How the Experience of Surgery and Tremendous Physical Pain Changes You Forever
This Wednesday was the one-year anniversary of my hip surgery.
Unfortunately, this anniversary makes me sad. Recovering from this surgery sent me through hell and back, and I am not better for it. One-and-a-half hours of surgery, and I shall never be the same again. I went in thinking I will have to endure pain, but ultimately I will be fixed. That was certainly the goal, but it didn’t pan out that way. I still cannot sit without pain.
From what I can tell, the surgery was not botched.
An MRI eight months out showed nothing amiss. I might eventually have to see another doctor to confirm that the torn labrum, which my pain was blamed on, was indeed fixed. In order to ascertain that, however, I will need to have another MRI with contrast, where my hip will be harpooned to inject contrast into the joint so the tissues become visible on a MRI. Right now I just don’t feel like having anything more done to my hip. I had the cortisone injection four weeks ago that the doctors and my physical therapists hoped would calm down the scar tissue (which is now blamed for my pain), and guess what? The injection first upset my hip even more, and now I’m back to where I was before: pain when sitting.
Anyway, here I am, one year after the surgery, and I am worse off than I was before.
I still have pain when I sit, but now my left backside hurts something fierce from compensating. At least, after diligently doing all my exercises and being a really good patient, I got my strength back. My family and I traveled to Acadia National Park end of May and I was able to do mountain hiking like I have always done and love to do.
But: The surgery took that strength, that fitness away from me. I had to work for months to slowly get it back! And for what? In addition, I discovered that not only does it take your physical strength away, it also takes your emotional and mental strength away. Being sidelined for weeks turned me into someone who got easily stressed out by everyday demands like figuring out bus lines in Jerusalem. All of a sudden, I had anxiety! Something I had never experienced before.
I have come to think that going through surgery like this, experiencing pain like this, and dealing with an arduous recovery like this does something to you.
Incidentally, I just read Dawn Davies’ essay “Kicking the Snakes”, and she calls this a loss of innocence, which really resonated with me:
I believe there is a level of fundamental purity you maintain,
[…] when you haven’t experienced a certain level of physical pain. I believe some people are able to avoid it for a lifetime: careful people, or lucky ones, or people with congenital analgesia, who walk around with this kind of innocence, and it is a rare gift. Though I have had three babies three separate times without anesthesia, […] the day I got my first stent removed is the last day of my true innocence. Kicking the Snakes, in Mothers of Sparta by Dawn Davies, p. 123
I had that innocence before going into that surgery! Blessed innocent I was, never having had surgery before!
Like Davies, I have given birth to three children without anesthesia.
While childbirth hurt a lot, it is pain with a purpose.
I remember being amazed that the pain from contractions completely dissipates after a contraction abates. Utter pain silence follows until the next wave rolls in. It is not constant pain, at least not until the very end. There is also a definite end to the pain of childbirth. It’ll be a day or two, but that’s it. And the feeling of relief when the child leaves the birth canal is stupendous.
With this hip surgery, the post-operative pain was bad enough but it was blurred to some degree by the pain medication. Unlike Davies, who was felled by post-surgical pain, I did not have to resort to narcotics and sleeping pills long term.
Rather, the slow grind of my post-surgical life got to me.
I tried very hard to put a positive spin on my recovery from surgery. I did learn a lot, things I arguably would not have learned otherwise, but was now forced to learn, such as:
The biggest positive change is that I have become more compassionate.
And that goes back to this loss of innocence. I now understand more what suffering actually is, and how important it is to visit the hospitalized, to send a get-well card, to check in on someone who is recovering. I have been to the other side.
Suffering used to bring to my mind images of wide-eyed starving children, or people locked up in prisons. It still does as I have no other images to replace them with, but I now have been to the inside of suffering.
Most of life’s suffering is invisible.
It is a slow, deep, incessant pain like the one I still have in my groin, or it is a dark oppressive cloud of depression, or it is the constant dread of a broken or grieving heart.
I remember that when I suffered from excruciating shoulder pain a few years ago, I used to look at other people in the parking lot and wondered if anyone else could not lift their right arm to pull down the lid of their trunk without wincing.
Those six months of shoulder pain were a lesson in suffering, but surgery brought with it a trauma that I had not experienced before. No matter how beneficial it might be in the end, surgery is a humiliating experience. You become a shivering piece of meat that people draw an x on to make sure they cut into the right body part. Maybe it is this invasion of the body that takes extra time to heal from, not just physically but emotionally.
And I, by all accounts, had an “easy” outpatient surgery. I was in a body brace but I was able to walk from day one, get up and down the stairs to our third-floor apartment. Whenever I went to the hospital for physical therapy and saw people pushed around in wheelchairs, I said a prayer of thanks that I was able to move about on my own two feet.
Nevertheless, I discovered that knowing that I could be worse off didn’t really help me feel better.
Would I do the surgery again knowing what I know now, a year later? Probably not, because I am still worse off than I was before. Dawn Davies puts this well, too:
A surgeon will not tell his patients how bad a recovery will be, because if he did, no one would ever schedule surgery; they would walk around all third-worldly, wearing slings and limping and popping pills and keeling over now and then…
Perhaps surgeons lie, perhaps they don’t. All the surgeons I consulted told me it would take a year, and that the outcome was not guaranteed. There are simply too many variables. I had good variables, but still…
I also don’t think, given the innocence angle, that unless a surgeons has gone through the very same surgery himself, he can possibly know what he is putting his patients through. And the vast majority, hopefully, he does help. They might go through hell, they might lose the innocence of not knowing how bad pain can actually be, that pain can take over your whole existence, but that loss of innocence, the state of having seen the dark side, that price they had to pay, will have been worth it because they are, in the end, healed.