Six Years of Freedom

It has been SIX YEARS since my full fusion. Six. Whole. Years. I can't believe it! While the first year of recovery felt like it was moving in slow motion, the last five have been like a blink. Since the last time I updated my blog we have adopted another baby boy! I still get my emails and love hearing from you all as you are on various points along the surgery journey. I have to reiterate, at six years, I am still incredibly happy I had the surgery.

As I think about the challenges I've faced over my life, especially concerning my spine, I am so thankful for the positive outcome I've had post fusion. I feel like my surgery gave me a new life, one that didn't seem possible for a very long time.

The most frequent question I get in emails is whether or not I am still doing well, and whether I'm still happy I had the surgery. The answer to both questions is a resounding YES. In fact, I am continuing to see improvement in my back and grow stronger every year. I would not have been able to raise children if I hadn't had the surgery, and even though being fused can pose large challenges, overall those challenges are well worth the freedom being fused has given me.

I am very active, and have really enjoyed using yoga modified for scoliosis fusion to build strength and flex back into my body. Can you believe I can move like this even though I have 2 rods and 26 screws down my back?
 I would never have thought movements like this would be possible for me when I made the decision to have the surgery. I think one of the most difficult things about approaching the surgery is envisioning how life will be afterwards. It's overwhelming and terrifying. But the pain, increasing curves and general discomfort were like a prod moving me towards a solution that while horrifying was actually a conduit to a new life, free from the impending doom of crushed lungs and destroyed nerves.

That being said, I still struggle with residual nerve pain in my left leg, and there are definite limitations to how my body can move, and how active it can be before I feel fatigue. The surgery is not a magical cure, nor a perfect solution. I don't want anyone to think that because my life now is so much better than it was before I had the surgery, that it is easy, perfect, or pain free. However, there are many days that I forget that I am fused. I don't think about it constantly (which is why I forget to update my blog) and I don't feel like I am suffering. I have limitations that I have accepted that are a part of who I am. I have a handicap that I work around, and have to consider. But as I have said often in my previous posts, once I accepted that I DID have those limitations, I was able to let go of the idea that I could be anything different, and just work with what I have. And look how far I've come! I am raising two beautiful boys, I have an amazing husband, I do yoga, I walk for hours without pain, and can drive across the country. I swim, I hike, I enjoy my life.

Choosing what seems like a permanent prison for your spine seems counter-intuitive to choosing freedom. But for me it was. I chose to risk everything before I lost it all anyway. And thanks to taking that risk, I gained health, freedom, and joy.

As we enter this new year, I hope each of you who are walking toward that surgery, or even just a life choice that seems overwhelming and terrifying, I encourage you to be brave and consider what you gain by risking it all.

Until next time, keep the emails coming!

A Different Kind of Strength...

Wow! I can't believe it's been over a year since the last time I've updated my blog! Time really has sped by, thanks in large part to having a very active 3 year old keeping me busy (and tired).

A lot has changed in a year, and at the same time, things are pretty much the same. We welcomed a new rescue dog into our home in May, and are so happy to have a 4 legged fur baby again. My back is doing wonderfully. I still deal with frequent residual nerve pain in my left leg, but have many days where I don't notice it at all. The surgery has given me a life that, at one point, I never thought I could have. I can walk for hours, sit without major pain, and keep up with my wild boy. (And don't tell my surgeon, but a few pairs of high heels have snuck back into my closet!!!) At well over 4 years post-op, I still say that my surgery was the best decision I made in terms of self care.

I have been keeping up with the modified yoga program I started over a year ago, and have seen incredible progress I never thought I would see. Honestly, if I hadn't seen the instructor (who has a very similar level of fusion as I do) doing the moves, I never would have believed that I too could move in those ways ever again. And when I first started, I was very stiff, and could barely make it through the short videos on her website (visit it here -----> Julie Wilkins Yoga). But after a year of doing the exercises, 2-3 times a week, I have AMAZING progress.

