Heather Long, author of the Lone Star Leathernecks series, shares the story that inspired AS YOU WERE, COWBOY and its hunky hero, the sexy, brooding rancher Mateo Lopez. AS YOU WERE, COWBOY is out today!
One morning in November 2013, I woke to tingling in my left hand and an aching joint at the elbow. I didn’t think much of it; I had been working a lot of hours and falling into bed exhausted. I just assumed that I slept on the arm wrong. However, after more than three days passed with the same issues, after the tingling in my hand turning into numbness, I bit the bullet and called the doctor.
I was able to get an appointment within a couple of days, and I half thought the issue would resolve itself as soon as I walked in her door. Kind of like how the car stops having issues when you go to the mechanic. Sadly, this wasn’t the case. After some tests and discussion with the doctor she sent me to get x-rays. She thought I had a pinched nerve. I was able to get x-rays that day; however, it was three days before I got the results from the doctor. When she called me, she told me several of the discs in my neck were flattened or compressed. I needed to have an MRI, and she recommended me to a spine specialist.
This wasn’t my first rodeo with compressed discs. In 2011, I had issues with two discs in the lower portion of my spine. Fortunately, I was one large Cortisone shot away from relief. I went to see the spine specialist, and she noticed a lack of muscle strength in my left hand versus my right. As with my general practitioner, She insisted I get an MRI right away. It I had an MRI done on Thursday before Christmas and on the Monday before Christmas I got my results.
Yes, I did have flattened discs in my spine. That, however, was a minor problem compared to the issue with my spinal cord. These are not words you want to hear anyone tell you. I sat there as the physician explained to me that I had a condition called cervical spinal stenosis. What this means is that sheath around the spinal cord itself was compressing the cord. When I asked how this happened, the surgeon explained in all likelihood that I had been born this way, and that over the years more and more pressure had been put on the cord.
We discussed my options, as well as the fact that without treatment the compression on my cord would continue and long-term damage was inevitable. Without the surgery, we wouldn’t know how much damage was already permanent. A little sick to my stomach, and more than a little worried, I discussed the diagnosis with a trusted few individuals.
Not only was I concerned about the actual problem, but I was also concerned about the surgery. The surgeon had described it as a procedure that required they go into the back of my neck, shave away the bone and relieve the pressure on the cord. He initially described it as a 45 minutes surgery— great—but it would also be a minimum 7 to 15 days for me to be ableto go back to work, and perhaps four weeks before I was feeling fully up to speed. These were averages, however, and subject to change based on the individual patient. He could not predict what would happen during and after the surgery.
Now I was in a race against time, Not only against my deadlines, but also my body. They scheduled the surgery for January 3, 2014. With so many ongoing projects, my goals became twofold: finish as many projects as I could and prepare my daughter, Mini Me, for what was to come, as well as make arrangements for someone to be here while I was recovering.
I did a lot of research about cervical stenosis and the procedure I was about to undergo. Sometimes research does not make you feel better, particularly when you can see all the things that could go wrong. Armed with my knowledge and confident I had done as much as I could, I was admitted for surgery very early in the morning on January 3.
What follows are the pieces that I can remember. I went through the admission process, changed into it hospital gown, had the IV inserted, and spoke to the various doctors and nurses associated with my surgery. After a grueling 80 minutes of waiting, they were finally ready to roll me into the surgical room. I remember the trip in almost vague clinical terms. A part of my brain catalogued each thing that I saw, made mental notes, and thought, how could I use this in a book?
There must have been the anesthesia shortly thereafter,because that thought was my last one until I woke up in recovery. The first thing I remember thinking was: oh my God it hurts. My mouth was dry, and my lips felt chapped. The pain was, so excruciating it seemed to shred my thoughts before I could fully form them. I managed to say the word hurt, but I don’t think anyone was there to hear me. I couldn’t see anyone, only the cold sterile ceiling above.
I tried to lift my arm in a vain attempt to get someone’s attention and realized I couldn’t move my arm… I couldn’t move either one. So, amid the pain slicing through my brain was this feeling a sudden terror. Had they paralyzed me? It had, after all, been one of the possible risks of the surgery. What would I do? I was a writer, I needed my hands. I was a mother; I needed my arms.
