DAVID BROWN: Grateful to be alive
Just 20 days ago, I came closer to dying than anytime since I was in a undiagnosed coma for three days as a teenager. We’ll save the latter story for another day, but here’s what happened to me earlier this month.
If you’ve seen me over the last few years, my neck hurt. Stretching from side to side resulted in grinding, nails-on-an-internal-chalkboard sounds that made me want to give up moving altogether. Stenosis of the spine had left my nerves nowhere safe to go, causing numbness and tingling in my right shoulder and arm, all the way into my fingers. But after three back surgeries, I wasn’t in a hurry to go under the knife again.
One month led to another, with Dr. Charles Studley in Murphy providing just enough relief to get me through the days and keep working. However, when dealing with pain we eventually reach a breaking point, so with Studley’s guidance I found myself in front of Dr. James Hoski at Carolina Spine & Neurosurgery in Asheville. You know your bones are bad when your chiropractor says you need to see a surgeon.
Hoski told me what I feared – that the same kind of herniated disc problems that have been tormenting my lower back since 2000 also were in my neck. In addition to the protruding disc and stenosis, X-rays and an MRI confirmed the presence of arthritis and a couple dozen bone spurs. Since nothing was going to magically fix itself, I reluctantly made the decision to undergo another surgery.
At 5 a.m. Oct. 4, I was at Mission Hospital in Asheville, where the staff was superb. By 7 a.m., I was meeting with the anesthesiologist and being transported into the operating room. By 10 a.m., I was awake – and most of the nerve pain in my neck and arm already was gone.
This was going to be a good day.
What Hoski and his team did is remove the offending disc and replace it with a titanium cage, which was filled with cadaver bone that will harden and grow into my other bones with time. Titanium screws were used to hold everything in place. When fully healed, I won’t even cause the metal detector to go off at the Cherokee County Courthouse.
Then I ate some Jello – and promptly threw it up. Lunch came and went the same way. When I couldn’t hold down anything by mid-afternoon, a nurse took off the foam brace around my neck to make a significant discovery. The violent nausea apparently caused one of the capillaries near my incision to burst, creating a softball-size hematoma that was making it harder to breathe.
That’s when Hoski personally rolled me back into the operating room. By 5 p.m., I was going under for the second time that day in what was expected to be a short, simple surgery.
Only I didn’t wake up for 15 hours. During the procedure, my blood pressure more than doubled, and at one point I quit breathing. As a result I was intubated, and my unconscious body was sent to the intensive care unit to recover.
About 8 a.m. Oct. 5, my eyes opened to discover various tubes protruding from my throat and other orifices along with four IVs. Even worse, this claustrophobic kid was tied to the bedrails, ostensibly for not being overly receptive to receiving the tubes the night before.
To say that was like waking up in hell is not an understatement. I didn’t have a “white light” experience or anything like that, although I might have kicked away a red pitchfork.
Once they got my throat cleared, I immediately asked in a scratchy voice for a phone to call my wife, as I knew she would be freaking out. Yet, by 10:30 a.m., I already was walking down the hallway and up stairs. The head nurse was even fighting for the doc to send me home, but it’s understandable that he wanted me to stay another night just in case.
When Hoski came in the next morning, he was shocked to see me sitting up in a chair, playing Scrabble on my phone with the wonderful Mary May and looking anything like someone who needed help breathing just a day before. After returning home, I felt the first signs of genuine healing in only three days, and every day since then has been a little better. God is good; thanks for your prayers and support.
This experience has taught me there is no such thing as a “simple” surgery; don’t ever take any invasive operation for granted. It also has shown me anew that life is fragile and precious. There is nothing more important to the human race than ensuring that every person has access to adequate and affordable health care.
I’m fortunate to work for a company that offers medical insurance to associates, but since we pay a higher percentage of costs than we used to I considered going with a less-expensive outpatient option for my surgery to save money. If I had done that and gone home before anyone saw the hematoma, it could have pressed against my throat all night – and suffocated me in my sleep.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen. Instead, the sky seems a little bluer, the trees more colorful and the air a little crisper today. As the pain dissipates, I have a smile on my face more often than before. I’m looking forward to attending events I was forced to miss in the past. And I have hope that one day I’ll be able to play with future grandkids without having to worry about what’s hurting.
David Brown is publisher of the Cherokee Scout. You can reach him by phone, 837-5122; fax, 837-5832; email, firstname.lastname@example.org; or message him on Twitter @daviddBstroh.