You’re right. Alice, what was in that bottle you drank?” 

A month after the surgery Holly drove us back to Kaiser Oakland to get my stitches taken out and to let a physicians assistant, Jose, have a look at the incision on the back of my neck. Protocol had changed since we were there for the surgery and when we tried to walk in the door we were met by a phalanx of workers in protective gear. Holly was told she couldn’t come with me; she waited in the car. I had to get a special pass and then sanitize my hands before they let me in. There had been two coronavirus patients in isolation in the hospital when we were there for the surgery. Now there were 12. 

The receptionist at the spine surgery desk confessed that he was bored. Kaiser was dead. All elective surgeries (the most lucrative procedures for hospitals) had been canceled and he was trying to find ways to look busy.

Jose looked terrible. A loquacious guy who sometimes is a little too cheerful for me, he was very glum. I asked him if something was wrong and he said he just had a death in the family. Oh dear.

Am I really taller? And why am I dizzy?

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My bed of wild miners lettuce

Jose explained that there is a part of my brain that makes and regulates spinal fluid and because my spinal fluid has been so cut off for so long it’s having to readjust. That can make you dizzy and it might be six months before things get back to normal. Also he said your spine is kind of like a spring. I guess they sprung it. He implied that might create more height. Anyhow I am delighted by this side effect. I’ve been losing height as my spine compresses and osteoporosis has its way. I used to be 5‘8“ and the last time I was measured I was only 5 foot 5 1/2 inches. Perhaps I’ve regained a half inch!

In which I Encounter a Wizard at Kaiser Oakland

Before leaving the hospital I was directed to the lab to have blood drawn. The  masked phlebotomist was an older black man with a gray beard and  stylish glasses with filigreed hinges. He settled me in the chair, looked me in the eye and said, “You know a squirrel.” I said, “Why yes I do. There’s a squirrel outside my window that entertains me endlessly. What kind of sixth sense do you have?” He said he didn’t know exactly but that he was particularly prescient with pregnant women. He could tell what the physical traits of their babies would be. He told me about one woman who came back in after the birth and told him that he had correctly identified everything about her baby including that she had eyes of two different colors. 

They tell me it takes six weeks to recover, (but a year for the bones to knit fully) and so I have less than two weeks to go. Then I’ll join the rest of you—bored in lockdown. 

Take care of yourselves.

Surgery Spring

Dear Readers,

My regular pagan holiday post comes in the form of a (late) diary. Here are the first four entries.

March 30, 2020

In what might be seen as supremely good timing, considering the pandemic lockdown, I have spent the spring equinox (March 19) and the advent of this new season recovering from spine surgery. Now at the end of March I’m still mostly lying in bed flat on my back so I am speaking into my phone to tell you the story. I’m thinking installments.

I was scheduled for the surgery on March 12 at Oakland Kaiser Hospital. The surgeon was the same one who worked on me three years ago when I had surgery on my lower spine, Timothy Huang.

Good friends know that I have been complaining about pain in my right arm for years now. According to the actuarial tables I can expect to live to be 82, twelve more years. The prospect of living with worsening pain was depressing and prompted me to seek relief. After years of pain killers (we call ibuprofen vitamin I around our house) I finally got Kaiser to give me an MRI. The expression on the doctor’s face when she saw the picture disturbed me. Even I could see that my spinal cord was being crushed by deteriorating bones in my neck. The doctor said “Don’t fall down. Trauma could result in paralysis.” I began to consider what life might be like as a quadriplegic. 

My cervical spine was a mess. Nerves were being pinched, my spinal cord was permanently damaged, vertebrae four through seven are worn down to the bone. I was told it could only get worse not better. So surgery was a no brainer. Oh I looked forward to it.

Including photos from our backyard garden, my savior during this recovery/pandemic period.

April 2, 2020

It’s April now and I’m feeling better three weeks after my surgery. I’m still spending quite a bit of time lying on my back but I’ve been getting up and around a lot more.

Here’s the next chapter of my surgery story. 

Holly and I went to a pre-op meeting with the surgeon about a week before the scheduled surgery. We drove to Oakland Kaiser looking forward to hearing what they were planning to do to me.

I was tested and found to have a good strength and reflexes. My worst symptom was the pain in my right arm and hand. We looked at the MRI together and the surgeon said “This won’t get better; it will only get worse.” He said it wasn’t the result of a particular injury, just long term wear and tear. I thought of all those hours spent working over my head looking up at light fixtures as an electrician.

Lying in bed I can smell the orange blossoms right outside my window

We learned that spinal cord tissue is less resilient than nerve tissue. The most pressing problem was not the nerve pain in my arm but the compression of my spinal cord, even though that was not as painful. He recommended first tackling the spinal cord compression. To do that they would open the back of my neck, cut the vertebrae, crack them open and screw small plates in. That gives the spinal cord more room. He said this surgery might not feel like a big improvement. It’s more to hold the decline. The basic surgery is called laminoplasty, essentially decompression. 

To repair the nerve damage that creates pain in my arm he said they would have to go in from the front of my neck. Sometimes they do both operations all at once but they would like to do just the back, wait six months and see how much improvement there is before surgery from the front, which is much more risky. 

Why hadn’t I felt more pain in my neck I wondered. The surgeon said that because the deterioration had been gradual over time my body just got used to it. Also we know that I have a high tolerance for pain. I guess this is a good thing.

The surgery was a week away and I was glad that we’d been able to get an appointment so soon. I wanted to get it over with.