I can actually touch my toes in a forward bend! I couldn't do that before my surgery, thanks to all the horrible pain I had been in, I had gotten so stiff, and my muscles were so contracted. I had done yoga before my pain started over 8 years ago, but once my nerve pain began, that activity fell by the wayside, along with most everything else. I am so excited to regain at least one activity that I had loved prior to the pain and surgeries.

It can feel like the surgery, or pain, has the power to take things away from you. It is frustrating to look at my snowboard and surfboard sitting in the garage, and know that I will most likely never use them again. And letting go of things that you loved to do is never easy. But part of healing, for me, has been accepting that my body will never be the way it was before my scoliosis became unbearable. I know other post-op scolis who will continue to do things like ski or snowboard. But because of my residual nerve pain, and my fear of falling, I have decided most of my pre-surgery thrill rides are not worth the risk of a 5th spinal surgery. I am still a strong proponent of protecting your fusion, protecting your spine, and building strength in new ways. For myself, I know that just because I may be ABLE to do something, doesn't mean it's the best thing for me to do.

So finding yoga again, which is something that I loved to do before my pain and 4 surgeries, has given me a lot of joy and feeling of strength and healing. No, I may not be able to do all the same moves I could before. And it's taken me literally a YEAR to stretch my hamstrings enough to be able to touch the floor, but I CAN do it.

Strength and healing look different depending on where you are in your journey, and who you are as a person. For myself, I would say that at over 4 years post op, I am stronger than I have ever been in my life. I may not have the same abilities as most people, and some simple things are deceptively hard for me to do (I'm looking at you tiny things that slip under the couch!!!). But my strength comes from overcoming and surviving a disease that was literally crushing my spine, and destroying my nerves. My strength is knowing that if God forbid, I had to do it all over again, I COULD. I would. As Mahatma Gandhi said, "Strength does not come from physical capacity, it comes from an indomitable will."

So, I will continue to move my body in old ways made new, and explore what this fused life has to offer.

As always, please continue to email me! I love hearing from you all. I do check my emails, and love to support anyone going through pre and post op.

Until next time!

Yoga for Spinal Fusion

I have stumbled across a phenomenal website for people like me, and I am so excited to share it with all of you pre and post-op's who read my blog!

As I am now well over 3 and a half years post-op, I have gotten pretty lazy about keeping up with my core body exercises. I do swim quite a bit, but have gotten very bad about walking, using my elliptical or doing the simple weights and core strengthening exercises. Part of it is that I have a wild 2 year old who wears me out to no end, and part of it is that I was just sick of doing the same few exercise routines over and over.

Before I started having lots of pain, I was an active surfer and yoga enthusiast. But as my sciatic pain became more and more intense, and I had my first surgery, those activities fell by the wayside. 4 surgeries later, there wasn't a whole lot of information given to me about what exactly was safe for someone with a spinal fusion reaching from T4 to L4 to do. So I stuck with the basic core exercises they give you in rehab, and did walking and the elliptical, and finally swimming. Those are great, and did a lot to get me back into good shape following my last surgery.

But 3 years of the exact same exercise is BOOOOORING. Especially for someone like me who doesn't exactly love to work out. I loved yoga and surfing because they didn't feel like working out. They were FUN, and they were good for me. So, like I said, I've gotten very very very lazy lately, to the point where I had started to feel a bit wobbly in my lower back, with a lot more aching than I had had in the past.

I realized I had lost of most of the core strength I had built back up, and needed to take better care of my spine, especially if I was going to keep up with my little super man. So I started searching around YouTube for exercises that are safe for post-ops like myself. Surprisingly I found this amazing video, right off the bat!
I was SO excited! Here was someone with a very similar level of fusion doing things I didn't think I could ever do again safely! See, I know that we CAN do a lot moves even with a long fusion. I just didn't think that I could do them without hurting myself in the long-term. But after going to her website and reading her full story, I realized that she had set out to provide a way to help us build up our core strength to help us long term, without hurting ourselves.

