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It's all in your attitude

While in the hospital, it was recommended to me repeatedly to share my experience, as a way to start healing. This whole experience has been one of the hardest things I have been through. It has challenged me mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I'll start at the beginning. 

I have had a herniated disc for at least the last twelve years. While pregnant with our youngest biological child, I had an MRI that first showed it. We don't know what caused it or how long before it was there.  After my pregnancy my back pain improved. It wasn't until the fall of 2017 that I started noticing any pain again. In the spring of 2018 I had another MRI which showed a disc herniation that was intruding 12mm's straight back into my spinal column, which explained the pain down both sides of my legs. Doctors always told me to try everything else before surgery, which is what I did. Fast forward to the fall of 2018. At this time I was in great shape. My back wasn't causing me too many problems and I was thrilled. Towards the end of January I started feeling pain again. By the start of February, I struggled to walk, stand, or even sit for more than a few minutes without extreme pain. On February 18th I went into the Emergency Room after I lost some bowel and bladder control. Nothing gets you into an exam room faster than telling the nurses you lost those controls. Looking back, I should have advocated for myself more in the ER, but I was really scared to go into surgery. The doctor sent me home that day with an appointment the next day with my neurosurgeon. I LOVE my neurosurgeon. He scheduled surgery for me on February 25th, but I didn't make it that long.

Thursday, February 21st I was unable to stand up after sitting for 30 minutes in a child's chair after teaching the preschool that I run from my home. When I finally could stand, I could no longer feel my feet and the spinal pain was over the top. That afternoon we went to the ER and 30 minutes later I was in surgery. I had a microdiscectomy and it went well. The doctor informed me that he removed a chunk of disc from my spinal column that was the size of a quarter. In one year, the herniation went from 12mm to roughly 24mm. To safely remove the herniation, he had to push further back on the nerves to keep them out of the way. I didn't sleep at all that night. When I was first waking from surgery, I remember feeling like I was on fire. Once I woke for good, I kept waiting for all the feeling to come back to my legs and feet. All night I waited. I wasn't in any pain, which excited me to no end. Although I was having some SERIOUS catheter issues. The morning of February 22nd the physical therapist came into my room to help me get up and walking. The physical therapist and aide helped stand me up. My toes were pointed straight up towards my face. I couldn't relax them, but even more alarmingly, I couldn't feel them. I clutched onto the walker and used my upper body to hold me up and barely made it two doors down before I had to return to my bed. The physical therapist did several tests/exercises and left the room. She came back, then a doctor, a caseworker, and the nurse. Each telling me to be ready to be in the hospital and rehab for a long time. That's when I learned I have cauda equina syndrome. Permanent paralysis was also discussed as a possibility. Paralysis can be localized, generalized, partial or complete. It can also be temporary or permanent. At that point, I fell apart emotionally. My career dream is to officiate college basketball at the highest level. I will never forget lying there, telling my feet and legs to do things, and yet... nothing happened. I felt sorry for myself. I went from running 30 miles a week to the possibility of never running again. I feared the burden I would be on my family and my six children. I thought about my job and my obligations. I was overwhelmed.

By Saturday, my dad and my sister were in town. My dad stayed with our kids and my sister and brother-in-law stayed with me at the hospital. On Saturday I had a new Physical Therapist, Monica. She took me into the rehab room. That's where I saw individuals in wheel chairs, one who was blind, and others with conditions worse than mine. We tried the stairs. My sister videoed me as I tried to go up and down the stairs. It looks like she videoed it in slow motion, but it was real time. I could not get my legs to move any faster and it was painful. My heart broke. I couldn't deny things weren't the same.

My sister was a huge help in keeping me distracted. By Sunday, I had so many visitors that I almost forgot about my problems. The texts, phone calls, prayers, and visits all uplifted me. Sunday night I decided I HAD to change my attitude. I was greatly blessed and it would be selfish of me to not remember my blessings. The next day I was moved over to the acute rehab floor where I spent a few days. I was extremely lucky to have Monica as my physical therapist the rest of the time I was at the hospital. She was amazing and I attribute how quickly my legs came back to me to her work. On Tuesday while Monica was trying to teach me to walk again, she had a breakthrough. The nerve damage was preventing the nerves from transmitting signals to my brain, but my legs were now strong enough to move my limp feet. That's when Monica strapped ankle weights onto me. With the weights on, I could feel a connection to the ground. The weights overrode my loss of proprioception. This was HUGE. When they sent me home, they gave me permission to use the ankle weights in my home without using the walker. I feel more like myself when I don't need to use the walker. 

On Wednesday, after six days in the hospital, I was sent home. I had a lot of mixed feelings about leaving. In rehab they taught me so much. I learned how to live life with a walker and how to care for myself with a disability. I was surrounded by good people who, despite their disabilities, were happy and kind.  I actually cried as we left, because I felt so confident at the hospital and Monica had helped me come so far. I also cried because I knew that in the hospital everyone was paid to help me. Whereas at home, I felt like I was just going to be a burden. 

Coming home felt amazing as I "walked" through the doors. All my flowers were lined up on the counter. I have never received so many flowers in all my life. Since the day I went into the hospital, we've only experienced a handful of nights without dinner being brought in. Our church brought meals for the first week and a half and friends and family have taken over from there. Being home has been filled with ups and downs. I've had great improvement and sad setbacks. I'd be lying if I said it's been easy on our marriage. It's been hard. I've always been very independent, and this has been a huge adjustment for Lars and I. I want to say I have remained positive through it all, but I haven't. I was asked to officiate a tournament this past weekend that I wanted to work so badly. It was an alumni tournament with players from Division 1 universities playing in it. I knew the play would be high performance, aggressive and physical- just how I prefer it! I cried a lot about missing it. I struggle to go into gyms where I use to work. I know that there's a chance I might never return. I get angry when I have to ask for help doing the most simple things. I still have saddle numbness and paralysis in my feet and ankles which causes balance problems. 

I have been trying everyday to recognize what I have already overcome and count my blessings. As much as I try though, there are still some days where I just don't feel very grateful. Because of that, last night I received a priesthood blessing to help me through this process. I want to say I instantly felt better, I didn't. But as I woke this morning, I felt more at peace with my new normal than I ever have. Later, Lars mentioned how much better I seem to be walking, as I normally struggle the most in the mornings, but this morning was a slight improvement. I don't want to sound sappy or cheesy, but all day today I have felt a new strength. I know, without a doubt, that I will one day be healed. I will one day overcome these set backs. I will have hard days when I am frustrated that I can't drive or that I need assistance doing things. However, I know the path I need to take. My relationship with my Savior has not been as strong as it could be or has been. When I was in the hospital, I felt I didn't deserve to pray to Him. I hadn't really prayed in a long time. But I finally did. That's when I realized that our Savior doesn't keep score. He doesn't hold grudges. He wants to help us. He wants to strengthen us. We only need to ask. 

Writing this story out definitely helped me see where I was and how far I've come. More importantly, it's helped me really identify the feelings I've experienced along the way. It will be a test of my patience and my faith. However, I'm determined to pass this test! 
Kera Birkeland
Co-Owner -Oil Vault

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