Thaddeus, 66 “Too Many to Count”

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ContributorThaddeus, 65Read Full Bio


Living in Hawaii at the age of 21, Thaddeus attributes his back problems to a head on drunk driver traffic accident he was in after a day of surfing. He lived with chronic back pain for years and “managed” it by taken way too many pain pills, an addiction that took him in and out of rehab four times. Since 1999, he has had seven back surgeries with only his last, a lumbar fusion finally bringing him the relief he had desperately sought for years. He is now free of pain medication and slowly getting back to work as marine electrician.

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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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Living in Hawaii at the age of 21, Thaddeus attributes his back problems to a head on drunk driver traffic accident he was in after a day of surfing. He lived with chronic back pain for years and “managed” it by taken way too many pain pills, an addiction that took him in and out of rehab four times. Since 1999, he has had seven back surgeries with only his last, a lumbar fusion finally bringing him the relief he had desperately sought for years. He is now free of pain medication and slowly getting back to work as marine electrician.

My name's Thaddeus. I'm 65 years old. I'll be 66 at the end of this month. I've had seven back surgeries since 1999. I'm a marine electrician, which means I work on boats - pleasure craft, private boats, yachts, runabouts, power sail, whatever. And I've been in the industry for about 40 years. That was hard on my back. Crawling around in bilges and engine rooms all my life, lifting batteries and engines and just the wear and tear.

I was around 21 when I first moved to Hawaii, and, uh, we were just living the life, you know, h-footloose and fancy free. No real responsibilities. No family. No kids. We worked in restaurants, yardwork, hauling whatever. Rock and gravel. And when the surf came up, we dropped everything and went surfing.

My back problems started in my early 20s when I was in a car accident, and I was in Maui at the time, and we were coming back from surfing and it was right around sunset time and we went around this turn and this drunk driver came and hit us right-it was a glancing blow, so it hit the left front part of the car. So, I went flying across. Hit my back. My back was badly bruised and contused. Black and blue. Really bad. And I healed from that really rapidly because of my young age, and I was a surfer. But when I got into my mid-30s, I started getting sciatica down my right side from a bulging disc in my low back that was probably caused from the trauma of the car accident. If you've never had it, it is very painful. You can't sit still because you get this pinch going down your leg. It's really annoying.

THADDEUS JONES V4 [00:01:39]
THADDEUS: Sometimes, standing up is the only place that's really takes the pressure off the nerve, and it's very debilitating. It's chronic pain. It hurts. Takes your mind off of other things, you know, because you're just trying to deal with it, get comfortable. Sleeping at night is difficult with it, and so you start using pain pills and things of that nature to try to combat it. I went to chiropractic treatment for my sciatica, and through the treatments of this special traction table, they were managed to reduce the inflammation of the disc.

The bulge was tucked back in a little bit through the traction and I got a lot of relief from that, and I think for about 15 years-the chiropractic kept me out from surgery, but it finally got so bad because I have something also called degenerative disc disease which is just bad luck. It's just a breakdown of your discs, and I finally ended up going to a back surgeon and had a MRI done and found out that my lumbar spine was basically bone on bone.

There was no more disc. It was very, very thin and degenerative. So, that's when we made the decision to go and have this fusion and laminotomy, all those other less-invasive surgeries weren't an option for me. The pain was what brought me to the surgeon, because it was just more and more and more debilitating. Now it was not only on one side, it was on both sides, and shooting down the backs of my legs, and it was just excruciating at times, you know, really bad.

I couldn't work. I couldn't concentrate. The pain is debilitating, and it just doesn't go away. You can't find a place that your can get relief. I mean, it really makes you wonder what are you gonna do to get better, you know? I still got a lot of life left in me, and your quality of life is just terrible. It really goes downhill a lot, you know, and it's hard for the family. It's hard for your spouses, your parents and brothers and sisters and everybody seeing you in pain like it's really emotional. Well, I met this doctor through another doctor who had fixed my shoulders.

I really like the guy's g-great bedside manner. He was a great surgeon. We did all tests - CT scans, MRIs, X-rays, consultations with him over a couple month period and finally determined that my option was either leave it alone and just live in chronic pain, or get it fixed. Made the decision to do that, and that was in November of 2007.

It was a pretty big operation. It was, like, over four hours. The 360 is what they call it in the doctor terminology, where they do an abdominal approach to get at your spine from the interior side to take out all the bad disc material, and then they put two bone grafts in there from the front interior side. Then, they turn you over on your back and open you up and put in all the hardware - the screws and the rods. That's what kinda makes it all rigid. It's like a cage. And then they'd flip you back over on your back, and that's how you wake up.

