For 12 years I’d been “managing” my bad back with a programme of carefully selected exercises and the occasional visit to the physiotherapist.
But just recently those very exercises seemed to aggravate matters. The pain extended from my lower back into my right leg. So much so that I had to use both hands to lift my thigh into the car. Shopping became a measuring game. If I were standing at the entrance of the grocery store, I would have to decide whether the distance to the needed item was worth the pain it would take to get to it. It frequently was not.
Waiting list blues
The “back doctor” referred me to the “hip doctor”. He agreed with the hip replacement diagnosis, and I was booked to receive my new hip on August 7. Which was fine, except that it was now only April. The doctor was in great demand, and the waiting list was long. But I have learnt from bitter experience that one waits for the right doctor, however long that takes.
A worrying obstacle which loomed ahead was the family get-together in the States in June. There was no way I could miss it. So I arranged ahead through the travel agent for wheelchair assistance, and also made sure I had a supply of Voltaren suppositories. One of those kept me free from pain for approximately 36 hours. They were for crisis situations only, as they play havoc with my digestive system when used more than very occasionally.
The flight, involving five airports, would have been a total nightmare, had it not been for the exceptionally kind wheelchair attendants who awaited me at every destination. They took care of all luggage, and it became their problem to get me to the right terminal on time. An added bonus was that wheelchair users have first access to the waiting aircraft, and at the other end one waited until the plane was empty, before being fetched, along with one’s hand luggage, by some kind soul equipped with the necessary. At the final destination (it took 29 hours from start to finish) the family were waiting with a lightweight, folding variety of wheelchair, gladly pushed around by some grandchild. In the States I also discovered motorised shopping carts where I could push the button and steer myself through the store while filling the basket in front of me.
The operation itself
I only just survived the two weeks away, and back home I suffered. It was early June, and there was no way I could endure another two months of waiting. I went to see the doctor, and while I was in his consulting rooms, somebody phoned to cancel an operation four days away. It was my lucky day.
I have little recollection of the operation itself. There was a night in the ICU, morphine for really bad pain, the foot pump and the long white elasticised stockings, both to prevent clotting, not to mention the injections into one’s stomach for the same reason. Around day three the physiotherapist persuades one to start some “walking” along the passage, and eventually some gentle climbing of stairs. The two great dangers seem to be clotting, and the dislocation of the newly acquired prosthesis. A great day is when the nurse assists you in taking your first shower.
Leaving the hospital
After a week I was declared fit to leave hospital. Coping at home requires some preparation. One cannot get up from a sitting position, so things have had to be raised – the bed (with bricks), the toilet seat (can be rented), and most ordinary chairs. I invested in a special cushion made from firm foam rubber which I took everywhere with me. Other unexpected objects come in handy, such as braai tongs for picking up things from the floor, and oven gloves or a cloth shopping bag draped around your neck when you need to carry things.
Suddenly you are without hands, because these are operating the crutches. I asked whether a walking frame would not be an option, but apparently crutches are better because you use more muscles that way.
You do need someone to assist you at home for those first 10 days – for answering the door, helping with showering and the washing of hair, and all the many little things we take for granted while we are mobile. The telephone must be within reach, and an extra table next to your bedside is useful for keeping odds and ends (like a bell!) within reach.
And for those who live alone, all kinds of new challenges arise. You are wary of slipping and falling – and then what? So it has been suggested that you carry a portable panic button everywhere - or a cell phone, naturally always charged.
I realised that there was a huge gap in the market. Newly operated folks need someone who can come in for an hour at a time to do for us what we suddenly cannot do for ourselves. One of the greatest needs is for someone who can drive you places – to the physiotherapist, the water aerobics class (highly recommended!), the hairdresser, the aromatherapist (wonderful), or just around a few blocks to remind us that the world is still there, and waiting.
I needed phone calls and friends and flowers – and was endlessly grateful when those did happen. I seemed to have lost my energy for reading – and wondered whether the anaesthetic had something to do with a seeming loss of concentration. I rediscovered radio.
But I also realised, anew, the power of touch. You are relatively immobile for so long, and it almost feels as though your circulation has frozen to a standstill. One dear friend asked whether I wouldn’t like a backrub. She has no training in massage, but she has a heart for other people’s needs. Her back rubs and foot rubs were some of my most cherished gifts of that time of convalescence. And I realised again the truth of something I’d read ages ago.
“Of all the sensory deprivations, the deprivation of touch is the most severe.”
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