Blake Snow

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Spinal fusion: 10 things I learned surviving a scary-sounding and life-altering surgery

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Frankenstein back with 28 staples (credit: Lindsey Snow)

Life isn’t fair.

I was born with an 80 year-old back. Not exactly 80, but old. It first broke when I was 29. After surgery, it worked again, but only for another six years. It teetered and failed again late this summer in the same spot — a re-ruptured L4/5 disc. The thing was so decrepit, my surgeon had to remove the remains and fuse my spine.

Now I’m resigned to a life of low impact and light lifting. I can’t even hold my youngest brown-eyed boy in his final months of baby-dom, let alone lift a gallon of milk for a month. I can’t return to full activity for six months until the vertebrae fully fuse. And after that, I’m advised to give up running, basketball, soccer, and maybe wake boarding or else.

It sucks.

But it’s not all bad. In fact, I’ve got a heck of a lot to look forward to—a lot more to live for. While having my body deteriorate ahead of schedule and the long recovery are both humbling, I also feel inspired by the experience. Here are 10 things I learned post surgery: 

1. God answers prayers sometimes. Sorry, non believers. Whether God is real medicine or the placebo effect, the pill still works. Science proves this. In my case, I had several friends and family earnestly fast and pray for me prior to surgery. Not that I would be cured. Not that my life would return to normal. But that I would accept my fate and come out okay. I did both.

You see, I have control issues. My stomach turned at the thought of required lifestyle changes, which were a real possibility this time. Like most humans, I want MY will to be done right now! Knowing this, my wife and those closest to me were concerned. When I awoke from surgery, the first thing I saw were my wife’s beautiful amber eyes, only they were wet from weeping. “Blake, they fused your spine because the doctor—a brain surgeon, mind you!—decided it was best.” I think she was expecting me to break down or something.

“Okay,” I answered. “I’ll make it work.” I inexplicably and immediately accepted my fate, something I rarely, if ever do. I couldn’t explain it other than a nine year old’s prayer—my daughter’s—and a bunch of others’ were answered. An otherwise controlling guy had let go of the biggest physical change in his life and came out on top.

Admittedly, God ignores our cries more than the estimated 10-15% of the time he answers. And He lets bad things happen to good people, including suffering, because agency is required for happiness and joy to occur. But this experience reminded me that the man upstairs always listens, and sometimes he answers. For me, this was one of those times.

2. What you do needn’t define you. I used to call myself a runner. Finished two marathons and ran three times a week (sometimes more) for six years. Unless I want to wear down the bald treads on my back even faster — read: increase the chances of a third, even more life-altering multi-level fusion — I’ll probably need to hang up my running shoes. I may be able to eek out one short run a week. But in considering swimming, biking, and other cardio excersizes, what I realized is this: I was never really a runner. I am a “keep my heart healthy so I can support my family for as long as possible” guy. The same is true of our professional, familial, and social titles. These are all things we are known for and can contribute to our happiness. But they’re just a slice of the socially complex, adventure-loving, and creative humans we are.

Obviously, dreams and aspirations lead us to better places. But we shouldn’t base our happiness on them. People that wholly define themselves by what they do or the titles they hold (or don’t hold) will ultimately feel unsatisfied and disappointed, especially when an external force or act of God prevents them from doing what they want to do. So instead of depending on one-dimensional happiness, expect multi-dimentional joy from a variety of fonts. The more, the merrier.

3. Dr. Howard Reichman is a world-class neurologist. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: Dr. Reichman is the real-deal. In a sea of checkered back surgeries that may or may not take care of the pain (including fusions), he’s two for two in fixing mine. Both times, his handy work immediately cured the debilitating nerve pain I endured for a combined 14 weeks (8 the first time, six the last). And I’m already well ahead of my recovery schedule.

Whereas most neurologists score 2-3 stars out of 5 in online user reviews, Dr. Reichman is well above that: 4.2 out of 5 stars by one measure, 4 on another, 88% on a third, and another 4/5 rating, making him a “top 10” doctor by one account. Add it all up, and he’s easily a 4.5/5 star doctor. Certainly the best neurologist in the state, and arguably one of the best in the nation with such a high rating. Admittedly, the wait to see him is long, extending from “Madrid to Provo,” as one patient put it. If he weren’t in such high demand that resulted in prolonged wait times (which the majority of negative reviews criticize), I’m sure he’d be a five star surgeon. He’s that good.

While I wish artificial discs were in the clear now—they’re still in experimental stage, given the challenge of making something that pivots, twists, bends, lifts, and rotates in 360 degrees—I’ll take what I can get. For me, that’s the nationally-renowned Dr. Reichman. I can’t recommend him enough.

4. The world is less scary when someone holds your hand. I get it. A broken back is small compared to life-threatening illness. But it’s still intimidating to go under the knife in such a sensitive area. It may not be as daunting as brain or heart surgery, or as crippling as blindness, deafness, or paralysis. But spinal surgery is still frightening. It’s a little less so, however, when a loved one holds your hand through much of it. In my case, that someone was Lindsey. She held my hand for most of the day. It doesn’t make much sense, but holding hands is such a comforting, loving, and confidence-boosting act, of that I can testify. I’m thankful my wife holds mine—not only through scary surgeries, but through life as well. To those who may not be so lucky, I pray we all might be more aware and willing to serve as surrogate hand-holders when the time comes. It’s downright empowering.

5. There’s always something to live for. If you’ve been to college, chances are you’ve at least read passages from Viktor Frankl’s excellent Man’s Search for Meaning, which has been called one of the 10 most influential books in America. I’m re-reading it for the first time since I was a freshman in college and find it enlightening.

Whatever your lot in life, Frankl argues that there is meaning in everyday living, even in suffering and death in a concentration camp. In my case, I didn’t choose to have an 80 year old back. But I can choose how I react to it. This is easier for optimists to process than for pessimists. But I dare you to see the glass as half full. If you do, options you hadn’t yet considered will open before your eyes. If you don’t, the world will remain a bleak and hopeless place. It doesn’t have to be that way. The choice is yours.

6. Despite their inefficiencies, U.S. healthcare are good guys. As an American, I have nearby access to some of the best medicine in the world. I also pay three times what international patients pay for similar care, due to glaring inefficiencies. For instance, there are no centralized records for my health and little sharing between departments. My fancy hospital still used ’80s projectors and manila folders in places to share information. But I was also surrounding by caring nurses, doctors, and medical professionals. In the past, I’ve seen very gracious billing departments waive entire balances first-hand when things don’t go as planned. Although I still want universal healthcare someday, if not a more effective system, I gladly support the people that help heal my body when my body is incapable of doing so.

7. Conventional wisdom is meant to be challenged. I’m gonna indulge in a humble brag here, but it’s a good one. I was told I would be in the hospital for at least three days, which is the average time it takes to stabilize after spinal fusion. A few hours after surgery, my physical therapist encouraged me to stand. Keep in mind, I just had a section of my lower back removed and four massive screws and two bridges installed in its place. With my wife at my side, I stood, vomited, then proceeded to walk the entire hallway.

As I passed the nurses station, the head nurse dropped her jaw and said, “You’re walking this soon after surgery? I’ve never seen anyone do that after a fusion. You get an A+.” Of course, it helped that I was holding on to my IV pole, not to mention Lindsey and the therapists being at my side. But the nurse’s remark encouraged me. From then on, I made a point to walk every few hours and was soon doing it on my own without aid. Every time I passed the nursing station, I got more words of encouragement. “I’m going to the grocery store, can I get you anything?” I joked once to keep my spirits up.

In turn, each head nurse complemented my progress with the last on shift concluding, “I’ve worked here for 20 years and have never seen anyone walk this well after fusion. I think you’re a prime candidate to be the first patient to leave the hospital after a single night.” With a lot of help, preparation, and a little luck, I did just that.

I share this story as a first-hand example that if you want to overcome something, you can. But you have to fight for it, and you have to ignore the artificial limits humans often impose on themselves. Granted, sometimes the odds are simply stacked against you. If you have a crappy hand, you have a crappy hand. But other times the stars align just right, and your instincts kick in, and your brain tells you to try something that you, and maybe others, have rarely if ever done before. In other words, the mind is a powerful thing, and the body will usually obey it when pushed hard enough.

8. The human body is incredible. Two weeks ago, I had a six inch gaping hole in my lower back. Today, I’m pain-free, sitting again, walking again, and even exercising a little. I still have a long way to go and will likely never be the same. But I feel great, and I’m amazed by the human body’s resiliency, recovery, and loyalty to its master (the mind).

9. I finally have reason to appreciate the resurrection. Look out, non-believers. Here I go again with more cosmic hearsay. Skip to the next point if this offends you.

As a practicing Mormon (emphasis on practicing), I believe all of us were Christian before we were born. Mormons call it “pre mortal life,” or act one of a three part play. Whether you believe it or not, I believe you chose to come to Earth to learn right from wrong and experience a physical body (aka act two or life). Because of that, all of us get three wonderful things: First, to live in this awe-inspiring world for a season. Compared to the eternities, it’s very brief. But my! Is it sweet. Second, 99.9% of us go to heaven of some kind. Even you non believers! Because God so loved the world that He only made hell temporary! In addition to being a sure way to peace in this life, it’s why the gospel means “good news” in Old English and Greek.

But it gets even better. Here’s the third gift we get for coming to this suspended space rock. Before getting to heaven, I believe the same 99.9% of us will get bionic, perfect bodies that will live forever in their prime. If true, that means I get a new back someday—for free! That means you get to hug and hold hands with your dead relative or friend again. It means physical awesomess for all, regardless of how long one lived.

Ain’t it beautiful!? The world will hear my grandpa’s infectious guttural laugh again. Stephen Hawking will walk again. Bo Jackson will run again. My deceased cousin Tyson will live young again. My sister, brother in law, and niece will all get new pancreases. And I’ll get to meet my wife’s grandfathers and a lot more really cool people. All because God loves us, no matter our race, creed, works, our lot in life, or even our mortal belief in him.

You may not understand or agree with His way of god-ing. And I’m sure those who profess or act in his name will often let you down. But the more I understand Him, the more I like Him. Whereas before I accepted the belief in a resurrected body, now I have reason to wait for it. There’s a bionic back in store for me.

10. Everyone needs backup. This experience has been the latest in a long line of reminders of how blessed I am to have good people on my side. Specifically, I wouldn’t have recovered as well without the following: Lindsey Snow, my five children, Dr. Reichman and his team of professionals, Mom, Dad, Nana, Papa, Laci & Eric Harper, Matt & Susan Andersen, Jake & Brandi Terry, my siblings, Josh Rhine, Wesley Lovvorn, Steven & Heather Price (and her mom), my caring clients, and anyone who flashed me a smile or wished me a speedy recovery. More here.

FUN FACT: My lower back is worth $64,000 now. The titanium screws and rods alone cost over $26,000!