Faith, Family, and Scoliosis; Part 2
About a year and a half ago, I wrote a highly personal column about my son's plight with severe scoliosis, and my family's trials in coping with the condition. I still occasionally hear from people who read it, and are interested in how my boy is doing. Due to recent events, I figured that today was a good time to write a follow-up.
At the time of the original piece, my family was at a crossroads. My son was only 11 years-old, and a top spine surgeon from Children's Hospital in Colorado had just told us that he would almost assuredly need a complicated, corrective surgery (that included a lot of fusing and a lot of metal) in order to keep the curves in his spine from worsening, and potentially crowding out his vital organs. But even with that dire warning, the doctor was okay with letting my son continue to wear his scoliosis-brace, as long as we checked back in every three months to have his curve monitored.
Though my wife and I had pretty much viewed the surgery as inevitable, we wanted to buy our son a little more time to grow, being that he was only 5 feet tall, and the fusion of his spine would reduce his height expectancy by a few inches. Once there was a notable worsening of his curvature, we would then move forward with the procedure.
I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support my column generated, especially from complete strangers. Many offered their prayers and best wishes, while other folks pitched non-surgical alternatives they'd heard about, including chiropractic adjustments and new age treatments. I think most of the latter were well-meaning, though I suspect that a few of these individuals were creative spammers.
I heard from a local man whose name I recognized from some volunteer work I'd done for the county GOP a while back. He'd recently attended an event I spoke at, and upon visiting my website, learned of my son's condition. He told me that he had a unique perspective on the topic because he himself was dealing with the effects of severe scoliosis. He wasn't diagnosed until he was 20 (I'm guessing he's now in his 60s), and he never received any corrective treatment for it. He asked if I wanted to have breakfast with him, and I happily accepted his invitation.
Sharing his experiences with me that morning was a totally selfless gesture on his part. He didn't sugarcoat how scoliosis had diminished his physical capacity over the years, and forced him to live with pain, but as a successful and productive member of society, his message to me was one of optimism: It's not the end of the world.
Another response that I found particularly helpful came from a fellow Coloradoan who had gone through the same experience as me with his own son, just a few years earlier. His boy had long aspired to become a Ranger in the military, but scoliosis effectively ended that dream, compelling both him and his father to question their faith. However, the son ended up having the surgery in the same hospital that mine would, and as it turns out, by the same surgeon.
The father had nothing but praise for the procedure and the man who had performed it, and he described to me how well his son was now doing. I found this reassuring, but I was still wasn't looking forward to it being my son's turn. I was hoping we could at least make it to my son's 14th birthday. Last summer, however, x-rays showed a significant enough worsening that we knew it was time to move forward.
My son, who now stood at 5'3", needed that surgery, and we scheduled it for late September.
A few weeks out, we attended a spine class at Children's, designed to educate scoliosis patients and their families of what to expect throughout their hospital stay and beyond. The instructors did an excellent job of explaining everything, and answering the questions of the nine families in attendance. But the most help came from the special guest speaker: a teenage girl who'd had the surgery less than a year earlier.
I watched her carefully as she approached the microphone, taking note of her level shoulders, good posture, and normal movements. I would have never guessed that she had had scoliosis, let alone a spine fusion.
She (along with her mother) spoke about the procedure and recovery process, making clear that it was no piece of cake, but that the result was a resounding success. She was in no pain, was still quite flexible, and other than no longer being able to perform a cartwheel, had very few athletic limitations. In fact, she told us that just six weeks after her surgery, she was back to skiing black diamonds.
"This is just a speed-bump in your lives," she said with a smile.
This young woman, who wasn't shy about expressing her faith, was an inspiration and a godsend to the nervous families that hung on her every word.
I was pretty optimistic over the next few weeks, but a new concern arose the week before the surgery.
My son had come down with a cold, and we worried that it would force us to have to reschedule. However, he seemed to get over it very quickly. Just three days out from the procedure, he no longer showed any symptoms, and he appeared to be in perfect health. We proceeded as planned.
With a 5:15am check-in time on the big day, my wife and I decided that the three of us would stay the previous night at a hotel across the street from the hospital. It would save us an hour-plus drive in the morning, and let us sleep-in a bit (if you can call it that).
We were all in good spirits that evening in the hotel, as we introduced my son to Netflix's Stranger Things, which he loved. Afterwards, as we lay in the dark to the chorus of an obnoxiously loud air-conditioning unit, I did a lot of praying. I asked God to watch over my son during surgery, and to keep us all strong during his recovery.
In the morning, we checked in, and before we knew it, my son was on a hospital bed being prepped by nurses. They checked his vitals, we met with the surgical team, and he was rolled off to the operating room.
My wife was nervous, but I wasn't. I knew he was in good hands, and I'm not just talking about the hands of those in the O.R. However, my gut tightened an hour and a half later in the waiting room, when my son's surgeons and anesthesiologist appeared from around the corner. The surgery had been slated for 4 1/2 hours. Their early presence meant that something was wrong.
It turned out that, after being hooked up, thoroughly drugged, put out under anesthesia, and turned onto his stomach to begin the incision, things got weird for my son. His oxygen levels dropped, and when the team suctioned his lungs, they found a fair amount of pus. He had a lung infection (later diagnosed as pneumonia), and the surgery was aborted.
