getting stronger...

After discussing with several different people what exercises I've been doing to build up my strength, I thought I'd share my work-out routine on here! Also, as an added treat, you get to see some pretty goofy pictures of your's truly modeling the exercises for you. (No, I am not wearing shoes in the pictures, I don't wear shoes unless I have to, it's Florida...and it's hot here...)

I've been in physical therapy for about 2 months each year for the last 3 years, so I have spent a lot of time learning what is safe for my back, and none of the exercises I'm doing now are very difficult. Still, please always talk with your doctor before trying anything.

I usually start out with leg lifts with arms, an exercise I borrowed from the work out genius that is Tony Horton (of Power90 fame). It is a great way to warm up, as it gets my blood moving and my heart pumping. To start, I lift both arms above my head as I stand in one spot. I then carefully lift my left leg up with a bent knee, as high as is comfortable. As my leg comes up my arms come down. I then do the other side. I am currently doing about 100 lifts per leg. (When I first started doing this a few months ago, I could hardly get my leg up at all, and I could only do about 10-15 lifts before I was dying. I also did not do the arm lifts in the beginning, as I didn't have the stamina or strength in them yet. As I've gotten stronger I do more lifts, and added the arms.)

Next, I do my very small weight routine. I use a 5lb weight to do 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps of traditional curls. Then I do a shoulder strengthening exercise which is very simple. Lift the weight straight up, without jerking your shoulder or arm. Bring the arm gently down and do again. I do 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps.

Next I do more leg lifts, this time borrowed from traditional ballet bar exercises. I do several, but I'll just share the most simple. Start with your feet together, toes pointed out. Hold in your stomach or, in other words, tighten your abs. Lift your right leg with your core straight out in front of you, slowly and without jerking. Don't forget to point your toe! The stronger you get the higher you can lift your leg, so don't worry if you can't lift very high in the beginning. Just lift as high as is comfortable. I do 4 sets of 10-15 reps of this. Next, I do essentially the same exercise, only I lift my leg out to the side, 4 sets of 10-15 reps.
The key to making this exercise really work is focusing on form, and not cheating. Slow is not always bad, and the stronger your legs and core body become doing these, the longer you can hold the positions and the more reps you'll be able to do.

Next, I do more arms, this time with my resistance band. I highly recommend getting one with handles and a good thick band. I've gone through several of the stretchy rubber kind that have snapped in two. You can easily find them online (I love mine I got HERE, but there are less expensive ones too) and I think it is a great tool because you can slowly build up your strength using smooth motion exercises (as opposed to jerking motions like with a weight machine at the gym). When recovering from such a huge surgery, it is VERY important not to cause harm while trying to get back in shape. It has been hard for me not to want to get back to a more rigorous work out routine, but I realize that I could very easily set myself back a few months in recovery, or cause damage to my still healing bones, if I try to do too much too soon. Anyway, I do two main exercises with the band. I wrap the band around a column in my house, but I could wrap it around a tree or anything else that is sturdy.
Exercise one:
Position yourself where the band is pulled all the way back straight, but you are not actually stretching the band. Make sure you are standing firmly with feet flat on the ground, and that your abs are tight, as you can see in the picture below. When you are ready, gently pull your arms back toward yourself, making sure to keep your arms level with the floor. Slowly release and allow them to go back straight. I do about 4 sets of 15 reps, but I started out just doing 3 sets of 5!
DO NOT JERK YOUR ARMS. This will irritate your shoulders and potentially the muscles around the rods. Smooth motions are what you're aiming for. Again, as with the other exercises, the stronger you get the faster you will be able to go, and the more reps you can do. Another great plus to resistance bands is, once you've gotten to the point where an exercise is easy, all you have to do is step back a little further, and it's a whole new exercise!

Exercise Two:
(This is for after you've been exercising for a few weeks, I wouldn't try it until you've gained some strength)
With the resistance band still wrapped around whatever you have it wrapped around, hold one side down across your stomach. With the other arm, push forward. This really stretches and strengthens your shoulders. I do about 5 reps of 10 now, but this was hard for me in the beginning and could only do 10 on each side. The picture below gives you a better description than I can!

Next I do 10 minutes of stair stepping, which I do by stepping up on the bottom step of my stairs with one leg. Using that same leg I lower myself back down. I then do the same with the other leg, for 10 minutes. This is another low impact, heart pumping, body weight exercise. When I first started, I could hardly do 3-4 minutes straight, and I slowly built up to 10 minutes a few weeks ago.

