Post-surgery update

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Recovery from surgery is kicking my ass. I realize that is a rhetorical statement, but, it is. It is harder than any week of training combined with the absolute worst Ironman!

The last two weeks have been a whirlwind. Indeed, when I left Boulder almost two weeks ago, I had no idea I would come home with a fresh new scar on my abdomen.

The reason I waited so long to have surgery on my ribs is purely because I could not find a surgeon who would operate. Unlike a broken leg which shows up on an x-ray, there was no imaging I could have done to determine the nature of the problem. Whoever would ultimately do the surgery would be operating based on clinical exam and my clinical history. Exploratory surgery on an otherwise healthy individual is risky. In addition, adult surgeons do not typically do this type of chest wall surgery; it falls into the realm of pediatric surgery who fix chest wall deformities in children. Pediatric surgeons often cannot or will not work on adults. Over the years, I have been in contact with a dozen surgeons. Most recently, this summer, two surgeons disappointingly turned me down, including the surgeon who had previously operated on my ribs.

This is the nice welcome I got to my talk.

I needed the perfect storm to occur. This is how it happened. One of my athletes set up an appointment for me with Dr. Saxton, a pediatric thoracic surgeon on staff at Gundersen Lutheran, the hospital where she is a physician. It was meant to coincide with my upcoming visit to La Crosse, WI to give a motivational talk at their annual women’s physician dinner. I chose this particular weekend because La Crosse is only 3 hours from Minneapolis and I could then go directly to Minneapolis to run the marathon. I like to consolidate things to make the best use of my time. My objective was for Dr. Saxton to provide some information on what was causing so much pain.

When I met Dr. Saxton, we chatted, I showed him my messed up ribs and I tried not to cry as I relayed my story. I explained that I was in pain 24/7 and things like sitting, sleeping and bending over were particularly uncomfortable. He told me that there was no reason I should live like that and he could help me. He did ask about my athletic objectives, particularly about riding and getting back to triathlon. I told him my main goal was to be able to function better in my daily routine and improvement in my athletic endeavors were secondary to better general health.

I jokingly asked if he could do surgery on Monday, as I was running the Twin Cities marathon on Sunday.

He explained that he does surgery on Wednesday’s and he was booked the following week. My heart dropped and I started calculating in my head when I might be able to fly back to La Crosse. He excused himself from the room to check his schedule. He came back a few minutes later and said “How does Tuesday sound?”

I am rarely at a loss for words, but I was stunned into silence. I wanted to jump up and give him a hug, but then I decided if I showed too much crazy he might change his mind. All summer I had a fantasy where I would cross the finish line at the marathon and go directly to the hospital, in my race kit, and have surgery. I couldn’t believe it was actually going to come true.

I had to make a snap decision on something that would affect the rest of my life. Normally, hours of research goes into choosing a surgeon, not a 30 minute consult. But, I knew from the moment we shook hands he was the right person. His kind demeanor and obvious knowledge and skill made me say yes without hesitation.

I was a mess coming out of anesthesia. I am being wheeled up to my room for the night.

Fast forward to the day of surgery. The projected duration was 2 hours. The actual duration was 3.5 hours. It was supposed to be outpatient. I spent the night in the hospital. The incision was meant to be fairly small. The incision looks like I had open heart surgery (I did give him permission to make the incision as large as necessary to get the best view possible). Needless to say, the recovery was going to be much longer than anything we anticipated, especially since he had to fix so many things and he cut through a lot of muscle. Briefly, he removed my xiphoid process, plated three ribs, and moved a nerve bundle from under my ribs to a pocketed area beneath my upper abdominals.

The night in the hospital was brutal. It is the most unrelaxing place on earth. They came in every few hours to take my blood pressure. There were a lot of strange noises. Any time I needed to go to the bathroom I had to ring for a nurse who then stood outside the bathroom door as I struggled to pee. I was hungry and the kitchen was closed. I started gearing up for breakfast at 4:30 am and the kitchen didn’t open until 7. I played TwoDots all night and got myself to level 68. What a colossal waste of time; but, it is oh-so addicting.

I was encouraged to get up and walk (as if I needed any prodding) and so I took to walking the halls with the nurse. At one point she said to me “This feels really weird. I don’t usually walk so fast with my patients.”


group photo
Group shot before I left the hospital. Dr. Saxton is the tall one.

I was discharged the next morning and my recovery could begin in earnest.

I was shocked at the size of the incision when Dr. Saxton removed the bandage during my post-op visit. Yes, my hands were cold…

I will be able to hopefully begin some light exercise on the elliptical within 2 weeks and get back in the pool within four weeks. In the meantime, I am taking some gentle walks to enjoy fresh air and get some movement.

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