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Vivian Manning-Schaffel Headshot

Facing The Fear Of Back Surgery

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A year and a half ago, I lay on a hospital gurney in a surgery holding area, weeping.

It was a safe place to crack. My kids were safe at my friend's house. My husband was at my side. I wasn't near death or anything, but I was scared. I was about to be wheeled in for an operation to clip a herniated disc close to my spinal cord that was squashing a nerve, shooting pain down my arm for the previous five months. It's a relatively minor operation, but knowing I was going to be down for the count for six weeks of my children's lives -- and knowing that my husband and I would have little to no help or support from anyone -- hurt more than any impending incision.

My husband looked down at his cell phone. The number ringing in was my mom's cell. She was calling from my father's rehab bedside, where he working on walking again after his second stroke in three months. My husband held the phone up to my ear, and my parents both told me, "I love you." Then, hearing me choke back tears of guilt and helplessness (because I couldn't be there to help them), my father said, "You have always been brave. You've always been a fighter, achcheecgus (Armenian for "my daughter"). Ever since you were a little girl. It's who you are. You WILL be fine."

My dad lay helpless, and yet, as a parent could only hope to do, he managed to find the words I most needed to hear. I wiped my tears and kissed my husband. I would be brave for my parents, my husband and my kids. Six weeks later, my dad could walk and I felt a hell of a lot better. I was grateful.

It's not even two years later and, as it turns out, I might need yet another spinal surgery -- my third. Degenerative disc disease is relatively common (at some point in your elder life, you'll probably have it) and can be painless for many. But for some (like me), it strikes very early and can be an excruciatingly painful, crippling condition wherein the gel between the vertebrae in your spine ekes out in varying degrees. Sometimes the discs only move out a little bit, and this can be enough to land anyone a Percocet or benzo script and couch time for three to four weeks. For others, like myself, the disc narrows significantly and the vertebrae begin to grind. My disc is out far enough to slam right into the nerve root. And with no help to speak of, I get little-to-no couch time.

Imagine, if you will, the feeling you have when your dentist drills into a nerve in your tooth. Now, imagine that taking place in the root of your spine, radiating out to your extremities, with no reprieve whatsoever. And my situation isn't even that bad, compared to others who have suffered far worse than I -- some robbed of their mobility completely. But I can honestly say that having my kids and breaking a few bones were a strobe-lit disco dance, comparatively.

Degenerative disc disease is one of the leading reasons people in this country apply for disability benefits. If you aren't one of these people, it's very hard to understand what they go through. Unless you have a cane or are in a wheelchair (which many folks are), there may be no physical manifestation to mark your disability.

This is both fortunate and challenging. I don't need pity. I hate it. I haven't even applied for benefits. But people have a tendency to forget that I have this problem, and it takes some fancy-ass footwork to navigate the most mundane situations. I haven't been able to pick up my own kids for the past four years (my first surgery was just three weeks after my daughter was born), let alone a bag of groceries over ten pounds. I can't travel by myself, because carrying or rolling my own suitcase could land me back on the gurney. I can't chaperone the ice-skating field trip with my kids. I'll never take them on a roller coaster or skiing. The list goes on and on. By no means is this the worst that could happen, and I recognize that every single day. But it does bum me out that my kids have to miss out on these kinds of things because of me and my "limitations."

It's kind of a lonely lot, the busted-disc club. The message boards aren't exactly bursting with optimism. It's account after account of failed surgeries, excruciating pain, sleeplessness, lost jobs and ruined relationships from the psychic damage relentless, excruciating nerve pain can cause. Nerves have memory, and they can hold a grudge for an eternity -- or, in a positive scenario, what feels like an eternity. These people can't cheer themselves up by going to the movies, because it hurts like fuck all to sit for two hours. They can't be all Sex and the City and go off to a resort to shed elegant tears, because they can't carry their own luggage or stand to sit on a plane for hours. The uninsured can't afford the surgery that could potentially salvage their lives -- surgery that often doesn't even work. These are not promising statistics. It's enough to rip your heart like a useless flyer.

These bouts of pain have taught me a lot about what matters most in my life. I'm certainly nowhere near the worst-case scenario here, and I'm grateful for that every day. I'd always imagined the money, exotic vacations, designer clothing and other fancy-pants experiences I'd earn from the bestsellers or box-office bonanzas I'd write would be what led to my ultimate Valhalla. Don't get me wrong: That would totally rock. But now I feel as lucky as a jackpot winner on the days I wake without pain. I feel most fulfilled when I'm able to be a fully functioning partner and mother. I feel most at peace when I'm afloat in a pool or the ocean, fully mobile and unfettered by the feeling of a knife slicing through my extremities. I value these things above all else, because a small taste of what life is like without these capabilities has taught me to cherish them as hard as I possibly can.

One of these days, I might have to scrounge up the reserves of my courage to go back under the knife. I'm not going to lie: Surgery always scares the cojones out of me. But once again, I will hope my friends can lend a hand with my children. Once again, I hope to hold my husband's hand. My father has been gone almost a year, and I will never hear his words of encouragement again. But they will play in my head on loop, and fuel me with all I need not to bolt off the gurney for my life and fight the source of the pain. Because it's who I am.