Finally, I do a brisk 30 minute walk. I do this in my house, as it's either too hot, too hilly, to wet etc to walk outside. I can always come up with an excuse not to walk outside, and I'm prone to stopping, talking with a neighbor, or letting Charlie sniff every mailbox. I still take my regular walks outside, but my exercise walk is inside, as I can do it without stopping, enabling my heart to get going, and for my body to get the most out of the walk.

I close with about 5 minutes of cool down, gentle stretches and deep breathing. And then I'm done! I've been working out between 3 and 4 times a week now, and am really seeing an improvement in my stamina and muscle strength.

As I was telling one of my friends from the forum, we have to "think gentle thoughts" when we exercise! Don't do anything that hurts. If it feels wrong, it probably is. I also will not do any exercise that involves jerking motions, like kicking or jumping. Low-impact is the way to go when you have been through what I have been, and really, low-impact in general does a great deal to strengthen without doing unnecessary damage to your muscles and bones. You just have to do more of it, and have patience. You may get immediate results by doing those crazy kickboxing, marathons, and large weights, but you also risk causing permanent damage to your joints, heart and spine. I also will not do anything that requires bending or twisting. This is causing me to do more research into core strengthening exercises that don't involve either of those, and when I find some new ones, I'll be sure to share!

*to find out about the shirt I'm wearing in these photos, click here!

the old war wound....

"Wars bring scars." Benjamin Franklin

If any of you have ever watched the brilliantly funny TV show Fawlty Towers, you may remember the way Mr. Fawlty would frequently use his "war wound" to get out of doing things he didn't like (which was just about anything having to do with running his hotel) or to make an excuse for his lack of productivity. Today on the 6 month anniversary of what I like to refer to as "the day I didn't die" I was reminded of that show, because I too have a "war wound." The incision made down the middle of my back reaching from my shoulder blades to my low back is a reminder of the 7 hour battle I fought, and survived.

Still swollen and distorted
I actually am not as bothered by the scar quite as much as I thought I would be. I haven't done anything to try and speed up the fading process although that isn't entirely because I don't care at all. It's more so a result of already having so many things to do and keep track of with my recovery without trying to remember to rub vitamin E into it every night. Because I've had 3 previous surgeries, I at least know the scars can fade, and my incision scars from those previous surgeries is so faint now I can hardly see it. It took at least a year for that 6 inch scar to fade that much. With that as a guide, I figure that this over 2 foot long scar, will take at least a year or two to fade, and before I see any real change. The one thing I have been extra careful to do, since I live in Florida, and love to be out at the beach or in a pool during these hot summer months, is wearing 50+ sunscreen, and trying to keep it covered as much as possible when I'm not in the water.

I thought it would bother me or make me feel self-conscious to have that mark, but I really do feel a sense of pride about it. I fought through an extremely difficult, life threatening experience, and I have come out of it a stronger and better woman for it. Every time I catch a glimpse of it in the mirror, I am reminded of what I've been through, how hard it was, and how far I've come. It reminds me to be thankful that I am alive, that I am walking, and that with each month that passes, I am in less pain.

Some people may think it's ugly, some people may not even notice it. But for me, it's a badge of honor. It will never disappear entirely, and that's okay with me. All it is is an outward signifier of the change within.
"Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of - throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself." 
 C.S. Lewis (Mere Christianity)

6 Month Post-Op Visit

I visited my surgeon today to check-in and make sure I was still on track. I can't believe it's been almost 6 months since my surgery, the time has gone by so much faster than I thought it would! Now that I am about 6 months post-op, I am allowed to start gentle bends and twisting, and I no longer have to wear the bone-growth stimulator. I was so excited about the restrictions being lifted that I attempted a little twist in the parking lot, and discovered that I will probably have to start slooowly with bends and twists. The muscles that allow me to twist have all been tightened because of the surgery, and since I haven't used them in 6 months they were a little bit surprised with my new moves. So, while my restrictions have been lifted, I won't be twisting or bending quite as much as I probably will in the future. I'll add gentle bending and twisting exercises to my physical therapy, just to loosen up those muscles. However, I won't plan on ever bending at the waist unless absolutely necessary. Since I've already gotten so good at bending at the knees, and that method is a lot easier on my back, I will continue to do that to avoid causing unnecessary wear and tear on my un-fused L5 and S1 Vertebra.

