Being prepared

This morning I discovered, much to my surprise, that I had scored a small victory!

Nothing earth-shattering and nothing that will matter in the very least to anyone.

The two surgeries I had on my spine, in 2007 caused nerve damage that affected my right leg. My right ankle is permanently a bit “unreliable”.

And for the past 13 years, when I get dressed, inevitably in a pair of jeans, I have had to lean down and grab my right leg to hook it over and into the jeans leg.

Today I realized that my leg up could get up and in all by itself! I did say it wasn’t earth-shattering.

The only reason I mention it is because it got me thinking.


It’s often bad news when I think too much, but this is different.


We talk about it all the time. Think how many things in life you get prepared for:

Religious rites of passage, marriage, childbearing, parenthood, job interviews, long trips, hurricanes, earthquakes, I know everyone can come up with all sorts of things they had to be “prepared” for.

Thinking back, I ask myself, “how is it that I allowed someone to cut open my body, from stem to stern, remove a considerable part of my spine and insert a large foreign body into it, without any sort of preparation at all?” Oh yes, blood tests and EKG, all that, but no-one even thought to ask me if I needed any mental preparation for it.

Did I miss something? I’m sure I did not. Maybe they were afraid I would chicken out and run away.


At the time, I couldn’t even walk fast.

But I had been reasonably tall and I always stood straight.

After the surgery, I had lost almost 2 inches and although my doctor told me I should keep doing the exercise to straighten my back, he wasn’t there to witness what an impossibility that was.

Insurance paid for a few weeks of physical therapy which maybe helped my legs a bit, but everything still hurt and eventually I sort of figured out by myself how to move around and live a bit differently.


Although I was told the nerves regenerate, I never saw any evidence that mine did. I was constantly rotating my right foot and doing the recommended exercises, to no avail. So I just got used to pulling my leg into place with my right hand.

This morning, I’m not sure what made me think something was different. I had guided my foot as usual and then I thought, “hang on, let’s try that again, unassisted.” The foot came up, the knee bent, the leg rotated.

So what made this happen and why couldn’t it have been made to happen long ago?

When you have something like a spinal fusion, it’s important to keep the rest of your body in some sort of decent shape to support the spine.

As a kid, I was always wanting to lose weight and modify my appearance, so exercise was part of my routine.

Panther used to help me with my hour-long routine, a lot of which involved lying on the floor.

He would arrive to climb inside my sweatshirt, then he sat by my shoulder as I did leg lifts till I was blue in the face.

But with the “thing” in my back, lying on the floor, nah.

The bending, that’s no problem, given the number of cat litters in the house and the fact that the cats demand they be clean at all times.

So, for a bit of extra exercise, I got a stationary bike.

Forget any other kind, as I would simply fall off.

It’s fine, I pedal along reading now, as I seem to have given up watching anything these days.

I suppose I decided my legs needed help, so I just started stretching them. Not for any particular reason other than wanting to keep them going.

So it was a big surprise to discover I had actually, sort of “fixed” something.

And this goes back to preparedness. Maybe other people have very different experiences. I can only speak for myself.

The specialist I consulted was a well-thought of surgeon at the University of Washington. He was charming, kind and compassionate and I think I was in good hands, but in retrospect I can see how a little preparation would not have been a waste.

It would have been a help to know that I was likely to shrink and that there was a chance I would never stand straight again. It would have been a help to be told about pain management and the complications that can occur.

When I woke, I was on a morphine drip which soon sent me into orbit around Mars, having all sorts of nightmarish, end-of-the-world adventures. Sometimes I was vaguely conscious, enough to grasp that there were people around that I was convinced I knew but didn’t, then I concluded that my surgeon was a murderer of cats and that he had killed cats in order to use cat gut in my spine!

(Not likely. He was deathly allergic to cats. When I went to see him I could only get dressed 2 minutes before leaving the house, otherwise he would sneeze.)

My friend Denise came to see me when I was brought to my room and told the nurse “no, that’s not Carolyn.” Apparently I had spent half of the some 8 hours of surgery standing on my head so that my face swelled up like a tomato about to burst. She could not persuade me that my cat Thimphu had not died. And I said abominable things.

For 3 days I was in that strange, neither here nor there sort of existence and I was quite sure I had died. Then one day I woke up wondering if maybe I was alive, and the phone rang. It was only after I spoke to a friend at the other end that I was convinced I was still on the right planet.

No-one can predict how a person will react to morphine and whether being briefed of the possibilities would have helped, I can’t say, but I think in the weeks after, it may have because the nightmares stayed with me for quite some time, the feeling of something really strange going on.

One of the nightmares had involved volcanoes. Mt Rainier was only 45-odd miles from my house. I still think it was part of the reason I was finally “done” with Washington.

People with families have some sort of support system. People who live alone, not so much. Of course I had kind friends that helped and I was very grateful, but you want to be independent, to not be a nuisance to your friends.

There ought to be a better support system for people undergoing life-changing surgeries. Maybe spinal fusion is not serious enough to be so categorized?

I really wanted to go back to work after my surgery. I would love to have completed 40 years with the company, but things were getting more and more difficult with staff shortages and all manner of other problems. If I didn’t go back, the company had to replace me. If I did, they would have the equivalent of half a person. It wasn’t right, so I retired.

That’s when I decided what a great idea it would be to move again and into an enormous house that I would fill with cats.

That’s when I needed someone to step in and say “WAIT A MINUTE!”

But they didn’t and now here I am, so it was meant to be, obviously.

And now my leg can put itself into a pair of jeans. We celebrate small victories.

2 thoughts on “Being prepared

  1. That is wondeful C Smith! All that time on oxycotin numbed you into thinking it would be like tgat forever! Glad to see baby steps are working for you and hope your pain is manageable now!

  2. I’m ecstatic for you in your not small at all accomplishment! I started having to lift my left leg as I entered my car to sit in the driver’s seat many years ago, at least 20 years before I finally gave in and allowed the spinal fusion to be done. I don’t think I was ever told that the nerves would regenerate, so this is really encouraging for me to hear. I don’t mind having to do this one thing, but I do hate the unsteadiness in both feet and legs when walking now. Oh, and I am now 2 inches shorter than before my surgery, too!

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