On April 15 I had an operation to decompress my spinal cord and to have the C5 disc in my neck replaced with a new titanium disc. I ended up in hospital for 67 days. Here’s the back story (no pun intended).
For the past 18 years I have lived with a compressed spinal cord. Although I had the condition since 2003, it wasn’t diagnosed until an MRI scan in 2007. The scan showed that the C5 disc in my neck was completely herniated and that the disc was pressing directly onto my spinal cord causing hundreds of electric shocks every single day. I was prescribed daily amitriptyline which significantly reduced the number of shocks I felt. I was also prescribed heavy duty painkillers (dihydrocodeine) but I soon realised that work was the best analgesic in the world. Instead of taking up to four doses of dihydrocodeine every day, I worked (and worked). I rarely took more than four doses of dihydrocodeine a year let alone a day. I was also given details of an operation I could have but just the very thought of it scared me – especially because of the risk of being left paralysed from the neck or chest down. I was told to come back if I changed my mind about having an operation.
I am not 100% sure what caused the complete herniation of the disc in my neck but I suspect it was a minor traffic collision I was involved in at the beginning of November 2003. I was sitting on the front seat on the top floor of a double decker bus when a taxi crashed into the right-hand side of the bus and I was propelled forward onto the bus’s front window where my head hit the glass window, smashed the glasses I was wearing, and left me concussed. I was highly stressed that day because I was on my way to have a CT scan to look at swollen lumps in my throat for suspected Hodgkin’s or non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Later that week I had a lymphadenectomy and the biopsy showed that I didn’t have cancer but was diagnosed with toxoplasma lymphadenitis. It was after this operation that I began to get the constant daily electric shocks (over 100 a day) every time I moved my neck. I assumed that the constant electric shocks were as a result of my operation but I was later told that the shocks were being caused by a compressed spinal cord and that my lymphadenectomy was not the cause.
Over the next decade or so, the pain caused the constant compression of my spinal cord got progressively worse. Walking became increasingly difficult but I used excessive work as the strategy to suppress the increasing physical pain. In short, work became the perfect distractor task. When I was 100% cognitively engaged (e.g., giving a paper or teaching, writing or editing papers, etc.) I was in no pain whatsoever. I returned to the workaholic tendencies that I had before I had children. One of my consultants also described me as having “unspent youthfulness” which masked my medical condition for years.
The lifestyle I was leading in the years leading up to my operation probably didn’t help. I was travelling excessively averaging 20-25 overseas trips a year for conferences, consultancy, and research meetings. Walking became increasingly difficult as I was unable to lift my right foot properly. During 2019, I had a number of really bad falls abroad (tripping over because my right foot wouldn’t lift) including three in Abu Dhabi and a couple in Auckland which left me with horrendous bursitis on both of my elbows.
During the lockdown period, my health deteriorated badly. I was not globe-trotting anymore and I was housebound for over a year. My working life (and social life) became increasingly sedentary. I was doing everything from home including all my teaching. I had not stepped foot in my university office since the end of February 2020 (and still haven’t).
In August 2020, I saw one of my consultants and told him that my health condition had got significantly worse and that I now wanted the operation. However, because my surgery was classed as ‘elective’ as opposed to ‘urgent’ a date for surgery never came as the Nottingham hospitals were full of very ill COVID-19 patients. At one point during the pandemic, Nottingham was the UK city with the most COVID-19 infections. By February 2020 I could hardly walk and was becoming increasingly immobile. I rang my consultant’s secretary every week asking if I could have an appointment. I finally got one at the end of March 2021 and after seeing how bad my mobility was, I got an operation date very quickly. Thursday April 15, 2021. I was told by my consultant who was performing the surgery that he expected my to be back home the next day if the surgery was successful.
I have to be honest and say that the operation still scared me. Although there was a small chance of dying, that didn’t worry me. It was the thought of waking up paralysed which dominated my thoughts for over a week prior to the operation. Loss of limb use. Loss of job and livelihood Loss of identity. Loss of salary. There are many risks with any operation but spinal surgery carries many extra risks. I was told that some of the consequences could be eating and drinking difficulties and voice loss (as they would be carrying out the surgical procedure through the front of my neck and having to decompress my spinal cord by going via my trachea and oesophagus). I told my consultant that I would rather be dead than paralysed from the chest or neck down.
As the day of the operation approached, I again used work to block out my fears and negative thoughts. On April 15, my partner dropped me off at the hospital at 7am in the morning. Before my operation I had talks with the anaesthetist and one of the surgical team. I then had to sign the consent form which included a very long list of all the things that could go wrong. However, the weeks prior to my operation were surviving not living. I felt I was in the last chance saloon.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK