Recovering From a Broken Back: A Timeline

A couple years ago when I fell down a flight of stairs and broke my back, I was terrified.

Questions swirled in my mind. Would I recover from the major surgery to repair the unstable burst fracture of my L2 lumbar spine vertebra?

Would I ever be the same, and how long would the journey be before I regained a sense of normalcy?

There wasn’t much information on the Internet about the healing process I was soon to go through, at least not about my particular situation. Almost everything I found was regarding voluntary surgery to correct a lingering back issue, but I found hardly anything about those who were unfortunate enough to require major invasive involuntary back surgery due to an accident.

 

After my surgery, there was little I could do but lay on my back and wait for things to get better. If I wasn’t flat on my back, I was out walking. I did lots and lots of walking.

To help keep myself motivated, I decided to record a timeline of my recovery, which I’ve now published here in hopes that it might help someone else.

The fall

Looking down a staircase in a house with hardwood floors and white walls.
I didn’t add the railing on the left until months later at Kat’s request. Note the ominous vignette I added in Photoshop.

2/10/2018 – While heading to bed one night, I lost my balance and fell backwards down the stairs. I was engaged to Kat at the time but still living alone, and I didn’t have my phone on me.

So I just laid there for several hours at the foot of the stairs, writhing in agony.

I knew something was very wrong. Thankfully, I could still feel my legs, so I began to work up the courage to move. Somehow I managed to struggle to my feet, and it was one of the most painful things I’ve ever done. This was bad — my back felt like a slinky.

I collected my phone and gingerly laid on the couch to call an ambulance. That’s when I realized I wasn’t going to be able to get back up. To make matters worse, I hadn’t unlocked any doors in the house, so I had no idea how an emergency crew was going to get to me.

 

Kat was already awake when I called her at 7am, thank God. She rushed over with her key.

She took one look at me and dialed 9-1-1.

The rest is a bit of a blur. A CT scan revealed what we had feared, and the unstable fracture was too big of a job for the local hospital to surgically repair. I was taken by ambulance an hour north to Indianapolis.

An ice storm had hit that morning, and the hospital’s emergency room was packed. So much so that they simply parked me in the hallway, and that’s where I stayed for the next 14 hours but for the occasional scan.

View from a stretcher bed in the hallway of a hospital emergency room.
My view for 14 hours in an emergency room hallway.

It wasn’t until that night that I finally got a room, and my surgery was scheduled for noon the next day.

After the surgery

2/12/2018 – I woke up after the surgery in tremendous pain, but everyone assured me it had gone well.

The next day, my rehab began.

Other than falling down the stairs and then having to stand up with a “slinky back,” there are few things I’ve felt more excrutiating than trying to get out of bed those first few times.

The process to getting out of bed after back surgery goes like this: Knees up, barrel roll to the side, swing your legs over the edge of the bed and somehow lift yourself up — all in one awkward motion. It was awful.

They gave me a walker, and I took my first steps as a person with two ten-inch titanium rods screwed to his spine. I had a long road ahead.

Andrew walking with the help of a walker and a physical therapist in a hospital room.
This may be one of the most unflattering looks for me, but if you’re going to tell a story right …

Discharged

2/15/2018 – I left the hospital four days after being admitted. I had already graduated to using a cane. Getting into Kat’s Toyota Camry was no fun.

To make matters worse, the main drag outside the hospital had such massive potholes it may have just as well been the surface of the moon.

Kat artfully dodged the craters, which I was immensely thankful for. Those would have hurt bigtime.

I stayed with Kat for a couple days, then with her (amazing) parents for a few. When I was confident enough to stay at home by myself, two of Kat’s cousins brought my guest bed downstairs to the living room so I could spend my days there closer to the things I needed.

Andrew laying on a bed in his living room, looking up at the camera inquisitively.
Secretly, who doesn’t want a bed in their living room?

The only thing I could do for therapy was walk (with my back brace on), and that’s what I did. My first day out of the hospital I wore my Fitbit and got my 10,000 steps.

Most days I walked about 13 miles, sometimes more. My back felt okay — not great, but I could tell I would heal in time. I could feel it.

My feet hurt more than anything from all the walking I did in a pair of shoes that were basically slippers. I later learned about elastic shoe laces, which allowed me to slip on my running shoes. Much better.

 

I brought my cane on my walks at first, but I honestly don’t think I needed it. It was more of a mental thing.

Kat became worried that I was overdoing it, and she asked me to call the doctor’s office to make sure what I was doing was okay. They told me that as long as it didn’t hurt, I was free to walk for as long and far as I wanted.

Timeline to Recovery

A paper chain draped in five loops hanging on an apartment wall.
Kat made a paper chain to count down the days to my three-month follow up with the surgeon.

2/24/2018 – Twelve days after my surgery, I stopped taking prescription painkillers. Two days later my staples — 40 of them — were removed. Two more days and I was cleared to drive again. Getting in and out of the car was unpleasant, so I limited that activity.