That's why they call it a 360, 'cause you make a complete circle. It's called a two-level lumbar fusion with instrumentation. L4/5 and L5/S1. That's the technical name of the operation. They informed me very completely about what the procedure was gonna take, how they were gonna do it, about how long it was gonna take. The only thing they really didn't tell me was what the pain level would be in recovery. It was just unbelievably off the chart, the pain. When I came out of anesthesia and I was in the recovery room, the pain was like, oh, my God.

It was just, you know, screaming kind of pain, and as soon as you wake up, they give you more meds, you know, Dilaudid, heavy-duty painkillers, and then you're-immediately out again. I had some complications with this first surgery. I lost some use of my right leg. I don't know why that was. I had been bone-on-bone and I suffered some nerve damage in my sciatic nerve on my right side, and my leg postop, about a year and a half. I noticed that my leg had withered away because it had atrophy, and I still had a lot of pain in my low back that never really went away.

So, that's when they started giving me the oral pain medication, Norco. About two weeks after my, surgery I developed a seroma in my wound in my back. A seroma is like a collection of fluid - blood and pus. It's like a boil almost. They readmitted me to the hospital to have what's called an incision and drainage, where they go in and they actually open up your wound track and do what's called a surgical lavage, which is a pressure washer with antibiotic to clean out the wound track, 'cause if I got an infection in my hardware, they woulda had to remove all the hardware.

And this was something that I had to go through that doesn't happen to a lot of people. I was in the hospital for another three days after that. The pain from that was almost as worse as the pain from the first surgery. It was kinda depressing, too, because it's one thing after another. Then they just starting giving me the pain meds once I went home, and you take two every four to six hours, and you feel comfortable. And pretty soon you heal and you get back on your feet, but they just kept giving them to me, and before you know it, I was addicted. Anybody could be, 'cause over a period of about four years I took them every day.

It’s what we call, "You're on the ropes." You know, you run out, you gotta wait for your next prescription to get filled, and sometimes your insurance won't fill it right away and you're starting to come down or detox, which is really a horrible experience. Then, about two years later, I had a revision done on my first surgery. I was complaining of pain. It was called pedicle pain. A pedicle is a part of your vertebrae where they put the screws into. They're called pedicle screws. And it was just chronic pain, and they couldn't figure out what was wrong with me, so they decided to pull the hardware out.

At this time, the fusion had fused solid so that the bone wasn't gonna move around, and when they did that, they also went in and did a laminectomy on all my nerve roots going out to make sure that there was no impingement or scar tissue or anything like that, and then after that, more medication for another couple of years. Fast-forward to, let's see, 2013. The vertebrae above my fusion were now breaking down, and that's one problem with lumbar fusions is when you fuse the lower levels, the upper levels tend to break down because they're now taking the wear and tear that the ones below it used to take, and now it's, like, really intense pain shooting down the backs of my legs, trouble walking, trouble sitting still for any lengths of time.

Sleeping is hard, but of course I had my pain meds which kinda just masked everything, you know? It didn't correct anything, it just kept me comfortable, but I was getting addicted more and more every day. If you take long-term narcotics, you know, you dull your brain, you're kinda not as sharp as you normally were, and if you drink any alcohol with it, of course, that intensifies the effects. Like, wine at dinner and stuff like that, and it starts to become a crutch. I would take 'em just to get high on 'em, basically, [LAUGH] you know, and when you have an unlimited supply and it's cheap - it was like 10 dollars for 90 tablets, you know, every 10 days.

I must have taken about 20,000 tablets over a four year period, I calculate, and I had to go through detox professionally for an opioid addiction. And I realized that I needed professional help to get off of that, and I found an addiction doctor at a walk-in clinic right near my house, and I went in and I basically turned myself in. I said, "I need help," and he put me on this medication called Suboxone, which is a drug that prevents withdrawal symptoms, and it's very effective for narcotic withdrawal people.

I started having more of the same sciatica and shooting pain from a different nerve center above my fusion. I went back to my first surgeon. He wanted to do a two-level fusion on me, and so we went and got a second opinion from two other doctors-high profile doctors, and he said, "No. I think we could do this without a fusion. We can do a laminectomy or a laminotomy." So we loved that diagnosis, and so we went with this gentleman up in Los Angeles that done a lot of high-profile athletes and was very well-known in the industry, and he did my first laminectomy in 2013, October.

I had very good results. Almost instant relief. I think they just did a better job and understood what was going on with me. I was in the hospital overnight, went home the next day, and within about two weeks I was feeling great. I was off the pain meds. He wanted me to go to physical therapy at that point about four months postop. I started going to physical therapy to develop my core, and also they do a lot of manipulating with you. They stretch you, and about four months past the surgery, I started getting the shooting pains down my leg again, really bad. Horrible. Debilitating.

I couldn't even hardly get out of bed. Due to the physical therapy, at least my surgeon surmises that a disk fragment broke loose and free-floated and got wedged between the nerve and the bone, and they had to go back in there and do a revision on that, and they fixed me up and I woke up pain-free except for the surgical pain. I recovered from that, but we knew that eventually I was gonna have to have another fusion.

Once I healed from that, four or five months later I started getting these shooting pains down my back again, and I dreaded having this fusion 'cause I'd had one before in '07 and I knew what it was gonna be like, and when he said, "It looks like two-level but we're gonna have to do three-level," and I was going, "Oh, my God. What? Three-level fusion with instrumentation?" But I had to get it done. We did this three-level lumbar fusion, again with the instrumentation, and that was a horrible experience [LAUGH] that I had to go through because I was spent four days in the hospital.

think the operation was about five to six hours, and this particular operation, they did what's called a lateral approach on me to get to the vertebra, as opposed to the abdominal one. They came in here through my rib cage, and got to my vertebra and they took all the old material out and they put in these spacers. Instead of a bone graft, they use a hard plastic insert. The surgical pain was just absolutely intense. It was so strong that I was going through the pain pills, like, twice as fast as I should have.

You know, my wife was working. She would make me a lunch and pack it in a cooler next side to the bed. A sandwich or a drink or some hard-boiled egg or something, I just lay in bed and watch TV all day and take my meds. It's very hard. It's very debilitating. It's depressing, and it's hard to wrap your head around it, and one of the problems was getting more medication. They changed the laws recently for narcotic use to try to control the abuse.

You used to be able to get a prescription and then when you run out, you could just have the doctor call the pharmacy and refill it over the phone. Now you have actually have to have a hard copy script for narcotics each time you get them, and I would call the my surgeon's office and explain what was going on. Well, it happened that my daughter lives near there, and they sent down another prescription for some really strong stuff - Dilaudid in a tablet form, and they also gave me a Fenactol patch which you put on your skin.

So, those two combinations - the pills and the patch - really kept me comfortable, and once you're comfortable, you start healing. You're not depressed and you're not fighting it and your wife isn't worried. Slowly I just started getting better and better and better, but I really had some pain management issues for about six weeks postop, and it was all surgical pain. I didn't have any more shooting pain down my back. All my symptoms were gone. I just started building up my endurance, and now I'm about, well, I've been walking up to two to three miles a day for every day, and I feel great. I don't have any pain.

Well, my caregiver - my wife - thank God. Bless her. She would take care of me. She would feed me, make lunch for me when she had to go to work. The part that was really hard on her was seeing me in so much pain. It was really hard on her because there's just nothing you can do for the patient other than to just try and keep them comfortable. I just had to go through the healing process, and because of the pain management - which was really off-the-wall - I was doped up all of the time and it would drive her crazy, you know, trying to deal with me being laid up and being doped up and angry and cranky and short-tempered.

It takes a lot to [LAUGH] take care somebody like that, you know? I'm starting to ease back into my work load. I'll probably just only go back to work part-time. When you're in back pain, flying on airplanes in coach can be [LAUGH] really challenging sometimes. Even just going through security and all that stuff. But now I'm feeling much better. I'm also a very avid scuba diver, and this has precluded me from diving for about, gosh, over year and a half I haven't been in the water, but I just got cleared to go back to dive in January.

I even did a five mile walk about 10, 15 days ago, and I felt really good after that. So, hiking is something I wanna pursue and, uh, my sport of diving, uh, is what I'm trying to get back into doing. If I had to run across this crosswalk or something, I can do that, but as far running any distant, like, a mile or jogging or anything, nah. Running is just not my game. But this walking has helped my muscles in my legs a lot, especially my bad leg - my withered leg.

I've been trying to concentrate on building up this muscle group in here. Plus, life is good right now. I'm feeling happy and I'm pain-free, and I’m just thrilled that I ended up where I ended up, you know? They did a bang up job. I'm living proof that my three-level lumbar fusion has been a great success. My quality of life is much, much, much improved. I can walk around. I'm pain-free. I've lost 20 pounds just from walking and changing my diet a little bit.

I think that if you get it done right, I think there's a lot of hope at the end of the tunnel for people that are considering this procedure. Find the best surgeon you can. Go to the very best in the world that you can find is what my recommendation would be.

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