This blog was initially published on Kelly’s website in 2019 and has been updated and formatted for SpineNation. This is the second of a three-part series chronicling Kelly’s journey having a thoracolumbar fusion with discectomy and multiple laminectomies. The photographs were taken by Eliza Daniels Photography in Middle Tennessee. The photos resulted from a partnership with Vanderbilt University Medical Center to allow Kelly to record her pre-and post-op journey.

Arriving at the hospital

Kelly walking into the Vanderbilt University Medical Center from the parking
garage, seen using her Rollator walker.

When I went through the pre-operative test process at the Vanderbilt Neurosurgery Clinic the week before surgery, they gave me written and printed materials, brochures, and information packets. These materials told me almost everything I needed to know about what I could expect with my surgery and hospital stay experience.

For instance, I was informed verbally, and it was included in the written materials, that I should navigate to the valet parking structure on the morning of surgery. Valet parking is free, they said, and the easiest way to park downtown Nashville and access Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC.) I was told to arrive at the hospital at 5:30 a.m. for a scheduled surgical start time of 7:30 a.m. Upon arrival at the valet parking structure, blockades and signs informed us that valet was closed. Womp, womp.

Adapt and move forward

So, the day’s first adventure was driving around the hospital complex to figure out where to park. This sounds less confusing than it is, as Vanderbilt University Medical Center isn’t just a hospital but has cafes, salons, and retail stores attached to the complex. You can get to these places by walking through the hospital or, in some cases, from external entrances in the parking lot. Once we found a place to park, my two companions and I had to figure out where we were in relation to where we needed to be.

There was a lot of walking involved, which was exhausting and painful, to say the least. After being in the car for over an hour, without my anti-inflammatory medications, or having had food or coffee, I wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t very gracious about it, either. Luckily my companions were willing to deal with my irritability.

Kelly holding the hand of her partner in the pre-surgery waiting room and
lobby at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

The waiting room and lobby at VUMC are large and intimidating after navigating a small-town hospital for the previous three years. There were dozens of people in the surgical waiting room. Even though I took Valium upon arrival at the hospital, my nerves started to kick in a bit.

Was I really ready for this? My body was so exhausted. This was going to be my fourth neurosurgery in ten months. Would my mental health hold up? Would I be able to endure the recovery and learn to take steps with both legs again? 

The most un-chill nurse ever

The nurse in charge of corralling and escorting patients from the waiting area to the pre-operative clinic was grumpier than I was. It was her job to assign us to our respective rooms and tell us to change into our fetching hospital attire while we waited for our nurses. She was visibly and audibly angry that I had more than one person accompanying me and that one of those people was a photographer. I tried showing her the emails proving this was planned. I had permission from the News and Communications department at VUMC. She was very uninterested in reading the emails I offered for proof.

Very fetching hospital fashion laid out and awaiting Kelly’s arrival in the
pre-operative suite.

She made her disapproval well-known, not just to me but to every patient and staff member in the clinic, when she yelled across the room to her manager. “Hey! Did you know that there was supposed to be some videographer here this morning filming all of us?!” In the most un-intimidating voice I could muster after being deprived of both sleep and coffee, I said, “This is a photographic cameranot a video camera, and the only person being filmed is me.”

The pre-operative suite

Once in my assigned room, which by the way, included a patient bathroom approximately the size of a small broom closet, it was time to change into those fetching hospital wears. These rooms must have been from days of yore at VUMC. I could hardly step into and then turn to use the toilet; it was that tight of a fit.

The entire time I was in there, I cursed out the nurse who had made my arrival so unpleasant. One of my companions attempted to get me to hush up and not cause a scene. I think I responded with something along the lines of, “I can say whatever I want when that heifer isn’t in earshot. Come at me like that in the morning when I don’t have any food or coffee; I’ll throw my walker at you.” Of course, I wouldn’t really throw my walker at her, but I was full of piss and vinegar at that point, and the Valium had shut down all inhibitions about what I let fly out of my mouth.

Kelly laying in her bed in the pre-operative suite, awaiting the arrival of her
surgical team.

Suddenly, at least it felt sudden to me, the surgical team started to trickle in. Anesthesiologistsmy surgeon, his residents, etc., all at the foot of my bed, checking in on me. Here’s where I started to really panic. It was near to the point where there was no turning back, and I’d taken my contacts out and glasses off, so I couldn’t see anything. There is nothing more troubling to me than not seeing my environment and the people (strangers!) around me. When I let them know that I was starting to freak out, they kindly delivered IV meds for anxiety.

Quivering with antici…pation

The next thing I knew, we were rolling down the hallway. It felt fast. At this point, I was crying unabashedly. I’d told my guests that I loved them, and I was headed to the operating room by people I couldn’t see. I realized I had just moments before a mask would lower over my face and forcing me into a state of sleep I have zero control over. I would remain in this state for a minimum of four-ish hours. I remembered thinking, “What if I have a nightmare or a night terror and can’t get out?”

Lucky for me, every single one of those O.R. staff members was a sweet baby angel. They saw me crying, and I told them I was having a panic attack. They started coaching me into good thoughts territory. “Imagine a happy place you want to be,” they said. So, I began to imagine myself sitting with my old dog Rosebud, her by my side on a porch overlooking an area with lots of trees, space, and peace.

Kelly, heading out to the operating room.

When the anesthesiologist realized how freaked out I was, she said they would avoid placing a mask over my mouth and nose. She didn’t want me to feel claustrophobic. Instead, they would have me put the tube delivering oxygen directly into my mouth to breathe in. 

To be continued…

There I laid, thanking everyone for their kindness, breathing in the oxygen, thinking of being with Rosebud in our safe place, and I drifted off into dreamland. The next thing I knew, I was in post-operative recovery, and it wasn’t four hours that had passed. It had been seven hoursThings had not gone according to plan, but thanks to my incredible surgeon, Dr. Scott Parker, I seemed to have the best possible outcome.

I’ll tell you all about it in the next blog, I promise.

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