Surgery is a weird and unsettling thing.
In 2021, on December 1st, I had surgery for the first time. An emergency spinal surgery, for which I was given 12 hours notice.
I’m writing this for myself, more than anyone else, because this has been one of those trauma-inducing, life-defining moments of my life.
Not in a particularly good way (that much is probably obvious by now). But nonetheless, the experience deserves to live somewhere, that isn’t just inside my brain.
I don’t usually write personal posts on this website, and this is mega personal, but let’s go with it.
At 4pm, on an idle Tuesday.
There’s a song by Baz Lurhmann called ‘Sunscreen’ which I was obsessed with as a teenager.
He says in the song:
“The real troubles in your life
Are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind
The kind that blindsides you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday“
Turns out, he was right, and bizarrely accurate.
It was quite literally 4pm on Tuesday 30th November, that that I found out for certain, in A&E, that I would be getting emergency spinal surgery for something called ‘Cauda Equina Syndrome’ – a rare and severe spinal condition, I had never even heard of.
Of all the things I have spent time worrying about in my life, this had never been one of them.
I’m someone who has spent 10 years obsessing over my chronic back pain – and I hadn’t even heard of Cauda Equina Syndrome.
And yet, at 4pm, on that idle Tuesday, I was told that the worst-case scenario was real, and I was living it.
I thought I had a slipped disc.
I’ve had sciatic pain in my leg and back since I was around 17. I remember working as a waitress, and hiding away for parts of my shift polishing cutlery – because it was the only time I could sit down, and sitting was the only way to ease the pain I was in.
That pain followed me into my 20s and 30s. Sometimes the pain would be unbearable. Sometimes I could tolerate it.
But it was always there, like a shadow.
Last autumn, suddenly it got a lot worse. The sciatic pain spread from my right leg to my left leg. I was unable to walk without agony. Whenever I was stood or walking, I started feeling numbness in my back, thighs and calf. I also got unexplained pins and needles when walking, and I had hip pain that stopped me from sleeping.
For 10 years I struggled to convince my GP that the pain warranted an MRI scan, but in a last-ditch attempt to find a solution, I booked one privately and waited for the results.
I had become so used to normalising the pain that I assumed it would be something manageable.
I was 90% certain that the MRI would reveal a slipped disc. Something easy to manage.
Something serious, but solvable.
In reality, I had two slipped discs (the bad kind), one prolapsed disc (the very bad kind), severe narrowing of my spinal canal, and severe compression and damage to my spinal nerves (the very very bad kind).
I had Cauda Equina Syndrome.
Cauda Equina Syndrome is rare, and serious. Two words you don’t want to hear from your doctor right before Christmas.
“You need to go to A&E. Right now. You need surgery, immediately”
“Yes, you need an immediate surgical intervention”
“So when? Like next month?”
“No, like today.”
Once Cauda Equina Syndrome is impending, symptoms will worsen over the following hours or days, and often unpredictably. Which is what makes it so frightening, and often, so dangerous.
If left undetected, or unoperated (and without immediate surgical intervention within 48 hours) it can lead to permanent paralysis of the legs, permanent numbness of limbs, permanent loss of bladder function, and permanent bowel incontinence.
I was already experiencing severe pain (hence booking myself for an MRI in the first place), I already had numbness, and I already had bowel issues (although at the time, I had no idea this was connected to my back pain).
So clearly, my symptoms were worsening, and surgery needed to happen quickly before things got a lot worse, and damage became permanently life altering.
I would need a double laminectomy and double discectomy, amongst other things.
My first time in an ambulance.
After spending 7 hours in Warwick A&E, on the evening of November 30th, I was transferred in an ambulance to Coventry Hospital.
I actually asked (hopefully) if my husband could come and pick me up and drive me in his car instead, it wasn’t a long drive, and I felt like an ambulance was ‘too much’.
The medical staff were quite firm, and I was told sternly that because of the condition’s serious nature (unpredictable and fast deteriorating) it was too risky for me not to be under medical care at any point from this moment onwards.
I think that’s when I realised things were really serious.
At 10pm, I was wheeled onto the neurology ward.
At 11pm, I was told by two surgeons (who I had never met) that surgery was my only choice if I wanted to retain the use of my legs.
They showed me my MRI scan, and I watched their faces frown and scowl at the severity of the damage.
At 11.15pm, they gave me a document of potential complications, risks and side effects for me to sign.
For 30 minutes, I stared at them, tired, exhausted and traumatised, and wondered how I was supposed to process this on my own. My husband, who wasn’t allowed to be in the ward with me, sat waiting at home for news, and I wished nothing more than to see him.
In a rush of clarity, I signed the documents, agreed to the surgery, and sat and cried. I knew the other women around the ward could hear me, and it was strange to feel so alone, and to hurt so much, in a room of 8 other people. One wonderful nurse came and sat next to me and held my hand.
At midnight, that same nurse arranged for Pad to come into the ward to see me for 15 minutes. He arrived in record time, and I went to meet him in the ‘designated’ meeting space.