Our pandemic crafts table. Holly colors while I work on the puzzle

April 5, 2020

It’s been nearly four weeks since my spine surgery and I’m feeling ever so much better. I still spend many hours lying on my back listening to podcasts and novels on my phone, but I’ve been sitting up more, taking little walks and sitting in the sun in the garden. I’m not ready yet to be a planter. Holly is doing that. But I actually pulled some weeds yesterday. Like three weeds. Still it felt like one small step for woman.

Here’s chapter three of my surgery story.

Our Oakland Adventure. March 11, 2020.

We planned to drive to Oakland the day before my surgery. Holly had reserved a motel room near Kaiser hospital where she could stay while I was recovering. I would be staying in the hospital for at least a couple of nights so Holly would have a place to park and a real bed within walking distance.

We thought we would probably have to be at the hospital at 6 AM. Isn’t that always the way it goes? But we found out the day before that we wouldn’t have to arrive till noon the day of surgery so we would have 24 hours in Oakland California. Just like in one of those travel magazines. In this case we would just experience the half mile around the Kaiser hospital. I resolved to be a tourist. 

By this time the coronavirus was here in the Bay Area and we all knew it but there wasn’t a lockdown yet and, while some people were wearing masks on the street, most of us were not. We were just anxious. I had already been sheltering in place for the past month because I didn’t want to get any virus that would compromise my surgery.

Holly and Linda practicing social distancing in the front yard.

We ate dinner that night at a newish Mexican place just up from Kaiser on Piedmont Avenue, the upscale walking and shopping street. We tried to social distance by sitting in the outdoor patio area. It would be my last meal in a restaurant for weeks, maybe months (maybe years?).

At the corner of Piedmont and MacArthur waiting for the light to change a young Chinese man asked us a question. We didn’t understand and so had him repeat it. 

“Are you lesbians?”

“Yes,” we said, a little surprised at the bold question.

Then he explained by telling a story about his grandmother and something about style or fashion. 

“Is your grandmother a lesbian?”

No that wasn’t it. He smiled politely. We decided his grandmother likes lesbian fashion and style. She must be about our age—old. I imagined she must be in China. He knew English but his accent was so thick we couldn’t understand. We smiled as we parted, amused at our flannel shirt fashion plate status.

Kaiser hospital sits at the confluence of Broadway, MacArthur and Piedmont streets, a dividing line between two very different neighborhoods.

I have spent a lot of time on Piedmont Avenue because I often visit my friend Pat who lives near there. But I have never spent time on the MacArthur side. Our motel on MacArthur was only half a mile west of the hospital but a world apart from Piedmont on the east side with its restaurants, shops, movie theater, and sidewalks packed with pedestrians.

Our hospital hotel

Wide, commercial MacArthur had been known as a haven for hookers, and while we didn’t see a single hooker, we soon realized our hotel had been part of that scene. We could see it had undergone a recent renovation with new paint. But check-in was accomplished through a barred window. 

Our room had a new paint job and the bed was perfectly comfortable. Yet the barred windows didn’t open. And we could see that the door had suffered a break-in. The card lock was secured on the inside with electrical tape. I tried to imagine what had prompted breaking down the door. Had someone died in there?

In the morning there was no coffee in the lobby. No lobby. We hiked the half-mile to the closest coffee shop, a Starbucks in the hospital, where we watched a diverse population of hospital workers come and go, start their shifts. Oakland Kaiser seemed endlessly interesting and we would get to know some of the staff in the coming days.

April 9, 2020

I can’t believe I’m on chapter 4 and I haven’t even gotten to the surgery yet. But this is it!

Many of the nurses at Kaiser were men. And the guy who was my pre-op nurse told me he had worked as an ironworker before studying to be a nurse. He worked in San Francisco, he said, before OSHA made you tie off when you walked on those big I-beams. Yeah, I thought. Working without safety measures. It’s a dick thing. Anyway I got all excited because he was a construction worker brother. I told him I had worked construction and I told him about the new ironworker union‘s pregnancy leave policy which we tradeswomen are all very proud of. That didn’t interest him and he showed his hand when he said, “Women were given all the easy jobs.” I told the story to another construction worker friend of mine, a sprinkler fitter, and she said, “Hell there are no easy jobs in the ironworkers. They’re all hard. That’s one of the hardest trades there is.” She had worked on some construction jobs with our friend Fran Kraus, one of the first women ironworkers. Fran was assigned to place and weld steel stairs, a job that requires smarts and precise planning. Few of the men were capable and that’s why they gave the job to Fran. Maybe they thought it was easy, but it was not. And I thought of a few women ironworkers I know who worked in San Francisco. None of them would’ve wanted easy work. It was bullshit, but I think typical of the prejudicial thinking of our male coworkers. Sigh.

I’d had my hair shaved into a cool newfangled cut right before I went into surgery but it wasn’t short enough. A woman came in to cut the back of my hair even shorter and she did a pretty good job. She shaved it right across the back from ear to ear and so now I have an even cooler haircut. Then I got the blue net over my head.

My radical new haircut

The surgery room was shining bright, full of stainless steel. Five or six gowned workers, including the surgeon Tim Huang, surrounded me with smiling faces. Whenever they come in to give you medication or do anything nurses and doctors always ask you your name and your birthdate. Well I can remember that but when they wheeled me into surgery they asked me my name, my birthdate and what operation I was getting. I was flummoxed. I have not even tried to memorize the medical description of my surgery. I said “neck” and they said that was good enough. And after that I don’t remember anything more.

Here is what the written operative procedures said: Cervical laminoplasty, 3 or more levels; Cervical posterior instrumentation, 2-5 levels; Cervical far lateral discectomy or foraminotomy, 2 levels; Cervical laminectomy for decompression, 2 levels. Now why wasn’t I able to remember that?