My surgeon, and nurse (acting as a translator) pulled the hospital privacy curtain back. Dr. Gonzalez, MD began to explain the repair work he did to my spinal column and why. As a refresher from my first blog, he said they originally were going to cut a chunk of bone from my hip to use as a replacement for my C4 vertebrae. Instead they decided to dig out all of the bone shrapnel from my neck and literally glue C4 back together, then encase and stabilize/support C3, the reconstructed C4, and C5 with a titanium plate and 4 bolts. I was told that both C3 and C5 sustained minor fractures, while C4 sustained the most damage. At that time, they were also concerned about fluid buildup in my lungs. They discovered what appeared to be a tiny puncture in my right lung that was causing the problem, and they were monitoring that as well.
After talking about the surgery Dr. Gonzalez then told me how he was going to manage my care. We spoke about how and when I would be able to make it back home to Massachusetts. He explained that he was concerned about me traveling so soon, and told me that I first needed to be stable with my breathing, my oxygen levels and blood pressure, and that my neck needed to be healing properly before I could consider such a long plane ride home. How long that would all take was the question that none of us knew.
Five years have passed since that time, and I will never forget how uncomfortable I was. In those first days before and after surgery the pain I was in was excruciating. It was the worst pain I had ever experienced by far, second only to the initial injury. The pain meds I was on helped for sure, but not without their side effects. I remember hallucinating and having dreams that actually had me questioning my reality; what was real and what was a dream? I would wake up from a dream where I'd be walking, or riding my bike…...my brain still had not adjusted to my new situation. The real, horrible nightmares were when I would wake to find this new body I was in. Realizing that I could no longer walk, or ride my bike was the horrific reality that I just wasn't prepared to wake up to. I was now literally trapped in my body that did not move. I was not even able to do something as simple as scratching my nose. In the hospital, when I needed to call the nurse for help I'd use a little mouthpiece (it seemed to never be positioned correctly) that hung above my mouth. It was attached to the wall, and in order to make it work I needed to depress it with my tongue. It seemed to work 50% of the time. Talk about frustration and torture. Please wake me from this nightmare!
When you think about it, who is ever prepared for such a life changing event?
One afternoon, Dr. Gonzalez came in to tell me I had to stop taking the Opioid painkillers because my liver levels were elevated to a dangerous level and they, the medical team, were concerned. I begged him for other possible painkillers as I was still in a large amount of pain. He told me that I could now take Ibuprofen. I was really concerned, and told him that I did not think Ibuprofen would be able to take the pain away, it just wouldn’t cut it. He bluntly told me that was my only choice, and the best choice for my body. It was a horrible few days until the swelling went down and the pain finally subsided to a tolerable level, and I was so relieved when it did.
Now that my pain was under control and my body was healing, my Physical Therapist would come in for 1 hour everyday and stretch my body. It was still strange to not have feeling at this point. However the sensation I did have was either neuropathic pain, or a sensation similar to pins and needles - quite annoying I might add. I also had a Respiratory Therapist who administered treatments to strengthen my lungs. She would have me try to breathe in and out of this contraption that had a meter on it. It was very difficult... but I tried to reach the goals they set each day. When I think back, I think It sort of kept me motivated enough to make it to the next day, and then the next. As time went on, I figured out that having those small goals for each day would help my recovery and rehab experience.
Every day the CNA’s (Certified Nurses Aides) would come into my room to reposition me in bed. They would do this every three hours in order to prevent me from having skin breakdowns. They would lather a type of oil all over my body to help my skin integrity. I always joked around about me being a salad! I did have one nurse who spoke English well enough to translate my jokes to the other aides. They would laugh, but they probably just thought I was a crazy American.
As days, and then weeks went by I did start to get little bits of feeling back. My breathing was improving. My oxygen levels improved to almost normal, close enough that they were able to discontinue the oxygen. Slowly but surely they started removing the various monitor wires. I was getting stronger, and my body was responding to their care. It wasn't long before it was time to start talking about getting back stateside, and where I would go for my rehab. I had been in the Vall d’Hebron now for almost 4 weeks.
Back here in Massachusetts my sister was taking care of all the ungodly responsibilities of setting up the med flight and where I was actually going to be for rehab. I have to say, I feel bad for the people that she was dealing with because she is fierce when she gets her mind set on something. She arranged a med flight on a jet that would take approximately 12 to 15 hours to puddle jump from Barcelona airport to Logan Airport in Boston.
Meanwhile, my parents and I were finding out from my surgeon that he recommended Spaulding Rehab Hospital in Boston. He felt that this was the best place to go. So my sister and my mother were connecting with Spaulding and making sure that I was able to get on the list to be admitted there and coordinate the moment a room was opening so we could schedule the flight home. This coordination all took about a week and a half to finalize. We were all so elated that we were finally able to get this plan all set and we could let everyone know the good news….that I would be finally heading home!
The care that was given to me by Vall d' Hebron was amazing. Though the hospital and its technologies seemed outdated in comparison to the US, I felt that the ICU and the Acute Care nurses and doctors were top notch. I'm so lucky to have been sent to Barcelona to be taken care of by Dr. Gonzalez and his team of healthcare professionals.
To my visitors and coworkers that were able to make it in to see me in Barcelona, know that my spirits were elevated when I heard that you were planning on visiting, nevermind every time I saw your faces…..You all saved my soul while I was there.
The preparation for Operation Med Flight begins here.