It was this tiny room, off a cold long corridor, that masqueraded as ‘comforting’ but that (in reality) had the same old stiff hospital chairs, bad art, and hospital smell.
Those moments felt frightening and final, and I was so acutely aware it would be my only opportunity to see him, speak to him, and hold him before the surgery the next morning.
We didn’t really speak much. But we both cried.
I don’t really remember much about it, other than feeling eternally grateful that he was there.
At that moment, I wanted to wrap myself up in his love and protection, and let it shield me from the hospital, the surgery, and the world.
I know my husband loves me.
I’ve never doubted it for a second in 10 years. He tells me, I tell him. We tell each other “I love you” every time one of us leaves the house.
Sometimes I’ll tell him when he leaves the room, just so he knows.
Going for a poo? Well “I LOVE YOU!” Just so you know.
But this was something different.
The “I love you” that we exchanged in this room, on this night, was different. It was soaked in 10 years of subtext.
And when you’re saying goodbye to someone before emergency surgery, how do you compress 10 years of memories, intimacy, love, laughter, and thankfulness into 3 words? You don’t really. But you just hope they get it.
“You get it right? You get how much I love you, and how important you are? You get how much I treasure you, our love, our life? You get how happy you make me? You get how my whole world is better because you’re in it? You get it right?”
That’s what you’re really saying, when you say those 3 words, the night before emergency surgery.
Love is nice, isn’t it?
I thought when I started writing this an hour ago, that it was about my surgery. I thought I wanted to explain about the surgery, about back pain, about recovery.
But I don’t think that’s where I’m going with this at all.
I think that really, I wanted to write about love, strength, marriage, friendships, and family. Because this made me appreciate all those things, so much more.
Before my surgery this year was actually full of beautiful moments of love. I got to watch two of my best friends get married. I got to be a bridesmaid for the first time. I got to travel across the world with my sister, to spend time with our Mum. I got to live in an Italian Palazzo for 6 days with 7 incredible friends from around the world. I got to see my friends raise their beautiful children, and I got to be there for important moments like Christenings. I got to hug my Nanny for the first time in 18 months. I got to watch Grease the musical with my 5 cousins, sat in a boat, in the pouring rain.
I got to wake up every morning next to the man I love most in the world.
Because of complications during surgery, my stay was extended from 3 days, to 11 days in the hospital. The most difficult time, were the first 6, where I was on enforced flat bed rest. This meant I wasn’t allowed to move, and I needed to stay laying flat on my back.
I overthink everything anyway (even when I’m not confined in one position to a hospital bed). But it’s times like these, when you suddenly realise just how grateful you are for everyone around you.
My husband, who did everything in his power to help, calm and heal me. Who stayed up all night making sure I was OK. Who listened to me cry, and cried with me.
My sister who was relentless in caring for me and keeping me strong.
My Mum, who lives in Dubai, and woke up at 4am to make sure I always had someone awake to speak to. Who flew back to the UK to help look after me.
My in-laws who were always there for me, but who also kept my husband functioning too.
Friends who seemed to know exactly what to say and when to say it. Friends who sent 10-minute long voice notes. Friends who (despite recovering from their own surgery) sent advice and recommendations. Friends who sent me headphones and eyemasks for the hospital stay. Friends who checked in on me every day without fail. Friends who offered to walk the dog.
Friends who are nurses, who gave me advice and insight into what to expect, and how to cope.
Old friends (I haven’t seen in years) who sent brownies to my house when I finally got home.
A friend who literally wrote a hilarious review of a restaurant we’d visited together the previous month, to distract me and cheer me up. Which she did so successfully… it went extremely viral, and provided me with endless laughs and entertainment at some of the darkest moments.
I felt really broken after surgery, but I felt really strong too.
I already knew I had wonderful friends, a wonderful family, and an amazing husband. But it was a powerful experience to feel all that love, from all of them, all at once. I don’t know if many people get to experience that feeling. So I’m lucky I guess.
I have some pretty incredible humans in my life. And this post is a way of saying thank you again. So thank you.
To tie it back to the surgery – it went well.
I’m now 8 weeks post-surgery, and I have experienced a massive improvement in pain, numbness and other symptoms. I’m finally able to walk without the agony that plagued me for so many years. This week I got home from a 30 minute walk, and I sat at my kitchen table and cried.
I cried because I was happy. Because the absence of pain is beautiful and freeing.
I know I have a long way to go, but I’m walking in the right direction, and my legs and back aren’t hurting. And that’s pretty awesome.
I’ll write about the recovery another time (because that’s another hurdle, and another story).
I thought things would get easier once the surgery was over – but the reality was that things got harder. Much harder. There was pain I wasn’t expecting, mental challenges I wasn’t counting on, and frustration and anxiety I hadn’t prepared for.
Things are still hard, and honestly, I still cry a lot because of sadness, frustration and trauma too.
But right now, at this moment, I feel good. And I’m taking it one moment at a time.