Kaye Brown Hirst grew up on a nursery. “My dad was a fertilizer distributor,” said the retired executive director of the Rowan Museum in Salisbury, North Carolina. “All the farmers in the area came to us. I grew up lifting 50-pound bags, pushing wheelbarrows, digging, pulling weeds. I always used my body and never gave it a second thought.”
About 30 years ago, Hirst started having back pain. A doctor in Charlotte diagnosed her with spinal stenosis — a condition in which the spinal canal narrows and pinches the nerves, resulting in back and leg pain. He suggested back exercises she could do at home. She did them — but she continued planting, weeding and watering. It’s in her blood. Her passion for digging in the dirt and cutting fresh flowers — which she often arranges for church functions — had always brought her joy. But it brought pain, too. She’s had two knee replacements and a shoulder replacement.
About a year and a half ago, Hirst, 66, began having hip problems and went to a new doctor in Salisbury — Dr. Eugene Eline. He gave her an epidural for the pain — which helped a little — but warned her he thought surgery was inevitable.
Hirst liked him immediately. “He’s a gardener, too,” she said.
At the same time Hirst was dealing with chronic back pain, her husband, Ed, was dying. She often had to lift him out of bed. Tending to Ed was harder on her back than tending to her garden. But she wanted and needed to be there for him.
After he died, Hirst got the flu. “It was the awful kind that knocks you out for weeks,” she said. “I had to be quarantined and didn’t have a spouse to help take care of me.”
When she began feeling better — but was still deep in grief — it was spring. Everything was in bloom. She wanted to garden in spite of being “bent over and walking with a cane,” she said. She asked Eline if she could delay surgery until September.
He advised her not to wait.
But he agreed to allow her to take a family trip in May to Hilton Head Island, where she has vacationed for 45 years. “My sister, my stepson, my son and his wife and our grandbaby all went,” she said. “I walked in the sand with my cane, and we had a ball.”
The family had more than relaxation on their minds. They needed to scatter Ed’s ashes at the beach he loved.
Once back home, Hirst readied for surgery, meaning: She found someone to care for her garden for the duration of her hospital stay. Her May 30 surgery was supposed to last four to six hours. It lasted 12. “There was a lot more wrong with me than they anticipated,” she said.
Patience and hard work
But the hard part wasn’t over. Hirst remained in inpatient rehab for three-and-a-half weeks. “The nurses and therapists were unbelievable,” she said. “And Dr. Eline was in there a lot to check on me.”
Physical therapy (PT) is hard work. “It hurt,” Hirst said. “The first day, I was lying on a good, hard bed and had to do leg lifts. I did a few and had to stop. My therapist patted my arm and said, ‘Just rest.’ But she didn’t mean I could rest indefinitely. She said, ‘You’ve done four leg lifts. You have to get to 10. When I got to 10, she told me I had to do 10 on both legs. After I’d done 10 on both legs, she said I needed to do three sets of 10.”
Tough love: It’s necessary for successful PT.
The person providing that tough love was Ashley Truesdale. She never wants to overwhelm a patient on the first day. She finds it’s best not to start with the big picture. “You break it down into little pieces,” she said. You’ve don’t begin a marathon thinking of the 26th mile. You just get through the first one. And then the next.
Truesdale said Hirst made amazing progress: “In the beginning, Kaye required maximum to moderate assistance to get on and off the bed. But she progressed well. Once she got started, there was no looking back.” Hirst worked one-on-one with therapists — but was diligent about doing her “homework,” too. Truesdale gave her exercises to do in her room, and she did them faithfully.
Hirst also went to occupational therapy, where she practiced doing laundry using, she said, “a reacher to clamp things.” Bending over is still forbidden. “There are three rules after back surgery,” she said. “BLT. No bending. No lifting or leaning. And, no turning or twisting.”
“I’m not happy about my limitations,” she said. But she’s complying with her orders, including Eline’s edict not to pull a single weed.
She’s waiting for Eline’s all-clear to garden and swim in her pool: “I can see it right outside my window, but I just can’t swim yet.”
As eager as she is to get back outside, she’s happy to be standing upright again. Her gait isn’t perfect, but she can walk without a cane. She can drive to the grocery store. X-rays reveal a perfectly straight spine. A therapist comes to her home three times a week to work on mobility.
Like the gardener she is, she knows there’s a season for everything. A time of dormancy is always followed by a time to bloom.
At Novant Health, our care providers will carefully study your condition as a starting point. Our team also will assess your health to understand all circumstances that might contribute to your discomfort. Taking the time to learn more about you allows our experts to choose the best treatment options for you.