3/6/2019 – Three weeks after my surgery, I stopped taking Tylenol for pain. It was still painful to move, mind you, but it was no longer a lingering pain.

I read a lot. I did some genealogy. I experimented with vegetarianism (it didn’t take though).

Boxes of frozen White Castle veggie sliders and black bean sliders in a supermarket case.
Not a Google ad: Who knew White Castle had two vegetarian options? They’re not bad, guys!

3/21/2019 – Six weeks in, I went on a walk for the first time without my back brace. It kind of felt like riding a bike without the training wheels.

3/22/2018 – I had a follow-up appointment with my surgeon. He cleared me to return to work and to begin weaning off the brace.

3/25/2018 – I drove to the grocery store and did the shopping without my brace.

I sneezed, and for the first time it didn’t hurt. That might seem kind of random, but sneezing always hurt so bad. That was a true milestone for me.

3/26/2018 – I returned to work!

Andrew in an office cubicle with a digital sign that reads "I'm back, baby!"
I used this electronic display to triumphantly announce my return to work. And I wore a Peaky Blinders hat. I got totally into that show while I was down.

3/27/2018 – I began feeling a slight tingling in my right arm, mostly in my hand. I called the surgeon’s office to ask if this was okay. They told me it was normal as my nerves and spine continued to heal. They told me to keep them informed if it got any worse.

I bought a bonsai tree (that I eventually killed). I read a relaxing book about hygge my boss gave me. I read another Kat gave me about the KonMarie method and threw 40 bags of stuff out of my house.

Hundreds of chewed and destroyed stuffed dog toys aligned for a group photo.
For some reason, I had kept every single toy my dog Hoagie had ever destroyed. I must have taken out five garbage bags full. But first, one last group photo. I sure do miss that sweet little dog.

3/30/2018 – It was my last official day for wearing the back brace, but I had actually stopped on 3/27. The numbness I had experienced a few days earlier was mostly gone. I took the shower chair out of the bathroom.

4/6/2018 – I was able to put my socks on without the helper tool. If you don’t know what that is, scroll to the bottom of this article for a list of handy items to have during recovery.

4/7/2018 – I tied my shoes! I still like the elastic shoe laces though — they’re just so easy.

4/16/2018 – First “sustained” jog (maybe a half mile?).

4/21/2018 – I went hiking! See, you knew I had to tie this into a blog about hiking somehow, right? I also did some pushups, but I’ll write more about that on my pushups website.

Kat

Silly.

 

Kat and Andrew selfie at Charlestown State Park in Indiana.
We hiked the ruins of an old abandoned theme park in Charlestown, Indiana. Oh, and I shaved.

4/25/2018 – Bench pressed 100 lbs, two reps. Obviously not much, but what an improvement after being restricted to lifting nothing heavier than a gallon of milk. I wanted to do more — and I probably could have — but I wanted to wait to be completely cleared.

4/30/2018 – X-ray and follow-up appointment with the surgeon. The doctor cleared me to run. Slowly, he said. I assured him that going slow wasn’t going to be a problem. The X-ray showed beginnings of bone growth. Doc said a CT scan would show it better. We scheduled the next follow-up for late July.

Front and side view x-rays of spine after fusion surgery with titanium rods and screws.
Front and side x-ray views of my L2 lumbar spine fusion with titanium rods and screws.

5/10/2018 – Finished the fourth run in C25K, an app I’d used previously that slowly builds your running endurance from essentially nothing to being able to run a 5K in roughly 8 weeks. I felt good so I ran an extra 10 minutes non-stop, covering 1.16 miles at an 8’48” pace. First non-stop mile! 

 

5/31/2018 – Ran two miles without stopping for the first time since this all began!

6/10/2018 – Ran three non-stop miles (and then some)! My average pace was 9:06.

7/23/2018 – I moved my queen sized bed out of the living room all by myself.

7/26/2018 – Follow-up appointment with the doctor. All restrictions lifted.

8/1/2018 – Ran a 5k at an 8:40 average pace.

8/9/2018 – Did 20 situps. More about those on my separate situps website.

Kat

Still not funny.

 

8/20/2018 – Touched my left toe with my leg stretched out in front of me! This wasn’t your traditional bend-over-and-touch-your-toes-move, but I was really happy about it. I think that’s about as flexible as I’ll ever get.

10/6/2018 – We got married! At our reception, Kat and I did a waltz for our first dance, which included a couple dips.

Andrew dips Kat during their first dance as husband and wife at their wedding reception.
The big finish.

1/24/2019 – Almost a year after my surgery, I went back to the hospital for a follow-up CT scan and consult with my neurosurgeon. My progress pleased him, and he said that everything had fused (which is a good thing considering this was a spinal fusion surgery).

