I had surgery to correct a curvature of my spine on July 26, 2001.
Every year since, when I fill out a new calendar in January with upcoming birthdays, wedding anniversaries, etc., I mark the anniversary of July 26th. (Update in May 2011: I no longer do this.) A few days ago I noticed the upcoming date and decided that this year I wanted to tell my story. Why? Because three years ago, when I was trying to decide whether I was going to have corrective surgery or not, I did a lot of research online. I read descriptions about what the surgery would entail, what I should expect, how bad the spinal curve had to be before someone elects to have surgery, and I was even able to find a few personal stories. I wanted more of those personal stories. It’s nice to know the technical stuff, but what people contemplating this surgery really want to know is, “How is this going to affect me?”
I wish I had taken notes at the time I was actually going through it, but I can remember enough about the experience to make it pretty informative. So if anyone is interested in scoliosis, corrective surgery, steel rods (or if you’re just curious in general)…read on.
What is scoliosis?
There are multiple sites online where you can read about scoliosis. The quick answer: most cases develop in adolescence, although some people are born with it. Most cases occur in girls, but the reason for this is unknown. If scoliosis is caught early enough, some people choose to wear a back brace (it stops the curve from advancing, but doesn’t correct it); however, once the curve is past a certain point, a brace wouldn’t do any good. Some people elect to have corrective spinal fusion surgery, while others decide to just live with it, depending on how bad the curve is. I think it also tends to occur more frequently if you have a history of scoliosis in your family. In my case, my mom’s half-brother wore a back brace for a few years when he was growing up, but he’s the only person on either side of my family that we know of.
My curve was discovered initially because someone noticed that a rib in my chest stuck out farther than it should. My upper spine curves toward the right, and the force of that curve puts pressure on the ribs of the opposite side of my body (in this case, my front-left ribs). When I was about 13, my mom noticed that my rib stuck out, and I could tell she was scared — all she could feel was the hump, and she didn’t know it was one of my ribs.
My parents took me to the doctor. The doctor examined the hump while I was lying on the examination table, then she had me stand up and bend over from the waist. As anyone with scoliosis can tell you (or anyone who has had this test in school can verify), this is a quick way to see whether your spine is not growing the way it should. The diagnosis was quick. She explained to us what it was and referred me to a specialist at the University of Virginia Medical Center.
I had x-rays taken, and I went back for periodic checkups for several years to see if the curve was progressing. The specialist told my parents that my curve was bad enough that he recommended I have surgery, but it wasn’t SO bad that he would tell us it had to be done. In other words, it was our (my) decision. Life went on. My parents decided to ignore it, they later separated, I left for college, and I started working.
I had been working for the same employer for almost three years when I decided to have the corrective surgery. I was able to take short-term disability for six weeks, fully paid. Other than paying a $100 deductible for my hospital room, my health insurance covered 100% of the surgery, including the 5-6 days that I spent in the hospital afterward.
In preparation for the surgery I had blood collected on two different occasions; this was so my own blood could be returned to me later to make up for whatever I lost during the surgery. (Side note: I had never been admitted to a hospital before in my life. I was born at home, no emergency room visits, no broken bones, etc. I’ve also never been admitted to a hospital since.)
A spinal curve isn’t something that you’re ever NOT aware of. Pre-surgery, the curve of my spine made my right shoulder blade stick out a lot farther than the one on my left. This is one of the most obvious ways to tell if a person has scoliosis — the cosmetic factor. I avoided wearing fitted shirts that accentuated my shoulder blade. I also, of course, avoided bathing suits that exposed my back.
I never experienced a ton of pain before the surgery, other than just general discomfort, which probably played a big role in not getting the surgery done when I was younger (I was 21 when I had it done). However, like I said, I was always aware of it. I could always tell that I was crooked. One of the biggest factors in my decision to have the surgery was that I didn’t want to regret not having it done; I didn’t want another 20 years to go by and wish that I would have gotten it over with. The younger you are when you have the surgery, the better the results, and the healing time is much faster since the spine is more flexible.
Part 2: Surgery and the Hospital