Spinal Fusion at L5-S1

Note: This is part 2 out a 3 part series. Click here for part 1.

As I got used to the idea of the surgery, I made one last trip to the Physiatry team at Stanford. A physiatrist is an MD or DO who specializes in nonsurgical treatments for the musculoskeletal system, so I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. When even they recommended going under the knife, I started interviewing surgeons.

First I saw one of the top orthopedic surgeons at UCSF. His manner was off-putting and he couldn’t guarantee that he would be the one performing the surgery, as UCSF is a teaching hospital. So I went with Dr. John Gray at California Pacific Medical Center. He was warm and took time to explain the process. He reassured me that he works closely with a neurosurgeon throughout the 4–6 hour ordeal.

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I left his office with a date on the calendar 03/03/03. And with that, I began preparing. One of the hardest parts was donating blood. I am not a fan of needles, and I donated once a month for three months in case I needed a blood transfusion, which I thankfully did not. The next hardest part was being off NSAIDs (Non-steroidal Anti-inflammataory Drugs) for 2 months because of their effect on blood clotting. Instead I tried Neurontin, but the side effect of dizziness and general weakness made me hesitant to take it.

As March neared, I was nervous but confident that I made the right decision. I listened daily to a meditation tape of Successful Surgery and Recovery Visualization, which I actually think helped a lot to prepare myself emotionally. My mom moved into my San Francisco apartment, prepared to stay a month to cook and take care of me. My dad stayed home in Portland with my younger brother.

On the morning of 03/03/03, at 5am, my mom and I took a cab even though CPMC was walking distance from my apartment. Unceremoniously I walked into a little cubby and changed into a hospital gown, I climbed onto a bed and waved to my mom as I was wheeled down the hallway, and the next thing I remember is waking up in a hospital bed.

Even before opening my eyes, I knew the familiar nerve pain in my leg was gone. It had been with me constantly since I was 15, when I thought I had a hamstring pull. Just like that, I had four titanium screws and rods connecting those, placed in L5 and S1. The surgery was successful and my recollection of my time at CPMC is all extremely positive, except for all my co-workers seeing me in a hospital gown. I spent the next 3 days lying flat, and one week total in the hospital.

I went home with back brace that prevented bending and twisting. I wore it for 3 months, whenever I wasn’t in bed. I wore slip-on tennis shoes so no need to bend forward to tie laces. And I purchased a brand new Tempurpedic bed.

At first it was a herculean effort to walk to the bathroom. But by the next week I could walk around the apartment. Then down the hallway of the building, and then down the block. The process was slow, but I was grateful to no longer be managing chronic pain. It was a turning point in my life.

Surprisingly, Dr. Gray did not prescribe any physical therapy or rehabilitation. My post-surgery check-ups looked good. The chips of bone they took from my hip to fill in the space where the disc had been was grafting well.

One year after the surgery, as I walked down the street in San Francisco and I saw a sign for a Feldenkrais practitioner. Ah-ha! I remembered having a few sessions years ago back in Portland, and feeling increased flexibility and pain relief. I wondered if they could help me recover further.