The Need for Group Support After Major Surgery
I am one-year post op from a life altering spine surgery — actually three of them. Prior to surgery, my doctor told me that this would be life-altering and he was right. It has been a roller coaster ride of ups and downs, challenges and victories. I am incredibly grateful that I have had a good recovery and a positive result. I can swim a 5K and can now run a 5K, I can travel for work and for play and even stand to do the dishes. I still have scoliosis, I still have limitations and I will manage this for the remainder of my life. I attribute my strong recovery to my doctor, physical therapist, swim coach, TRX coach, social support, positivity and optimism.
I continue to share my journey, on social media as well as in the newly published book Thriving After Trauma: Stories of Living and Healing by Shari Botwin, LCSW. I have connected with many people in different stages of their journey with scoliosis and spine fusion surgery. Some have had a positive outcome, failed fusion or are still in the midst of trying to find the right option for them. This can feel like a very lonely journey so we all need to lift each other up. Much like I use my eating disorder and alcohol use disorder recovery to help others, I feel the need to help others with this as well. We need someone, who has been there, to get in that dark hole with us and walk through it together. Some of the feedback I have received is that people feel lost and forgotten after surgery. I get that. I was not alone. I had a lot of support, yet I still struggled emotionally. It is a long and difficult journey and absolutely an emotional one. Of course not everyone will have adverse emotional and mental reactions to surgery, however everyone can benefit from support.
Studies show the efficacy of support groups as well as the importance of connection in healing from trauma. “What is essential to keep in mind is that post traumatic growth is not a direct result of trauma but rather related to how the individual struggles as a result of the trauma (Tedeschi and Calhoun, 2004). There are a number of things that people who have experienced trauma and subsequent growth identify that was significant to their struggle. These include: having relationships where they felt ‘nurtured, liberated or validated’ in addition to experiencing ‘genuine acceptance from others’ (Woodward and Joseph, 2003). The ability to connect with people who are able to provide this level of assistance and support through active, attentive and compassionate listening can lead to not only to recovery but can foster post traumatic growth. This may include a therapist, close friend, family member, spiritual leader and/or mentor.”1
This led me to reach out to my local hospital to start a support group there. Like most other hospitals, they host many types of groups including support for Parkinson’s, chronic lung disease, Crohn’s disease and many others. I was certain that they would not say no because of my experience as a therapist, my research and my personal experience with a successful spine surgery. After 2 months of waiting, I was told no. I am sharing this because I am sad that mental health is not as much of a priority as physical health is — yet they are interchangeable. One cannot exist without the other. I must take care of my physical health every day with joyful movement, eating well and resting. I must take care of my mental health by reaching out for support, reading uplifting books, journaling and a variety of other things.
This is the letter that I sent, to the hospital, when I was asked what my qualifications were. I also included my resume and an abstract that I submitted to a spine conference, based on my research and response from 185 people.
I have over a decade of experience leading support groups, as well as individual and family therapy. I have worked at all levels of care in eating disorder and substance abuse treatment including hospital eating disorder units as well as outpatient private practice. I have created and led many groups, most of them focused on eating disorder and addiction recovery as well as trauma. My personal experience is as someone that has been sober for 22 years as well as recovered from an eating disorder for almost as long. That led me to returning to receive my MA in Clinical Psychology and becoming and MFT (Marriage and Family Therapist). I grew up with scoliosis and wearing a back brace and had 2 minor spine surgeries many years ago. Last year, I had a successful spine fusion surgery at your hospital. I am happy to say that my quality of life is far better than it was for years prior to surgery.
Making the decision to have surgery is a personal and emotional one. Post op, I struggled with symptoms of depression, anxiety and PTSD. As a therapist, I did what I would tell a client to do; I sought a therapist for myself pre and post op. What I found is that there aren’t therapists that work with people with chronic medical conditions and most don’t have any knowledge of spine fusion and the emotional and mental impact it can have. It is my job, as an outreach manager, to find people help and, if I couldn’t find help for myself, how are others going to? I am someone that doctors, colleagues and our community reach out to for help and I was concerned that I couldn’t even find appropriate support for myself.
I have always been open with my struggles and talked about my journey with friends, family, and colleagues and on social media. Many people have reached out to me for support, some of them are parents of children that need surgery and many of them are fearful pre op and struggling post op as well. I started to do research and created an online survey about scoliosis, spine fusion and mental health and received 185 responses. That tells me that there are many voices that need to be heard. Even with the best medical team, the emotional component needs to be addressed. Having a safe, nonjudgmental space to process emotions, fear and anxiety with someone who understands it is important.
Over the past thirty years, over 200 research studies with thousands of patients investigating psychological preparation for different kinds of surgery have identified several specific benefits.
The key advantages of preparing for back surgery as well as other types of surgery are:
- Less distress and anxiety both before and after surgery
- Fewer complications related to the surgery and recovery
- Less pain and less need for post-operative pain medication
- Less anesthesia requirements
- Quicker return to health2
Although I am frustrated that I will not be able to hold a support group at that hospital, I will forge ahead and hold one elsewhere as well as finding a good online platform for a confidential group. My hope is that I can educate doctors about the mental health needs of spine patients and that patients are offered mental health support.
- Manitoba Trauma Information & Education Centre (2013). Retrieved November 18, 2019 from https://trauma-recovery.ca/resiliency/post-traumatic-growth/
- Deardorf, W. (2000, August 30). Benefits of Psychological Preparation for Back Surgery. Spine-Health. Retrieved November 18, 2019. https://www.spine-health.com/treatment/back-surgery/benefits-psychological-preparation-back-surgery
Beeman-Gangloff, T. (2019). The Need for Group Support After Major Surgery. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 1, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-need-for-group-support-after-major-surgery/