Since I loved yoga so much before surgery, this was a great source of encouragement. I was blown away watching this video of her:

Obviously, I'm a long way from being able to do a lot of the moves she does, as she had her surgery a lot longer ago than I did, but I am already able to do quite a few of them after a few weeks.

There are several short videos on YouTube you can try to see if it would be something you'd like to pursue, and if you enjoy it, for $100 she has online videos specifically designed for us post-op scoliosis patients:
"By request I have filmed and recorded 10 multi level creative and information filled yoga classes specifically for yoga after spine fusion surgery or general back care. Each class is taught and demonstrated by myself so you can see how someone with a T3-L3 spine fusion practices yoga. With these videos you will receive detailed instruction for safety, alignment, and correct form in your yoga postures. The classes are progressive in nature to gradually build strength, flexibility, and endurance which is why I decided to not just record one yoga class. I had too much information to share to put in only one video!"You can find the information for them by clicking here: Julie Wilkins Services

I payed for the online classes and am very happy I did. After just two weeks, the aching in my low back has gone away, and I already feel stronger in my core than I have in months. I'm also excited because she provides a video that teaches you how to modify moves that you would do in a public class situation, which I would love do eventually. My goal is that after I get back into a strong, healthy state, I can find a local studio armed with modified moves, and be able to practice yoga again safely!

This is a perfect example of how we can do a lot of things even with a large fusion. We just have to find new and better ways to do them.

tricks of the (fused) trade...

Last night, just for the fun of it, I went back and read my posts from the first month of my recovery. WOW. That is some rough stuff. It's amazing how I've forgotten some of the difficulties that I faced. But it was awesome to compare how hard it was initially to how well I'm doing now. It's like night and day, and every bit of that pain was worth it to get to where I am now.

I am terrible at keeping this blog updated, but I LOVE getting all the emails from you ladies considering surgery, or the post-op's who send me their messages as well. I get a lot of questions, and one of the most common ones is "what is life like for you now?" And I always answer with the's awesome! But I remember what it was like before I decided to have the "big" surgery, and wanted more than a vague answer that doesn't give you any specifics to hold onto when you're making the biggest, scariest decision of your life.

So, I have tried to come up with a few things that I do a little differently now that I can't bend or twist the way I did before my spine was fused. Because while I can do most things most people can, I may do them differently. I have found a few ways to work around that fusion, and a few things that spare my back extra strain. I will try to come back and add to this when I can, because the "list" is growing the longer I am post-op. Really, most of things are not what I would consider necessities, except for the first one. They are just handy things I have found along the way that work well with the challenges my fusion has presented.

1. I think one of the biggest things that has helped me on a day to day basis, especially now that I'm a mom, is having a handicap parking permit. I've shared this tip on the Preparing for Surgery section of my blog, but it bares want to do anything you can to spare your back from unnecessary twisting. Having that extra space around your car makes sure you don't have to twist to get out of your car when the car next to you parked too close. Immediately following surgery this is vital, and walking far is very difficult. I actually just had a reminder of why this is so important recently when I went to a local farmer's market where they don't have handicap parking, and there are no lines in the dirt to mark individual parking spaces. When I got back from walking around for a few hours, I found that someone had parked so close to my car that I couldn't get into it. I happened to have my 2 year old with me that day as well, so it was pretty upsetting when I realized I couldn't get into my own car! Thankfully the farmer's market is within 10 minutes walking distance from my house, so I just walked home, and sent my husband back to get my car, but if it had been anywhere else it would have been a nightmare. So, parking is a big deal, as it's something we do almost every day, and it's a pretty basic need to be able to open your door wide enough so you don't hurt your back. Handicap parking also makes it much easier to see around you, so when you backup it's safer for you and people behind you.  Long-term, you will always need to protect your fusion, and my surgeon gave me a permanent permit because of that issue.