It was the thought of Mini Me that grounded me. I latched onto that thought with every fiber of my being. I was a mother. I needed to be able to move my arms. And then the fingers on my right hand started to curl…
At some point during all of this, the nurses noticed I was awake and came to ask me how I was feeling. The only sentence I was able to get out was it hurts. I repeated it over and over again. Only two thoughts survived the shredding going on in my brain—my child, and my pain.
I weaved in and out of consciousness, as they gave me medicines for the pain. At some point, they told me they were admitting me to the hospital— I should mention here this was supposed to be an outpatient surgery. The tri, from the recovery room to the hospital room was a descent through hell. They’d been giving me Morphine, but all that did was make me not care so much that I was in pain. It didn’t seem to take away the pain at all.
The lift from the surgical bed to the room bed was so painful that I passed out. However, I was told later by one of the nurses, that I shouted “At least this will be good research.” Most of the rest of the day is a blur. I know a nurse fed me by hand because I couldn’t get my arms to do what I wanted them to do–but they were moving so I wasn’t paralyzed. On another upside, I had two of the most amazing nurses ever looking after me.
I also found out later, during the procedure they were monitoring neural activity, and they saw an increase of 30% in both my left and right arms. Now remember, I’d only had issues with my left. It seems the increased sensitivity in my right arm meant I felt everything including the air and it hurt.
Late Friday evening, Mini came to see me and though I knew she was scared, I saw the relief on her face when I tried to smile. It was difficult for both of us, but we both put on a brave face. I would be in the hospital until late Sunday afternoon. They released me only after they found the right combination medications to control my pain. Going home was an adventure, and one I only vaguely remember.
Once I was home, I slept in a recliner because I couldn’t lay flat, and I had a 6 ½ inch incision on the back of my neck all the way to between my shoulder blades. I slept a lot that first week, Getting up to walk three and four times a day in slow circles and then going to sleep afterwards again because I was exhausted.
The circular injury is from the drain. This is 18 days post op
Most of that week remains a blur. The second week after my surgery, my hands were still in extremepain and electric shocks were still going off in the arms as the nerves seemed to pulse with all this information I hadn’t gotten before. It was also release week for one of my books, and I had to be at my party online.
Thankfully, I had some great friends both online and local. My online friends helped keep the party going and helped me promote even as I slept frequently and finished offline. My local friends brought me food—everything from an amazing chicken pot pie to a lasagna. Between them I had meals for most of the first two weeks I was home that didn’t require any prep other than heating them up.
Today marks nearly 4 years since that surgery. In that time, I’ve had several months of physical therapy and ongoing treatment for what they thought might be permanent nerve damage. A year ag, this month I went back to the neurosurgeon—the pain was almost constant, , and I was so frustrated that I could barely type and had to rely on dictation more and more. What followed was a year of MRIs, full body scans, multiple tests (including eliminating conditions like MS), and the best pain doctor I’ve ever met in my life. While the neurologist and neurosurgeon worked on what could be consistently aggravating me, the pain doc worked on minimizing my pain.
I had a grand total of 8 spinal procedures and nerve blocks. While not perfect, they did make it possible for me to continue writing. Though not at my normal speeds it was way better than nothing. It also helped reduce the constancy of the pain, and worse, the pain meds, which left me muddle headed. In mid-November, I had an emergency that required an unplanned surgery. Three weeks after that date, I’m scheduled to have two discs replaced in my neck—remember those compressed discs from way back during my first session with the docs? Turns out one is almost completely gone and the other one is disintegrating.
On December 5th, I had surgery to replace those discs and will spend the next 2 to 4 weeks healing, and then it’s back to physical therapy. Fingers crossed, I’ll be back in the saddle once more, metaphorically, and all of this is why Mateo’s story in As You Were Cowboy is so close to my heart. I know spinal nerve pain; I know exactly how debilitating it is, and I know how sometimes it’s easier to try and suck up the pain and not the medication. When you have the choice, do you choose to lose control of your mind or your body? The mind seems to be the thing we try to hold onto—or at least I do.
Every day is a gift, and every day is worth working for. I’m not paralyzed. I can type, and I can hug my kiddo. These are all wins in my book. For more on Mateo’s journey, check out As You Were, Cowboy.