It was a tough break, as we had been mentally preparing for that day for a long time. Still, we were thankful that the problem had been identified prior to him being cut open. It could have just as likely gone undiscovered until half-way through the procedure, which would have led to some potentially major complications. God was looking out for my son.
Because of the amount of drugs in his system, my son still had to stay overnight in the hospital. He remained on oxygen and drifted in and out of sleep for most of the day. We were sent home the following afternoon with antibiotics. In a sense, the experience was a good dry-run for us all, but we didn't relish the idea of having to go through the whole thing again.
It took us all a few days to get back into the groove of everyday life. My son's planned three-week absence from school amounted to only three days, and my wife and I went back to work early. Everything felt off. We eventually adjusted, but not before having to explain the story of what had happened dozens of times to friends and family (which was exhausting).
We scheduled the second attempt for the second week in November, which would give my son a full six weeks to get all traces of the pneumonia out of his system. We took extra precautions to keep him healthy, including visits to the Children's Hospital pulmonary department.
During that time, I again prayed for my son's health and a successful outcome. Unexpectedly, just three days before the surgery, prayer became a topic of national discussion...at least on social media.
In the wake of the terrible Texas church shooting, a number of celebrities felt compelled to mock those who publicly asked for prayers. They found irony in the fact that the victims were shot while praying, and they offered that premise as proof that speaking to God is nothing but a waste of time.
One of those individuals was actor Wil Wheaton, who tweeted the following in response to Speaker Paul Ryan's call for prayer:
Upon seeing the tweet, I threw out an off-the-cuff response that — to my surprise — ended up going viral:
Thousands of people responded to it, in one way or another. The overwhelming majority did so positively, but a handful of folks took my words as an opportunity to try and convince me that God wasn't real, and that praying was — for all intents and purposes — stupid.
I bear no ill will toward atheists (to each their own), but some of these individuals were particularly obnoxious. Rather than letting their mockery get me down, however, I saw the moment as an opportunity to practice my faith and demonstrate the power that I believe comes with prayer.
I tweeted the below message to my followers the night before my son's surgery:
Again, the response I received was overwhelming. Hundreds of strangers offered their prayers, some asking that I do the same for them (which I did). Their words lent me strength for the next day, and when we arrived at the hospital, we went through the same steps as before.
My son was carted off, and my wife and I took up residence in the waiting room. About an hour and a half later, we received a call from a nurse in the operating room, who told us that things were going smoothy. The surgery was underway. No problems this time. It was very welcome news.
An hour later, the nurse called back to tell us that everything was still looking good. The third notification didn't come from a phone call, but rather from two of the surgeons (including the head one) who walked up to us in the waiting room. Both of them wore grins from ear to ear. They had finished the procedure 90 minutes early, and told us that all had went perfectly.
Soon after, we visited my son in a post-op room. He was in and out of consciousness, but whenever he was awake, he was his sweet and charming self. He was then moved up to his room where he quickly won over the affection of the nurses attending to him. When they'd ask him how he was feeling, he'd tell them, and then groggily ask them how they were feeling.
He said lots of drug-induced, random and silly things like, "If I had super-strength, I'd throw cows at people," and "I kind of like that Breakdown movie" (a 1997 Kurt Russell film he saw about a year ago).
Most importantly though, his pain was manageable and he was recovering well. Within hours, he was sitting up on the edge of his bed. Hours later, he was standing unassisted. The next day, he was walking down the halls of his hospital, in multiple trips (his shoulders even for the first time in nearly two years). And the following morning, he was easily walking up and down stairs — the last physical requirement he had to meet prior to being discharged.
We left the hospital about 48 hours after we had checked in (at least two days earlier than we were expecting), but not before we were finally presented with an x-ray of what my son's spine now looks like. We had been told early on that his curves could be corrected to 15-20 degrees. Instead, we were pleasantly surprised to find that the curves are now virtually non-existent. It was an amazing sight.
At home, my son's recovery continues to go well. It hasn't been without pain, discomfort, a lot of meds, and a couple of late-night calls to the Children's Hospital call-nurse...but each day he grows stronger and healthier. What he's particularly excited about is the inch and a half in height he gained through the surgical straightening of his spine. He's suddenly taller than some of his friends who he was shorter than a day earlier.
Right now, the best therapy is walking, and the two of us go on multiple walks every day. Aside from the health benefits, it gives us an opportunity to talk about all kinds of topics, from his friends' amusing quirks to upcoming superhero movies. I'm sure the next few weeks won't be without setbacks, but when they come, we'll get past them.
What I've found particularly remarkable about my son throughout this entire ordeal is how mature he has remained. Not once in the last two years has he asked "Why me?" or complained about the inherent unfairness of it all — even when forced to wear a brace under his clothes for 23 hours a day. Heck, he barely flinched upon hearing the graphic details of his surgery, even after being shown a model of all the metal that would align his spine.
He has taken it all in stride from the very beginning, and that in itself is a blessing from God.
For those who have prayed for my son at any point over the past couple of years, I am eternally grateful. I believe you helped make a positive difference in his life, and if I can ever return the favor, please let me know.