Breaking my Back in China ~ 10 Things It Taught Me

Breaking my Back in China ~ 10 Things It Taught Me

This weekend I passed the 8-week mark since my accident and surgery. The experience has definitely been a life lesson. What did breaking my back (and tailbone) and having surgery in China teach me?

  1. Life Can Change in an Instant ~ You hear it all the time; “do it now, tomorrow isn’t promised”, “hug your loved ones, who knows what tomorrow will bring?”, “life is short”, and “don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today”. If you’re like me you shake your head and say, “I know, I know” and go about your day. Going about my day, not a care in the world except packing for a 2-week trip to Paris. Shit got real. Looking back, things really do move in slow motion as you realize something “bad” is happening and it is totally out of your control. Life changed in an instant. I was in a hospital, in a foreign country. I had a broken back and tailbone. I was trying to contact my brother in the states. I was told I needed surgery. Turns out I was lucky. The T12 was resting just against my spinal cord and there was evidence of bone fragments. Lucky, why? Things could have been much worse.
  1. Bedpans Suck ~ I know, you’re saying, “of course bedpans suck”. Well, you don’t realize how much they suck until it’s your only option. Forget the pain. Forget you’re in a hospital in China. Forget everything……it’s that moment when, “oh, shit”, no pun intended, I can’t get up to use the bathroom. Bedpans suck!
  1. A Smile is Indeed a Universal Language ~ My Chinese is poor and other than a few doctors who had studied in the states, most of the nursing and other staff spoke no English other than hello. Peter, my English-speaking host in Dong’e, naturally couldn’t be with me 24/7. I could tell it was stressful to many of the staff when they knew they had to attempt to communicate with me. They even avoided eye contact in the beginning. A couple young nursing students even looked fearful. Finally, I got them to start to look at me and I would give them a big smile and a thumbs up. Guess what? I got smiles back, a few giggles too. Soon, everyone had a smile when they came into my room. Next, I showed them we could communicate with google translate…..more happy faces! I learned a smile goes a long way to bridge the communication gap.

  1. You Can Get Excellent Medical Treatment Outside the USA ~ I quickly learned things are much different in a Chinese Hospital. You can refer to my prior blog post for those. As news of my situation got back to the states, many were concerned about the level of care I would get outside of the US. I soon found out that several of my doctors had trained in the United States, some even at the Cleveland Clinic. Their willingness to share treatment options with my family and doctors in the states put us all at ease. As treatment progressed, before and after surgery, I always felt I was in very competent hands. Many things are extremely different from what would have happened if I was in the US. I received TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) right alongside what would have been done in the west. Although I am still recovering, I can say, without a doubt, I received excellent medical treatment in China.

  1. Bedpans Suck, & They Suck Worse When You Need an Enema ~ I won’t get into any gory details. We all agree bedpans suck. Now as someone who is as regular as the Brown’s losing, 4 days seemed like an eternity or at least like the 635 days of the Browns losing streak. This is all I will say, when they tell you they are going to give you an enema and you know you have to use the bedpan, it will be the best worst moment of your life. It was also at this moment, I learned that there is a point in time when you lose all modesty and you don’t give a shit….


  1. 14 Days in Bed at No More Than a 45°Angle Makes One Weak ~ 2 weeks go by, I’m feeling good….little or no pain. I have cabin fever and just want to go home. The moment arrives, I move to a full sitting position. Wow, feels pretty good. Next, I get strapped into my Ninja Turtle-like back brace. The doctor comes in and asks how I feel. I give him the thumbs up and ask if I can walk to the restroom use a real toilet. He nods okay. Whoa, not wow, whoa, I stand and immediately feel light headed and my legs feel like mush, but I walk the gauntlet, ready to sit as soon as I am in the bathroom. I make it back to my bed and sit again. The doctor asks how I feel. I tell him weak and light-headed. He tells me that’s normal and not to worry. It is now that I learn that you don’t get a cushy wheelchair ride to a waiting car. I got to walk myself out of the hospital. When I finally arrived home, I realized how weak I had become in 2 short weeks. Thankfully I feel myself becoming stronger every day.

  1. Everyday Tasks Aren’t So Easy ~ As instructed, I knew I couldn’t bend, twist or lift anything heavy for several weeks. No problem, right? Wrong! Although I got “bathed” and had my hair washed at the hospital, I couldn’t wait for a hot shower and wash my hair. Who knew raising my arms to wash my hair could be so difficult and exhausting. Then trying to lean forward to put it in a towel, not easy. How do I dry my feet….hmmmm, I have to sit down. Mundane tasks like putting on pajama bottoms, again I have to sit. Clipping my toenails, forget it. I had to ask my caregiver to do it. I was so happy to get rid of the bedpan. But guess what? When using the toilet after back surgery, there is a position between standing and sitting that is extremely uncomfortable. Sneezing or coughing, if standing, I looked for something to support me. I soon learned that I took many things for granted. Day by day those everyday tasks are becoming easier and almost starting to feel normal again.
  1. Posture is Important ~ One of the first things the doctor told me when I arrived at the hospital was because of the nature of my injury, my stomach would be distended. This became more noticeable after I came home. My low back seemed to naturally want to push my abdomen forward while arching my back. I realized I was going to have to pay close attention to my posture. Along with doing stretching exercises I had to consciously pull my abdomen in and not let my back sway. This made a world of difference in how I felt. I still catch myself slouching and tensing, but as soon as I adjust my posture I feel my whole body relax.
  1. It’s Easy to Get Lazy ~ I remember when my brother first started his own business. He had his office in his home. I commented how nice to just roll out of bed and work in his underwear or pajamas. He immediately corrected me. He told me he would never get anything done that way. He said he got up, showed and got dressed just like he was going to an office offsite, otherwise you get lazy. I learned he was correct. In the beginning, the doctor didn’t want me out of bed for long periods of time, so it wasn’t a problem. As I improved and was spending most of the time up and about my apartment, I learned I did accomplish more if I treated it like a normal day. I still have the occasional lazy, stay in pajamas all day kind of days, but I definitely feel better and do more if I get up and get dressed for the day.

  1. Attitude is Everything ~ I must admit, during this little hiccup in my life, it hasn’t all been smiles. I have had some bad days. When I finally admitted to myself that the Paris trip was off, I cried. When my brother and sister-in-law were willing to drop everything and come to my little rural town, I felt bad. I could very easily let myself get depressed and feel sorry for myself. What good would that do? I couldn’t change anything that had happened. I made the decision to wake up every morning with a positive attitude. Even if it was taking crazy selfies…..some days it was a struggle to be positive, but it doesn’t matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.

I will close with the words of Edith Wharton. “One of the great things about travel is that you find out how many good, kind people there are”. This is probably one of the most important things I learned.

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