Andy, 62 “A Life Changer”

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ContributorAndy, 62Read Full Bio


Andy, 62, has had back pain and neck issues for as long as he can remember. He learned at a young age he had a very narrow spinal column. Not only did he need to wear a neck brace on and off as a kid, his discs would often slip leading to episodes where he was bed ridden. In his 60’s his chronic back pain was so acute he felt as if he had two separate lives. His pain kept him from enjoying life—he could not even walk the dog with this wife.

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ContributorStephanie, 55Read Full Bio


Stephanie, 55, has been married to our patient contributor Andy for 19 years. She has three children from a previous marriage and two stepchildren from Andy’s first marriage. Her biggest concern has always been making sure Andy does not become too dependent on pain medication. She had trouble understanding his pain and his avoidance of social situations. He had had surgeries and other procedures before she and Andy started their relationship, but he was not pain free. She wanted to motivate Andy to be proactive about his chronic back issues. She found a neurosurgeon that ended up bringing Andy the pain relief he didn’t think was possible.

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Andy, 62, has had back pain and neck issues for as long as he can remember. He learned at a young age he had a very narrow spinal column. Not only did he need to wear a neck brace on and off as a kid, his discs would often slip leading to episodes where he was bed ridden. In his 60’s his chronic back pain was so acute he felt as if he had two separate lives. His pain kept him from enjoying life—he could not even walk the dog with this wife.

My name is Andy. I’m married to a wonderful woman, Stephanie. We’re a Brady Bunch family. I have two children, Stephanie has three. We’ve been together for long enough that I consider her children mine, and I call them son and daughter. I got into the logistics fields on the east coast many, many years ago, and I love it, and I love the whole international, domestic, and how the retail trade works. Some of my back pain and neck issues started as long as I can remember. I remember being a youngster diving off of a diving board, and learning later through that compression and having a very narrow spinal column that my disks would bulge and my neck would go out.

I wore a neck brace for a few days, and I’d be fine, right as rain. And there were times on the lower back where it was strange. You’d be doing things, and, all of sudden, your knees would go out from under you. You go to get out of bed, and your disk would slip. You’d get into a laydown position, you’d take it easy for a few days, and those would be episodes that would happen maybe twice a year. That was going on for about as long as I can remember. The effect of back pain, or chronic pain, it does affect you in so many ways that people don’t realize. So, there’s the obvious pain that you’re dealing with, and everybody deals with pain at different levels. As it goes on and on and on, I think that the strength I’m bearing with, you think it changes your personality a great deal.

You start to consider where you’re going, how long you’re going there for, what can I do to stay out of that position, and then when you’re putting yourself in positions where you’re living with that pain, you’re not in conversation or engaged as you used to be. You’re sort of quiet, and you’re trying to be a sport. People are used to you being different for a long time, and I think it grows to the point where you want to be less and less engaged, so you’re sort of living two separate lives. And your wife, in many cases, going in two cars, ‘cause you know you only wanna be there an hour, and she’s gonna wanna stay through the evening. You kinda got together to do all these neat stuff together, and all of sudden you’re not doing the neat stuff, the hiking that you were doing, the boating that you were doing, the… We were very outdoorsy, and Steph loves that, I love that, and, all of a sudden, you know, you’re getting questioned on, “Honey, can we walk down the street, or do you think we can walk at the mall?”

And, [LAUGH] you know, it gets to the point you’re being asked if you can do ridiculous things, and you’re being asked for good reasons. So, it finally got to the point that all those things affected me, and I was young, and I was worried about a future of happiness. And I went to see a neurosurgeon about seven years ago, and I had surgery on my lower back, and it was not successful. It just slowly got worse and worse and worse. Going out to dinner, ‘cause you wanna do something normal, and just being in brutal pain. I was frightened of surgery. For me to even go and do the earlier one on my back was monumental for me, then to go and see the neurosurgeons to look for a solution and the MRIs, you just had no choice.

You had to kinda get pass that fear, and try to go for it. There’s choices, and each choice has a positive list and a negative list, and you go through those lists, and you keep coming up with a solution at the time, until you’re finally let down, [by trial?] there. You make the final decision, which was to go in for the surgery that I landed up doing. This neurosurgeon that I used, he was a life-changer. He looked me in the eyes, he talked to me, he looked through endless records that I had, sent me for new MRIs, new CAT scans, and sat there and went over them in finite detail with me, pointing, showing, and explaining what he felt he could do, and telling me, literally saying, “I believe I can give you your life back.”

So, we picked the date of December first. And that date, I just wanted to do it. I wasn’t really, extremely nervous. There were times, you’re there, [INAUDIBLE] “Is this really happening?” And you go through the motions, and you’re getting wheeled, and you’re kinda saying, “I think this is real.” But I was okay. [LAUGH] I was okay. So, the surgery I had was a three-level fusion from S-1 to, uh, L-3. They say that we’re going in through the front, they say we’re going in through the back. I think the first shocking point when, and I don’t mean to digress, was right pre-surgery, the amount of people that were around you. You’re meeting your anesthesiologist, and you’re meeting, you know, the vascular surgeon, and each one has their own partner that they’re working with.

And it was remarkable the amount of people that were there. I thought that they were gonna build a city. Waking up from the surgery and the recovery, I was not prepared for any of it, the pain level that I woke with was extreme, surely didn’t match anything that I had ever, you know, felt in the past with any of the other surgeries that I’ve been through. And they get you walking, I believe, the next day. They all got me up, and had me take steps, and, you know, I was willing, wanting, you know, you just wanna do whatever it takes. I could not move my bowels, bloating started, and to the point where I looked like a cartoon character. Then they brought in specialists for that, and the length of time due to the pain, a lot of nerve pain, and-and due to the bloating, I was in the hospital for a two-week period.

It was a nightmare. I mean, you can’t go in the hospital and sleep normally. Because the pain level I was at, I would rip things off of me. I would rip IVs out of my arm, because I wanted to go to the bathroom, and I felt I could. I definitely wasn’t the easiest patient for the nurses to have, I’m sure. It’s interesting for you to ask the questions about coming home, and the pain, and how different it is after being in the hospital for that period of time. You’re told what to do, you’re told not what to do, you’re really listening carefully, ‘cause you’re really hurting and you don’t wanna hurt. So, you wanna do the smartest things to heal and stop hurting as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, you really can’t do anything, you’re just at the mercy of your caretaker. I think if I yelled “Steph” one more time, she may have killed me.

And maybe that would have been the kindest thing at the time. I was… It was brutal. You’re taking medications. One, you’re supposed to be taking medications, you’re in and out, and-and it’s impossible to move, it’s impossible to prop yourself up, you’re really trying to do these things, you’re doing what they’re telling you with your [heels?] and everything was r… very, very painful. I know that there was a lot of nerve damage that they had found, and a lot of additional hours spent trying to get cysts of nerves, and get the nerves through the canals, and I think there was a lot of scraping of, what I call, the sheath of the nerves. So, the healing period and the nerve pain was very, very long.

The whole time, I’m on the phone with work as much as I can be. I stupidly joined meetings while I’m slurring my words, and I’m not hearing. It came to the point where you went back to work, and you had to function, and you were still in chronic pain. You don’t believe that the surgery worked. The next stage of what happened, the very, very, very deep depression while trying to function. So many… So many layers of it. You went into this because you wanted to have a new life. I naively think I’m gonna go through this period of time, and [now?] my life’s back, and this is how it’s gonna be. And it wasn’t how it turned out to be. And by that time, you do not want to complain anymore, you don’t wanna… This whole lie that you’re leaving, going up into the surgery, everybody, and how you doing… Everything you’re doing is a lie.

You went in for that surgery, you were tired of the lie. It’s the mental lie, we’re not talking about pain, we’re just talking about the mental lie due to it all. To suddenly be pass the surgery, into it, going back to work, trying to justify why you were off work this long, so I should be coming back okay. So, the lie continues, ‘cause you’re so far from okay. You go home, and you’ve just gotten through that lie, and you take it out on your caregiver. You’re tired of not bending, or not picking up, or not doing the garbage, or not cleaning up after yourself, or not doing these things. And if you do them, it puts you back two weeks. You’re your worst enemy. You just do everything you know you shouldn’t do, and then you’ll get yelled at, and “Why’d you do that?

“That was stupid.” And [all because?] I’m sick of asking somebody else to do it for me. And then the caretaker, obviously, is upset because they’re already doing so much, and they don’t wanna do it longer, so stop being such an idiot. Just don’t do what you’re not supposed to do. There’s the whole layer of the depression side to believing that then this did not work, and for me this was a last go. This was the last hope of me having, uh, retirement and a life with my wife who I love so much. When you start to believe that this is not gonna be the outcome, that this is how it’s going to be forever, you think really black thoughts. I don’t know how to tell you how black your thoughts are. A couple of saviors from those black thoughts were Stephanie speaking to somebody who’d been through the surgery, or somebody who knew somebody who had been through it, who called me and said “I couldn’t face anything.

“But get through this. It’s gonna get better.” And hearing that there were other stories that it got better were lifesaving moments. And they really, really helped a great deal. And I think it’s important to say that after the first surgery, I went to, what I call a mill, where nobody knew me, and nobody paid attention, they wrote down what I was supposed to do, and I did it. It was not helpful. In this case, I was looked at, I was touched, I was talked to, I was interviewed on how I felt. They went through notes of where I was and what I was doing, and they were very helpful in explaining what the therapy was, and how I needed to change everything I do.

They challenged me, but they always made sure they didn’t push me too hard, that I would hurt myself. So that time when I started feeling better was a really wonderful time. I wish I was even clearer on it, that I knew it was happening. I was scared to death of the pain killers that I was taking for such a long extended period of time that I needed to start to cut down on the pain killers. One way or the other, I needed to do it. And I was doing it, and I wasn’t necessarily going through a great deal of pain. And I started realizing I was able to do more, I was able to stay out with Stephanie longer. People would come over, and instead of me going into the bedroom, I’d actually be able to sit at the table longer. It wasn’t this realization that, “Oh my god, I’m pain free,” because I’m not.

I just flew all over, I just came back, my back hasn’t felt this bad for the last few days. So, I’m not pain free. I just have my life back again. I can live with this type of pain. You’re slowly realizing that you’re able to do more, and do more, and do more, which lead you to go into the physical therapist more, which lead to you realizing when you didn’t listen to him, because after a period of time you don’t… you can do everything he’s telling you to do in your life and at home, but you just stop bending over the where you’re bending over, stop picking things up the way you’re picking things up, watch how you’re walking, catch yourself. So, in the beginning, you can’t think of these things. And remember to breathe at the same time, it’s such a different feeling in how you’re walking or standing.

You’re becoming really aware that these things, while I do them, I didn’t have pain in the afternoon. These shoes, if I wear them from the time I wake up to when I go to bed, and I stop wearing moccasins that have no support whatsoever in the morning, ‘cause they’re fun to wear around the house, the slippers don’t help. And you just realize all these things that are contributing to making it better. I still take pain meds, but I’m very aware of when something’s starting or when it’s coming on. I know how to stay ahead of it with a very small dose, as opposed to waiting till it gets so bad that a small dose won’t-won’t help things.

So, the pain meds are something that you need to be careful of, but it doesn’t scare me that much to take when I feel that I need to take it, because I’m able to go do what I need to do. And I’m not taking the 15 a day, it’s just not like that any longer. Managing expectations is definitely tough. I think my doctor was pretty clear that the healing period can go between here and go between there, and it’s an individual thing. He was very confidant that I would be able to be walking again, and doing activities again that would, uh, allow my [quote?] life to come back.

The expectation, in my case, was this slow drip test. It was a water torture test. It was waiting for this to happen, getting to those benchmark times of the front-end of it. Okay, I can live that I’m not on the front-end of it. I went back to work two and half months after the surgery. I couldn’t drive. I Uber’d 60 miles one way, I Uber’d 60 miles the other way. I did that for two months. It was just how it was. When I got to where I was, there were people who cared, who helped get me water. I had, what I call, a zero gravity type of a chair. I took to that location, and I had people that made sure that I got in that chair for a period of time.

People would have meetings around me in that chair. [LAUGH] I think I’m probably the worst patient in the world. You’re forced with having to handle life. If you weren’t at work, you were doing work from day one from home. Emails, and everything’s on a tablet, on a phone. I’m angry that I have to think. I’m angry that I have to answer these things. And the fact that I have to, and your caregiver may not have to do those things, may not be under that same pressure, you’re suddenly angry at your caregiver. It’s ridiculous. You’re taking it out on the people that you care most about. Always be careful about being angry with your caregiver, about how you’re feeling mentally and physically. It’s not their fault, they can’t fix it. They can’t do anything about it. You’ve gotta learn how to fix it yourself. On the other hand, you should use your caregiver for the reasons that they really should be there for. “Don’t lift this, and don’t get up off the chair stupidly.” And then, you’re-you’re mad at them, ‘cause you got up and did it yourself. I mean, there’s really no logical rhyme or reason that goes behind it. It brings out the worst of you, and I could’ve handled my post-surgical fear, that length of time in not having hope and disparity, I could’ve handled it a lot better than I did with my partner.

Sex after the back surgery, the neat thing is I still have a sex drive. That’s kinda cool. And I still love to have sex with my wife, and that’s really cool. Luckily, my wife doesn’t expect me to be a 28-year-old guy that can twist and bend and jump in 52 positions, because you’re not able to do that any longer. You have to be much more careful. The funny thing about it is sometimes you get tired of some of those great comfortable positions that you both seem to love, and you just wanna surprise her and do something else. And you may pay the price later, but that’s… [I’d say?] that you have to pay the price for doing something stupid, that’s probably the place to do it.

To be honest with you. I’m blessed that I seem to be getting better and better as the day goes. I am not pain free. I have no expectation. Let me talk expectations about being pain free. I’m not holding that up there as a dream. I wanna be able to tolerate it and handle it with a minimal amount of medication. I wanna do as much as I can, and I need to be careful. I find that if you get too brave and too bold with how good you’re feeling, it’s really easy to do dumb things that set you back to really not feeling well. You’re weakest when you’re strongest.

You better be careful. Reality is that my life is back. I’m able to go for two mile walks with Stephanie right now. I’m able to go and get into a sailboat, and sit down, and have people keep saying to me, “Are you ok?, “Are you comfortable? Here’s a pillow.” And I can just say, “I’m fine.” I’m fine. Am I pain free? No, I am fine. When I got on a regular bike, and realized that it wasn’t the looking up like it used to be, it was the leaning over to the handle bars. I’m supposed to stand with my shoulder blades touching each other. You can’t lean over. I’m not gonna get on a bike again. So, that recumbent bike is a lifesaver for me, and I love going around in it.

It makes me feel better. I’m blessed and I’m happy, and I have grandchildren coming, and I feel that I have a whole life ahead of me. I’m psyched about what’s to come, and I still believe I have a long road ahead of me. I just need to do it smartly.

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