I have mentioned several times how great my surgeon is, and I just wanted to say a few things about him here. When I had given up on finding a solution to my rapidly increasing pain, and rapidly deteriorating leg function, he was the first and only surgeon to say to me "I don't know what's wrong, but we are going to figure it out." And when we began discussing having the full scoliosis fusion, he talked with me for hours at a time, going over all the pros and cons. He never tried to convince me one way or another, and I really appreciate that. (And it doesn't hurt that he got his masters at my college, the University of Florida) If you ever have to have surgery, I would highly recommend finding a surgeon (and it isn't always easy to find, so you may need to look for a while) who truly listens to you. A surgeon who has all the talent in the world, but doesn't care to hear about your concerns will never be able to give you the care you need. My surgeon, Dr. Joseph Flynn Jr. and his entire practice was featured in the medical magazine M.D. News recently, and if you're interested, click here to view the article.

I have come so far in even the last 3 months. I remember sitting with a lot of pain in the waiting room last time I went in for my follow-up. This time, my leg hardly bothered me at all! I am working full time from home, I am exercising every other day, I am traveling, shopping, cooking dinner, spending time with friends, and have resumed most of my normal activities. There are a few things that are still a struggle, like using the oven. I can get food in there pretty well, but getting it out when it's hot is still on the not-so-safe-side. House cleaning is another thing that is very difficult to do, as bending (even with my knees) to scoop up the pile of debris after sweeping is next to impossible for me. We are still paying people to clean our home, as we decided the strain on my back was not worth my cleaning. But I'm sure if we couldn't afford that, I'd figure out a way to do it, as many of the people I have met through the forum have no problem cleaning their homes. And, I have to point out I wasn't doing the most, ahem... thorough cleaning before the surgery, and when I did clean, I was in pain the rest of the day. So not being able to clean well isn't really something I've lost due to the surgery, I had already lost it years ago.
Just Hours Post-Op

While there are a few things I still can't do, or can't do easily, the list of what I am able to do at only 6 months post up is much longer:

-Sit for hours without pain
-Walk for hours without pain
-Sleep for hours without waking up in pain
-Exercise without pain during or after
-Sit at a desk for up to 6 hours without pain after
-Ride in the car for hours without pain
-Drive a car for hours without pain
-climb stairs without pain
-and so on....

I am very blessed, and I am very grateful. I can't wait to see what I'll be able to do at the end of another 6 months!
Almost 6 Months Post-Op

life's a beach...

So I'm on our yearly family reunion/vacation at the beach, and I'm doing my best to relax and rest as much as I can, but I just had to update my blog with a little good news: I drove by myself, for two hours straight on Saturday. I had no pain during the drive or after....I didn't have to stop once to stretch or re-adjust my seat. I am still enjoying this significant achievement a few days later. Last year when we were here, I remember clearly how my leg ached going up and down the stairs going to the beach. And I remember the drive to get there and back was not particularly enjoyable, and I wasn't even the one driving! It's amazing what I'm able to do now, at almost 6 months post-op.

my Mom and I on the beach
Can you believe in a week it will be six months since I had the surgery? I can't! I have my 6 month check up with my surgeon this Thursday, and I am really looking forward to telling him how far I've come. When I last saw him, 3 months ago, I still had pain in BOTH legs, and a LOT of pain at that. Now I can't remember the last time I had pain in my right leg, and my left leg's pain continues to diminish. It's going to be fun to tell him what his hard work has done to improve my life so much, in such a short amount of time.

I am feeling very blessed, and very thankful for more and more freedom as each week goes by. And I'm enjoying the beach more than I have in a long, long time...

movie milestone...

I went to see my first movie in over 9 months last night! It was so fun to go on a 'double date' with my husband and our friends. All through the evening I kept thinking about how much my life has changed in the last 5 months. It all seemed so normal, the drive there, sitting through dinner, walking around, sitting in the movie theater. But to me, that "normal" is something I've missed out on for a long time. I haven't seen very many movies in the theater over the last few years, since the pain of sitting, even in comfy cushioned movie theater seats, wasn't worth the movie. I've gotten used to seeing movies when they come out on dvd, and it's not that big of a deal to me anymore to see new movies right away. What I did miss was the date nights, or nights out with friends. Sitting there last night through a 2 hour movie, after a 2 hour sitting session for dinner, after a 30 minute car ride....well, let's just say I kept getting excited as every minute ticked by and I had no shooting pain or fireworks going off in my legs!

I did wake up with some soreness this morning, more than I've had in a while. But it's nothing like what I would have had 6 months ago if I had done the same thing. So today I'm taking it easy, and letting my leg and nerves relax. I don't even mind the pain because it reminds me of how far I've come, and how well I'm doing. The pain I have today is nothing compared to my pain before. It makes me think that in another 6 months I may go on another date night, and not be sore at all the next day.....that would be amazing!

