Julie, 45 “Even the Easy Ones Are Not!”

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ContributorJulie, 45Read Full Bio


Julie, 45, is married with three boys ages 11, 9 and 6. In her late 20s Julie would run every morning to the beach. Looking back, she thinks she pushed her body too far. After her third pregnancy she began to feel significant lower back pain. She was adjusted by a chiropractor and felt better for about a year. Then the pain got worse and stayed longer. An MRI of Julie’s spine showed she had a herniated disc which was pinching a nerve L3/4. The doctor said surgery was the best and most “obvious” solution. It made sense to her, so she filed paperwork with her insurance. When she was finally cleared for surgery she was scared and questioned herself, but she ultimately decided she could not live like this.

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ContributorDr. Robert G. Watkins IV, MD, Orthopedic SurgeonRead Full Bio


Robert Watkins IV, M.D., is co-director of Marina Spine Center and Chairman of the Surgery Department at Marina Del Rey Hospital. Dr. Watkins is a board-certified orthopedic spine surgeon, specializing in minimally invasive spine surgery, computer-assisted surgery, spinal-deformity treatment, and disc replacement. Dr. Watkins earned his medical degree at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine and completed his residency in orthopedic surgery at the L.A. County/USC General Hospital. He then worked as a traveling fellow in Europe, specializing in artificial-disc replacement and scoliosis surgery. Over the past decade, he has lectured on spine issues to doctors, patient groups, athletic trainers, and physical therapists; led research teams that have published studies; and taught surgeons on specialized techniques. He is the spine consultant to many Los Angeles sports teams, and has treated professional, college, and high school athletes from all over the country.

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Julie, 45, is married with three boys ages 11, 9 and 6. In her late 20s Julie would run every morning to the beach. Looking back, she thinks she pushed her body too far. After her third pregnancy she began to feel significant lower back pain. She was adjusted by a chiropractor and felt better for about a year. Then the pain got worse and stayed longer. An MRI of Julie’s spine showed she had a herniated disc which was pinching a nerve L3/4. The doctor said surgery was the best and most “obvious” solution. It made sense to her, so she filed paperwork with her insurance. When she was finally cleared for surgery she was scared and questioned herself, but she ultimately decided she could not live like this.

I'm Julie. I'm 45 years old. I live in Los Angeles. I'm married. I have three boys. And I used to work full time in advertising, in production, and I've kind of worked less and less since I've had kids. I used to run every morning, go down to the beach and I'd go run for a couple miles a day, and I'd get to a point when I'd push myself a little too far. That was probably the beginning of feeling a little lower back pain. I was probably in my late 20s. But I'd just sort of scale it back. I'd buy some new tennis shoes, it would go away. It was never anything that I had to deal with. With my pregnancies I was fine. I never had any trouble. And after I had my first-my first son I was fine, second son I was fine.

After I had my third son, I think it was carrying him and dealing with all that, I would get this pain in my lower back, and it shifted between my left or my right. But the first time I had it, I went to the chiropractor and he adjusted me, and it didn't come back at all for about a year, and then I think it switched sides, so it went from lower right to lower left. And same thing, I went about a year later, I had one adjustment, it went away, it was gone, then I went back the next year. So it was on year five that I had a really bad pain, and I thought oh, I'll just go and get it adjusted, and my chiropractor said-same guy I'd been going to every time said this is gonna take a few times, this one.

Just getting up in the morning and just starting your day, and normally I'd get up and I'd struggle into the kitchen to get some coffee, but it's just-the first step out of bed, it just is so hard to take the next one and the next one, even just to get the coffee, and then I still have to make breakfast and get the kids dressed and get them to school. And no matter what you take, it doesn't help. I kind of kept seeing him through September, October, November. I finally started to feel better, and then I he told me just to walk on flat surfaces, not do too much exercising, try not to lift anything too much.

And it just it seemed like it was at bay, and then about February, I was on a field trip, and just carrying stuff around, nothing too major, but I felt it, and I made an appointment to see my chiropractor that night, and by the time I got there, I couldn't even walk, I couldn't take another step it hurt so badly. And then I got this pain in my leg that was just pulsating right at my knee. And I think I asked him what I could do, the chiropractor, and he said, oh, you need to hang upside down. And at that point, I went I need to call a doctor and actually see what's going on inside my body.

