Monday, November 16, 2015

The Saga of the Spine

The first spine surgery happened when the kids were 6, 3 and less than 1 year old. That surgery was supposed to be an easy one--outpatient with a bed, but Ren ended up in the hospital for a week at a facility 90 minutes from our house.

The second surgery was done to repair a newly herniated disc that announced its presence the day before my dissertation defense. We waited the entire summer--first, for the test results and then for the doctor schedule that surgery--eliminating any chance of taking the celebratory post-Ph.D. family vacation we’d been promising the children for what seemed like forever. Ultimately, the second surgery ended up happening the first week of the new academic year, and just over five months after the first one.  Stow was 15 months at the time and still not walking or talking.

When Stow was two, Ren had his third spine surgery three months after we'd packed up everything and moved six hours away from family and friends for my new job. This time, it was a lumbar fusion that kept Ren essentially bedridden for a month and confined to the house for four months. Our new neighbors must've all wondered what happened to us that long cold winter. Did I mention there was record-breaking snow that year? And that Sky wasn't quite tall enough to shovel, yet?

The fourth surgery, a cervical fusion, was the easy one, but by then I'd become so traumatized by so many surgeries that I had a hard time keeping my cool sitting in the waiting room. It turns out there are only so many long surgeries, recovery room stays, and fresh surgery wounds I can handle. That time, I got home at 8:30 p.m., after 8 hours of sitting and waiting, only to discover that Pink was having an asthma episode. I went back to the hospital with her around 10 p.m. and didn’t get home from the ER until 3 in the morning.

The fifth surgery is scheduled to happen four days before Christmas. It’s another lumbar fusion, so the “recovery” will be long. I don’t expect Ren to go out again (except for doctors' appointments) until spring. Fortunately, Sky’s tall enough to help with snow removal now.


When we wrote our own wedding vows, they didn't include the words "in sickness and in health," but the sentiment was certainly implied. Like most people, when we got married, we had every intention of sticking together through thick and through thin. But, I don’t think we imagined a thick and thin that included chronic pain, the loss of mobility, and the inability to parent the kids the way we wanted (not to mention all the stuff going on with the kids with their autism, asthma, and allergies). If you've gone through serious illness or injury with your spouse, you already know what I'm about to tell you, but "in sickness and in health" doesn't prepare you for the sheer trauma of watching your loved one suffer through things you can't change or control or even lessen by the tiniest degree.

When your spouse is down and out, your life gets turned upside down, too. Not only do you have to figure out how to deal with the day-to-day grind down a parent, but you also have to figure out how to support your spouse and help nurse him or her back to health. There isn’t much space for a caregiver to feel sorry for herself/himself when a spouse is struggling to overcome some really hard stuff.  Your only option is to deal with it, find outlets where you can, and keep your cool every time you have to tell a well-meaning inquirer that he's not going to get much better.

I don’t know what happens when you realize that your spouse will never get “back to health.” But, I know that, whether I like it or not, I am going to find out. In the process, I have a feeling I will learn more about myself than I ever wanted to know. I’m just hoping there will also be some moments of intense, if sometimes bittersweet, joy along the way!*

*This blog post is about the spine surgeries. For the record, there were also the shoulder surgeries that happened just before and just after our wedding and the eye surgery that kept Ren from going blind when his retina detatched when Sky was still a baby. The surgery in December will be Ren's 9th major surgery of our marriage.