DISCLAIMER: there are never-before-seen photos in this post, so please be kind.
This is the most important and difficult blog post I will ever write.
I am about to explore the lowest point of my life and send it off into the Internet world. Why, you may ask? Well, my intention with this post is to hopefully be a reference, inspiration, guidance, or support to anyone who reads this and can relate on any level.
I was super active/athletic growing up. I played soccer (for 10 years), basketball, tennis, volleyball, and ultimate frisbee throughout high school. The summer before heading off to university, I was working as the Sports Supervisor at my summer camp. Sudden lower back/left hamstring pain jolted me everyday, but I shook it off and kept moving forward.
I entered my first year of university, and the pain just kept getting worse. No amount of physiotherapy or chiropractic effort helped. I started to feel helpless as I couldn’t walk, sit, or stand without shooting pain down my left leg. In addition, I couldn’t play sports, which was unbelievably difficult for me because it was something I was so passionate about. At this point, my parents and I had decided that I needed to see a spine specialist. After an X-ray and MRI, I was diagnosed with L4 S1 Spondylolytic Spondylolisthesis (say that 10x fast lol), and was told that I needed surgery.
Let’s discuss this for a second. Spine surgery? Me? At the age of 19? I was struck with waves of disbelief and anxiety. I had never been an anxious person, but the news of this surgery made my head spin uncontrollably. How was I supposed to act like everything was okay? How was I supposed to be a pillar of strength, when the thought of being potentially paralyzed consumed my existence? I decided in that moment that if I wasn’t going to be strong, no one else would be.
The support from my family and friends was immeasurable and I continued to live my life the best I could for a couple months. People would always ask how I kept a smile on my face, and the truth is, I just knew I had to. Surgery was inevitable, so maintaining a positive attitude was the only way to combat falling into a whirlwind of anxiety. However, the situation got worse when I received a phone call from the surgeon’s assistant one week before the surgery. “Hi Samantha,” she said, “I just wanted to inform you that Dr. Kwon has required that the date of your surgery be switched to Monday, February 24th.”
I froze. That was the day of my 20th birthday. I couldn’t believe it. I whispered thank you, put down the phone, and burst into tears. After calming down, I spoke with my parents and had a realization. I convinced myself that the surgery was on the day I turned 20 because it was going be the best birthday present I could ever receive.
5am, February 24th, 2014: After being completely sterilized, the anesthesiologist started to insert my IV. He made me feel very at ease. Within moments, I kissed my parents goodbye and was wheeled into the operating room. The last thing I remember is telling the anesthesiologist about my trip to Mexico.
The surgery took 12 hours. It was supposed to take 10. I woke up and felt like I had been slammed into a wall. I remember holding my surgeon’s hand and telling my parents that I loved him (s/o to Dr. Kwon, my legit life saver). I had two incisions, one below my bikini line, and one on my lower back. I legitimately didn’t eat for a week because the thought of food made me unbelievably nauseous, and so I lost 15 pounds. I won’t go into too much detail about my time in the hospital because most of it is unnecessary to share and includes stories about my catheter.
(Side note: I had 3 IVs in me, one of which was in my neck. It was a 4-5 inch needle, not kidding).
One of the worst days I experienced in hospital was when I thought I was going to die. I screamed at my mom and the nurse that my throat was feeling tight and that I was going to DIE. My pain meds had given me terrible side effects, one being cotton mouth. It’s such a difficult thing to explain, but just ask my mom how scared she was. Luckily, I had incredible visitors every day who helped bring my spirits up through the intense physical pain. I also had an amazing hospital roommate named Mitch, who was so sweet and even came to visit me after he’d been discharged.
Every day got marginally better, and after 9 days I was discharged from hospital.
I think that mentally, the worst part was the time I spent at home for the next month and a half. I legitimately could not walk more than 5 minutes a day in the first few weeks, and so I had to be bedridden. I had a really bad case of cabin fever. It was so hard to stay positive, when all I could do was lay flat on my back. I missed the things in life that made me happy, like playing ball, or going to my fave café, or going for drinks with friends.
Slowly but surely, my physical and mental conditions improved. I started getting out of the house more and seeing more people. Seven months post-op I stepped onto the court for the first time since surgery. And I haven’t looked back.
My birthday is now a reminder to appreciate the small things in life, like being able to walk without pain. In just a short week, I will be celebrating 2 years with a new back.
My advice? Never let weakness define you. And be kind, goddamnit. Everyone is going through something.