And there's some things that the doctors would prescribe that were really strong painkillers, and sometimes that would help you sleep for a couple of hours. But it was something I didn't want to take during the day, and so sometimes I'd take it right before bed, and then I'd sleep for a couple of hours, but then you have tossing and turning all night, and I didn't want to take it again too late, because I had, you know, to drive the kids to school in the morning. And yeah, it's like a vicious cycle. I felt like there was nothing comfortable. Like, standing, sitting, laying, nothing was comfortable. Every now and then, someone would tell you a good story or you'd get into a good conversation and you'd forget about it. The conversation would end and you'd be right back to the pain, and it was like, oh, yeah, there it is, it's still there. [LAUGH]

But for me, it was always sort of the same, no matter what I did. It was hard to think sometimes. It's hard to-to do your normal daily routine. It just made me slower to do everything, and I remember I would go to the Grove, and they give you that parking ticket, and I would lose that parking ticket, 'cause I couldn't remember where I put it. Like, I was just sort of not clearheaded at all. My son's teacher had had back surgery, and so I contacted her and she gave me a referral, and I went to go see him. And they gave me an X-ray and they said, you know, basically you can't see what's going on with-you can just see the bones on the X-ray, so they said you need to go do an MRI.

And I think I came back a couple days later and did the MRI. I had a disc that was broken, and just a piece of it was sitting on my nerve, of the L3, which runs directly to my knee where I was having the pain. And at this time, my back had stopped hurting. It was just my leg that hurt. It just killed. So it was really hard to just step. So once he'd seen that, he said this is a pretty obvious thing to do. I mean, you can do the shots to your back, but really, for this, you just need to go in and clip off the area that's sitting on the nerve and take it out. I could see what he was talking about, and it's-it was pretty clear to me.

The MRI is so thorough, you can see all of the nerves, and I could see there was nothing on anywhere else, and that's why exactly where i-it was, and it's-and he showed me exactly where that nerve goes to, and that's exactly where I had my throbbing pain, so it all made sense. And we went ahead to go file for the insurance to do the surgery. So usually you have to wait, and it took two months for them to come back, and in that time, I tried going to physical therapy, actually, and worked on my core and did some balance exercises, because my balance was really off from my leg being so sore.

You know, it's so mental, because you go through this and you just want it to end so badly, but then once they actually call you and say, okay, the insurance is clear, then you're like, I'm fine, I don't need to do this. I don't need to have surgery. [LAUGH] I don't want to open my back.

And then for the surgery, when the surgery actually happened, I had to be there really early. There was, like, one security guard roaming around, and upstairs, the surgery center is all bustling, they're all in there, waiting and ready to go. And I got in my scrubs, and they got me all ready for the surgery. I was strapped down to the cold table. And everyone was really nice. The anesthesiologist came in with some jokes, and I remember I asked him how he stops the medicine going, and he said I stop putting quarters in the meter.

It's just like a blur. You wake up and it's so strange, 'cause you can't really move, and you want to try and talk, but you really can't, and you're really stiff and your body is so numb, and it took awhile for everything to kind of-the feeling to come back. The biggest surprise was how I felt instantly better. It was so quick. The pain was gone. The only thing that I still have a little bit of is a little bit of numbness in my knee. I mean, the pain was just instantly gone. I had a laminectomy. I woke up, I was there probably a total of eight hours.

My husband came and picked me up. He was there for a few hours. They brought me down in the wheelchair to the car, and I got in. I remember being so uncomfortable in this car, and I was fussing with the back and the front, and, you know, the seat belt. [LAUGH] It was just-and then getting from the car to my house was one foot in front of the other and straight to the bed, and then if I needed to go to the bathroom, I could do that, but that was about it for about two or three days. After the numbness wore off, after the surgery, when I was still in the surgery center, the pain starts.

The nurses were there to give me a little bit of medicine so I could get home, and they prescribed a bunch of medicines beforehand that I filled, so I had those at home. And I remember them saying stay on top of your pain, and it really does help, 'cause if I did fall asleep and I-it had been a longer amount of time, I would be in more pain. The first couple of days, I could barely move, and walking was hard, and doing anything was hard. And then after about three or four days, I felt like every day I got better, and after about 10 days, I think my husband drove me, I went to my son's baseball game, so I was out for an hour. But I was exhausted too, just from that one little outing.