4/24/2019 – It was bound to happen eventually — I fell. We were on our (late) honeymoon in Hawaii and were hiking in the Iao Valley jungle (See? More about hiking!). The trail was slippery from the rain. On one steep descent, I slipped and fell right on my butt. Hard.

No harm was done, and it actually gave me the confidence to try my hand at surfing a week later in Kauai. While it turned out I’m about as good at surfing as I am at skiing, I do think I perfected the wipeout.

My back felt pretty good the whole time, but I do feel like I was pushing things maybe a little too hard. I felt a little tender all over the next couple days, but that was probably bound to happen either way. Indiana country boys aren’t used to using surfing muscles.

 

Going forward

Most days I rarely think about my back. Other days, however, I have to force myself to not think about it.

As I write this in August of 2019, a year and a half after my accident, I can tell you that my back feels a little sore. But I also ran a couple miles this morning, and tonight was my weekly dance class with Kat.

We just finished an intermediate waltz class and are doing some Latin dances the next several weeks. Things are good, and life with Kat is incredible. She was so strong throughout this ordeal, and I’m so happy (and lucky) I’m going to spend the rest of my life with such a beautiful amazing woman.

Kat

Aaaaawwwwww.

 

I’ll never be 100% physically. I’ll never touch my toes again, but I joke that it’s an overrated skill anyway. Otherwise, well, everything is pretty much back to normal.

I feel the hardware screwed to my spine, and it’s kind of an odd sensation. I’m used to it though. Mostly.

I have to admit that it worries me sometimes when I think about what things might be like when I get older. But I’m okay now, and that’s what matters NOW.

At times my accident serves as inspiration for me to get out there and do what I want while I still can. Here’s where I should end my story with some kind of uplifting cliche, but that’s not really my thing.

(Insert your own uplifting cliche here.)

Kat

Anything but “live, laugh, love.”

Andrew

Yes, anything but that please. We hate that.

 

I am, however, here for you in the comments section. Have a question? Fire away. Or if you just need someone to listen, I can be that guy too.

Things you will need to recover

Below is my list of the five essential things you need to purchase to help you in your recovery from back surgery. It includes elastic shoe laces, a shower chair, raised toilet seat, sock helper and a grabber. I’d skip the cane unless you can’t find one to borrow — you won’t be using it for very long.

Kat’s perspective

After publishing this post, Kat sent me an addendum detailing her own experiences as she dealt with me and navigated my health situation. I think it goes perfectly with this post, so I’m including it below. My wish is for everyone to have the amazing support network of friends and family that I did!

Kat

Thanks for the shout out, my dear husband ❤️. So I know when Andrew was in the hospital I was poring over message boards trying to see what was in store for us and whether our wedding date 8 months away still made sense.

I want to say it’s totally normal to have your emotions wildly cycle from fear, to anger, to gratitude, to bored frustration several times a day. That cycle will slow down but continue for the months that it takes to heal. It was hard especially because I didn’t have the same insight as Andrew had feeling himself slowly healing. My experience was that it decreased in difficulty on this timeline: first three days, 1 month, 3 months, 1 year.

Anger was by far the hardest emotion to handle because it felt so inappropriate. Here’s my advice – give yourself some grace for your actions and full grace for your range of emotions. I vented anger passive aggressively by buying him stupid lounge pants that were tie-dyed and had cat faces all over them, giving him a “How Not to Die” book (which spurred on his vegetarian experiment), and buying him some magnesium citrate when he complained about the painkiller’s effects on his body. Despite all this, Andrew was always happy to help me with a comforting hug when I was feeling low.

When you’re feeling logical and action-oriented, take stock of all your resources to get through the next month. Get some of your least judgmental friends & family who have been through some stuff themselves on call ready to respond when you need it. People reminded me it was ok and to take care of myself because no one can pour from an empty cup.

Get some of his friends to help with practical concerns – like cutting grass or delivering meals. He may be resistant to asking for help (most men are) but the fact is you’ll have to do it if he can’t, and maybe you’re exhausted. Besides, people like to help when you give them concrete well-defined tasks, and people sure came through!

Andrew

They really did. We have awesome friends and family.

Kat

If you have an employer that offers EAP, get signed up for free sessions. Plan a trip to visit a friend a couple months from now; I went to Denver in April, and I think it was good for both of us to have a weekend apart. If you buy on Southwest you can always push your trip back later if you need to.

Some of his family wryly commented this was a “marriage test and I passed it”. Since we’re still in the honeymoon phase I like to think they’re CRAZY. However, it’s probably true. You’ll get a chance to see how you get through difficult things together.

I was encouraged that he got off his pain killers as fast as he could and got out walking. It showed character and his will to get better. Apparently he thinks I was strong even though I didn’t always feel that way. Would we go through it again if I could go back in time and stop it? HELL NO. But we sure do have a unique engagement story!