Major Surgery and Mental Health

Emily Stamp interviewed two friends, Flora and alias "H", about their experiences going through major spinal surgery. Both surgeries happened as they were leaving school and becoming adults and Emily addresses how it feels to know people to have gone through such intensive surgeries at such a young age. Emily, Flora and 'H' remind us that, while the physical pain is excruciating and the dangers are real, the effects on one's mental health are almost as serious and far less talked about. Read on to hear their inspiring stories!

When I think of university-aged friends having surgery I think of random appendicitis or knee surgery from playing too much sport. I do not tend to think of serious cases such as spinal surgery, which two of my friends have had since I have been studying. The physical and mental pressures of having major operations are hard to understand, so I asked my two friends about, not only on their physical mobility post operation, but also the mental struggles of going into long surgery.

'H'’s surgery involved moving vertebrae back into place via screws and a bone graft (which she found out was necessary at a later stage).  Everything was stress-inducing, from ‘the stay in hospital, the surgery itself, waking up afterwards and recovery.’  More worryingly there was only a 65% chance of the bone graft even working (which naturally left her ‘crying hysterically’) with there still being potential limitations later in life.  Then came the ’post-operative depression’, the struggle of pain-inducing actions such as getting out of bed, walking down the road, getting dressed. Often we assume life gets back to normal post-surgery but it doesn’t, the recovery period is long and she has physiotherapy and hydrotherapy even 3 months on. Thankfully she is doing better now, even if the operation was not entirely successful; and the knowledge that it isn’t going to get worse is beneficial.

Flora knew that she needed 8-hour spinal fusion surgery with Harrington rods for about 5 years before she told anyone; the curve in her spine was too severe to have any other option. However this lead to being  ‘so obsessively paranoid that people would notice there was something odd about my back, I ALWAYS wore horrible baggy clothes.’ Despite having the time to read other’s testimonies to ease worry, the difficult part was only coming. I met Flora during my A- levels and she deferred her university placement in order to have the op that was meant to be in the November, then the February. Focusing on something for so long, taking a year out for recovery but still playing a waiting game with dates being pushed back 3 months or more should not be underestimated in its potential to damage one’s mental wellbeing.  It also meant that she may not have recovered enough by university, which was the whole point of her gap year; a gap year spent working instead of having the usual fun, due to having to go up to hospital for various scans and tests.

Still, the date was only decided in February and ‘you can mentally prepare yourself as much as you want but when it actually came to it I was scared and just relieved that it was actually happening.’ With a month to prepare, she headed to the gym (as ‘you need to have pretty strong heart’ for a large op), listened to everyone telling her stories about their hospital experiences (not always beneficial) and then nerves fully set in. When it is all people talk about, you focus on it; worse still, she didn’t know the exact procedure – ‘they talked about doing two separate operations and me being in hospital for two weeks, they'd talked about removing some ribs. I had no idea what was going on!’ Fortunately it turned out to be one operation, with fewer possible complications (alternatives included the risk of a lung collapsing and higher risk of paralysis), with a shorter in-patient stay. This “easier” operation doesn’t diminish the anxious feelings, however; it was still an 8-hour spinal surgery, and sending out a mass Snapchat the night before had her ‘crying at every reply I got.’ Then began the anxious early start, pre- load drinks and more waiting until anaesthetics, at which point tears took over again.

She didn’t remember pain the first time she woke (but did think she had gone blind due to ill positioned breathing tubes), as she was fortunately on very strong painkillers. Then came ‘so much pain I couldn't even bear to move.’

It cannot be stressed enough how ‘the surgeons, family and friends were invaluable to me. During that week people will help who you didn't think would and people you considered to be your friends will let you down. Emotionally that was hard.’ It may not be easy to see your friends when they are ill, but it means so much to them. ‘After hospital my mum told me that she ran into D in the hallway after one of her visits and she was visibly shaken by how I looked. She visited on day two after the op, at which point I think I had only just stood up.’  I was unable to visit until much later, due to living so far away, and even then we just napped because her medication was still so strong and she was struggling with simple activities.

Hospitals have trained staff, ready to answer questions but going home can be difficult - with less support on top of immense pain. Flora impressed the importance of small goals, and not being disappointed when you can’t do something - even sitting up through a whole TV episode was difficult. Yet each improvement brought hope, even if two and a half years on there are still a few struggles - from picking a pen off the floor or body confidence issues. ‘The surgery has made it better but I told myself it would fix everything I didn't like about myself, realistically it hasn't.’ Compared to the girl who worried about her spine, Flora flaunts her scar proudly (also now standing a tad taller as a result of the surgery).

I literally feel like a new person, I now have confidence to do things that I would have never done before or wear things I would have never dreamed to wear pre-op. I tell people what I’ve been through, I just feel a giant weight has been lifted and just being open and honest with people about what has happened is so much easier than hiding it!!

The mental pressures of major surgery could not be more apparent, but the alleviating power of friends and family should not be underestimated. The little things you can do to help people are so important. If you have a friend going through major surgery then research it, find out what you can do - be it cooking a meal or taking them to an appointment or just being there for them. Even if you lose contact down the line those actions will be remembered.