And I couldn't drive for two weeks, but even then all I did was take the kids to school and pick them up, and that was it. So I had to have help. Somebody came in and helped me do laundry and take care of the house, and I had friends bring over dinner every night for about two weeks, which was really nice.

After surgery, I remember the doctor said don't do physical therapy for six weeks. I can't remember what it was. But I didn't feel like I was ready at six weeks, and I just started walking about then. And I would walk on flat surfaces, and I was a runner for so long, so walking is so boring to me. But it was something that I felt like it helped me just sort of get my stamina back, and I felt better about just being outside and moving.

But also I just felt like that was the first step for me, and I remember talking to my doctor about it. He was like, listen to your body and make sure that you're ready. And so I started physical therapy just after-I think it was after about two and a half months, and my physical therapist was really great, and she didn't push too hard. I think she knew I was just really babying myself. And I always was, like, oh, my back is so sore. It was always the day after I do physical therapy. And so I tried to do my appointments that they were far enough apart that they weren't right next to each other, 'cause I felt like that would really be a double whammy. But I felt like I did physical therapy for about four months, I think, and every month I felt like there was a difference.

After you have surgery, you notice what your body is doing so much more than before, or even now that it's been a little while, 'cause I just didn't want to twist. That was part of it. So, you know, I couldn't do much at all, and with my three kids, they'd say, "Will you do this?" and I'd say, no, you guys have got to do it. You've got to pick it up. It was a lot of sitting down, and I read a lot of books. I was lucky, and m-my husband was great. He really stepped up with the kids, and he would talk to them about, like, be careful with Mommy, 'cause I have three boys, so they're really, I mean, loving and rough and tumble at the same time.

My good friend, Megan, was great, 'cause she said, you know, we're just gonna bring you dinner. So she organized a dinner on a loop for a week or two, and it was great, 'cause people would just show up at 5:00 with food. So it was great to have somebody do whatever was just needed to keep things going, and she could bring me water or help me whatever I needed too. It was just nice to have a person there for the first week, to just help run the house and take care of me. But going in knowing that I had to decrease my level of activity afterwards for awhile is hard, 'cause you think you're just gonna be able to go back to normal, but it's not that way.
JULIE: And it lasts for longer probably than you think it will. I mean, I will say every week I did feel more active, but it takes a long time to get back in the swing of it. But now that I'm almost a year in, I feel like I still am not back to normal, but I'm way closer than I was, you know, last month, the month before that, and especially closer the day of the surgery. I do feel stronger. It's just there's part of my back exactly where I had the surgery that just feels a little weaker than it used to, and that's why I still do the physical therapy exercises and stuff, to strengthen my core.

So many people along the way say, oh, you don't want to have back surgery. You don't want to do it. Don't open up the spine, it's really bad. So it plays with your mind. I tried not to go on the Internet too much, because you read the horror stories about people that are messed up, and there's a basketball coach at school who had a really bad experience, and he's walking around with a brace saying don't do it. So it's a hard thing to actually say, you know, just do it. But walking around too, it's, like, you can't live that way either. I thought I cannot live the rest of my life like this. You just have to listen to your body, 'cause your body's tired. I just felt like I couldn't push it too much. That's why I read a lot of books. I read every book that was out. [LAUGH]

It was the one thing I felt like I was doing something, and I would just relax. I would sit down in a place that I felt comfortable, sometimes it was just sitting up like this, sometimes it was with my feet up. It's such a rough road, and I feel like it's really individual. Some people are really afraid of surgery. Some people would rather live with that pain. I think it helps to talk to people who have gone through it, because there are so many options out there, and I feel like there's going to be more. I know a lady, a realtor who had the same surgery I had back in 1972, I think it was, and she was in the hospital for 13 days. I was there for eight hours. So it's changed so much.

I do feel like it helps to talk to people and also just see how you feel about your doctor. It's like going on an interview. You know, if you go and you don't like them, go somewhere else, or if you go and you really like them, you can still get a second opinion. I think whatever you do that feels right is the most important thing. It has to feel right for you.

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