2. This tip is a "would be nice" if you can get it...not a necessity. However, they are becoming more and more common, and if you are in the market for a newer car, I highly recommend ponying up for a backup camera. Since you're not able twist, this gives you clear idea of what's behind you, and even if you're not fused, it's so much safer! I am happily driving the newest version of the Toyota Highlander which features a nice big backup camera, with the added feature of animated projected path lines. It also has several other features like little alerts if a car is in your blind spot, or something is behind you. Driving with your new back is sometimes a challenge, but the newer cars seem to be built with us in mind!

3. At over 3 years post op, I STILL use my grabber on a daily basis. My 2 year old son leaves trails of toys everywhere, and it's just nice not having to stoop to pick them up every day. It also comes in handy when something falls behind the couch, under the nightstand, or in-between the wall and the entertainment center. So I would consider this a necessity, and since they are relatively easy to find, and cheaply priced, they are well worth having around.

4. Here is something that works for me, and I wouldn't consider it a necessity, but definitely makes my life easier: a wall unit oven. At our old house where we lived when I had the surgery, I had a traditional oven that sat on the floor. As I went through recovery, and started cooking for myself again, I found that I really struggled with getting food safely in and out of the oven. It could be done, but it was awkward, and I was always worried about burning myself. When we moved about 8 months into my recovery, the house we are currently in has a wall unit oven. It is high enough off the floor that I don't have to bend at all to get things in and out and I must say I appreciate it very much. It's safer, and easier on my back. But like I said, I don't think this is something you would have to run out and spend big money on, but if it was an option for you I would highly recommend it!

4. Having a bed that has a slightly higher bed-frame has made changing the sheets MUCH easier for me. When I had the surgery we owned a low platform style bed, that basically sat on the floor. It was impossible for me to change the sheets. So we started searching for a new bed-frame, and actually measured beds to make sure the mattress would be at a height that would be easier for me to change the sheets. I would mention this is still a task that is kind of hard for me, but I have found that buying sheets with EXTRA deep pockets has helped make it easier.

5. For those of you having babies post-op, I highly recommend reading this blog post I wrote a while ago about the wonderful crib that I swear was designed for people like us: check it out by clicking here.  Along those same lines, I found when Jude was little, using a regular pack'n'play when we traveled was impossible. So after doing a little search online I found that newer versions of pack'n'plays have a bassinet that sits in the upper level so you don't have to reach so far down to lay the baby down. Check out one version by clicking here. I would definitely say this is a necessity if you have a baby post-op.

6. I keep a chair in the shower. Not very posh, but a girls gotta do what a girls gotta do to get her legs shaved. It's just safer to sit, and not risk slipping. We have a standard old-lady shower chair, nothing expensive, and for the money I think it's worth having to prevent any accidents.

7. In keeping with my "old lady trend" I also keep a small push cart in the garage that folds up. I pull that bad boy out when I get home from the grocery store, and load all of my bags into it so I can make ONE trip in and out of the house, and I don't have to carry the heavy bags. It's much easier on my back, and it saves time too! This is definitely not a necessity, but it's just a little way to save your back, and make your life a little easier at the same time. They aren't that expensive, here's one on amazon that you can check out.

8. A side by side fridge may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of things that can help you post-op, okay, probably not even the 55th thing that comes to mind. But I LOVE mine. I know the new thing is having a giant bottom drawer on a fridge, but for me that is not ideal. I like the side by side because things in general are higher up. And the higher they are up, the easier they are for me to grab. I'm sure I wouldn't starve to death if we had one of the fancy new fridges with the giant ice drawer on the bottom, or a traditional one with the large fridge on the bottom, but it definitely seems to be easier on my back to have a side by side.

Okay, well that's all I can think of for now. But I will definitely add more more along the way! If you have any tricks or suggestions, please feel free to send them my way and I can add them!

P.S. I wish I was a paid spokesperson for ANY of these products I mentioned...but I'm not. (Heck, I'd have settled to have gotten a discount on any of them!) So you can rest assured that these are all genuine recommendations from someone who has actually used them, and found them beneficial. I'll be sure to let you know if I ever become wealthy beyond my wildest dreams by promoting items on my blog ;)