I know in the grand scheme of things, going to the movies isn't that important. What is important is not taking simple things for granted.

5 Months Post-Op

5 Months Post-Op. Yep. That's how long it's been since my surgery. Every month as I pass that anniversary I am amazed afresh that I am doing so well, that I survived the biggest orthopedic surgery you can have, and I am feeling better than I did the month before. I am very blessed. I don't take for granted that I am having such a smooth recovery. There are many people who after having the same surgery I did, have already gone back in twice for "adjustments" to their hardware, or have horrible infections that require the removal of the hardware (gasp), or have had fluid in their lungs, just to name a few complications. Like I said, I am very blessed.

At 5 Months Post-Op, I am feeling better than I have felt in years. I am able to sit for hours without pain. I have been frequently catching myself sitting reading or working for hours on end. I'll look at a clock after sitting 4 hours working away, and am shocked that my leg isn't burning in pain! I am able to sit a desk, something I haven't been able to do without pain for 4 years. I just generally feel BETTER. This is such a welcome surprise. At most I hoped the surgery would prevent my 52 degree double major curves from progressing any further. I also hoped that it would keep my pain from getting worse, but I had no rosy notions that I would feel better, or be in less pain. It seems so counterintuitive that drilling 26 titanium screws into your vertebrae and attaching 2 metal rods to the length of your spine would in any way make you feel BETTER. But I do. And I am excited about it.

As I write about how well I'm doing now, I would be irresponsible if I failed to mention again how hellish and miserable the first 2 months of this recovery was for me. And that was with no complications at all. Those two months were the most depressing, painful, dreary months of my entire life. Whenever I see something (like applesauce, or bendy straws) that reminds me of that time, I immediately feel my body become tense and anxious. It's as if even my body is saying "don't ever put us through that again. That was the worst thing we've ever gone through!" I can't even think about it for more than a minute or two before I have to throw those memories back into the dark corners of my mind reserved for unpleasant thoughts. I  may be feeling better now than I have in years, but it took a lot of pain and suffering to get here. For me, thankfully, the pain was worth it. But that is not guaranteed to anyone....

To drive home the point of how far I've come down in my pain level, I'd like to show you something:
That is what I was taking at about 1 week post-op. Oxycodone, Muscle Relaxers, Stool Softeners, Laxatives, and gas medicine. 11 doses a day. Absolute misery! The drugs, while they helped with the pain, also caused pain via bloating and constipation. They also made my emotions go up and down like a yo-yo, and generally made me feel depressed, unable to focus, and unable to function. I hated being on them so much I worked hard and was able to switch from Oxycodone to Hydrocodone by 6 weeks post-op. If you want to read the steps I took to wean myself off, click here to read all about it! Now, at 5 Months post-op, I'm happy to report I'm only taking 3 muscle relaxers and 3 Gabapentin a day, and am in the process of backing down from that as well. I have gone many days with only 2 doses and have done just fine. It is a great sign that my nerve pain is continuing to reduce, while my physical activity has continued to increase.

I crossed what I felt to be a milestone last week, which was discontinuing the use of my trusty red notebook. It started out with me the day I came home the hospital, my Mom writing down everything I took, ate or threw up. It was so complicated in the first two weeks my Mom actually made and printed up a feeding and dosing schedule for Drew for after she had to go back home! Thankfully, the further out from my surgery I got, the less confusing the med schedule became. From somewhere between 11 and 14 doses a day, to 6 doses, to 3 doses, the notebook has kept me straight! (By doses I am refering to ANYthing I was taking. A lot of my doses in the beginning consisted of meds that were designed to help my body handle the high level of pain killers I was taking, like laxatives.) Anyway, I realized I didn't really need the notebook anymore when I was taking the exact same dose every day, 3 times a day. I had gotten so lazy about it, I wasn't even writing what I was taking, and simply marking a check instead.

I hope by 7 months post-op I will be down to 1 muscle relaxer and 1 nerve pain pill a day. But I am keeping in mind that I will have good days and bad days, and that it's okay to have bad days where I need a little extra help. I view the "dismissal" of my notebook as a wonderful sign of things to come. In another 5 months I will be a year post-op and hopefully, the only thing I'll ever need a notebook for is keeping track of all the fun things I'll be swimming, riding a bike, going to Gator games, trips with friends, visiting my niece....and so on...=) always, thank you to all of you who have been lifting me up as I go through this journey....I covet your continued prayers, that my bones heal and fuse the way they should, and that my nerves continue to heal and the pain they cause will continue to reduce day after day....thank you!