Martha Carter Talks About Her Healing Journey - Part 4

Harrington rod surgery then (1974) and now

This is Part 4 of a serial blog post. In Part 3, I detail my experience of finding a surgeon (and making the decision!) to remove my Harrington rods. Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

Before I go further in this serial blog post about my journey through Harrington rod removal surgery, the long term effects, and the after care and supportive treatments I discovered, I would like to reiterate to all readers that every person’s surgery experience is unique. It is important to remember that my original scoliosis surgery was over 40 years ago, in 1974! Those were the very early days of the Harrington Rod procedure; surgeons were still learning and being very cautious, which meant the healing process took much longer than it does today.  

In other words: although I believe that most of the physical and emotional issues around scoliosis that I speak about are universal to all surgery patients, I have come to understand that there are certain aspects of my story that pertain more to people who experienced their surgery in the ‘early’ days.

My process with surgery in 1974

For three weeks before the actual surgery, I lay flat on my back in the hospital in traction as the doctors wanted to try to loosen my tight, compressed curve. They attached one 50 pound weight to my lower body, through a contraption around my waist, and set up an additional 50 pounds to pull on my head. Alongside the distress of being tied into the bed and unable to move, it was also extremely uncomfortable — especially on my jaw. The traction attachment strapped under my chin, so every time I opened my mouth it felt like I was lifting that 50 pound weight with my jaw. My jaw has never quite been the same since.

I have never heard of other scoliosis patients having to undergo this procedure.

Following the three weeks of traction — which was apparently not very successful in loosening my curve — they decided to try something else: I was laid naked on a cold metal table, and with the help of a rope and three doctors - one doctor pulling my legs to the right, one pulling my arms to the right, and one using the rope to pull my torso to the left - they manipulated my body into a position that went ‘against’ or in opposition to my right thoraco-lumbar curve.

A plaster ‘straight jacket’

When they deemed themselves to have found the ‘perfect’ position, they wrapped me in wet plaster strips that dried to become a hard torso cast that ran from my hips up to my chest. The cast was heavy and awkward and none of my clothes fit over it; wearing it meant I moved around like Frankenstein! I was sent home for a few weeks, and the only thing I could find to wear was either stretchy white underwear that made me look like a walking egg, or a long flowing mumu dress that my mom had made for me. Needless to say, I did not want to go out in public.

Back to the Hospital

After Harrington Rod surgery, I awoke to find myself lying on my back, once again tied to a bed. This time, the bed was a Stryker frame which was used to keep me from moving my newly-fused spine. For three weeks, I was not allowed to move — not even my arms at first. Every four hours, to avoid bed sores, the nurses would turn me by putting another ‘bed’ on top of me and then flipping me over like a sandwich. I was required to use bed pans and to drink from straws. I can’t remember how I managed to eat anything at all.

Finally, I was sent home in an ambulance to lay flat in bed for several months. I was shown how to do some exercises in bed using an elastic band for resistance, but other than that, I was completely sedentary. After the time in bed at home, I was wrapped in a ‘walking’ cast (another one!) which I wore for six more weeks. During this time, I was encouraged to go back to school, but that was a social nightmare — I once again felt like Frankenstein.  Finally, after almost a year, the final cast was removed. I was ‘finished’ and warned not to do ANYTHING physical — ever. No lifting. No PE. No sports. No dance. Nada.

I was not given physiotherapy, nor was I offered any other supportive care.

Surgery today

There have been many advances in the surgical approach for spinal fusion since 1974. Primarily, the fact that patients are encouraged to get up and walk within a few days of the surgery and to get back into sports and other activities as soon as possible.

In fact, today, most patients are in the hospital for only 4 to 7 days, out of school for 2 to 4 weeks, and back to the activities of their choice in 2 to 6 months. I have also heard of some doctors who recommend various support, such as physiotherapy, counseling, massage, or even yoga. What a difference from my day!

I believe that having to lie flat in a plaster body cast for so many months caused three major issues that I have struggled with ever since:

  1. All that lying around made me very weak, causing atrophied muscles and general physical fragility - including terrible indigestion and acid reflux (from lying flat for so long) - that have plagued me ever since.

  2. The long lack of mobility caused an increase in scar tissue around my fusion that became worse over the years, causing noticeable muscle imbalance. This led to shallow breathing, limited range in my shoulder joint, and crippling muscle spasms.

  3. The fact that I was told NOT to be physical and especially NOT to dance, my main passion in life, led to a disconnect with my body that caused a lack of confidence, body fears (I was always afraid of hurting myself if I moved the ‘wrong’ way), and self esteem issues.

Over the years, I have come to understand that although everyone who goes through surgery has a unique experience, the long bed stay that I experienced, along with the doctor’s overly-cautious approach in recommending no exercise, created long-term issues for me and my contemporaries who underwent surgery back then that are less common in patients who had their surgery in later years.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, deciding to have my rods removed was a decision that not only led to me finding more freedom in my body, but it also allowed me to slowly reverse some of the adverse affects of the original surgery — physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually.