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ANGELS WITHOUT FACES

How music is helping one singer-songwriter heal after emergency back surgery

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Miramichi's Terry Whalen had emergency back surgery during the COVID-19 pandemic and came out the other side with a song - dedicated to the medical professionals who "cradled and carried me when I couldn't do it on my own."

By day, Terry teaches art at Miramichi Valley High School, but by night he's a singer-songwriter, who sings the blues.

His band, the Terry Whalen Band, is a three-time East Coast Music Award nominee for Blues Recording of the Year and a two-time Music NB Award winner for Blues Recording of the Year.

On May 4, after excruciating back pain left him unable to walk, Terry had an MRI done at Horizon's Miramichi Regional Hospital (MRH). Once they had the results, he was immediately sent to Horizon's Saint John Regional Hospital (SJRH) for surgery.

"When they told me I was going to Saint John, there was no fear, no wondering, I had no time to be scared," Terry said. "At that point, I just wanted the pain gone. I was ready to get it done."

The next morning, Dr. Edward Abraham, orthopedic surgeon, walked into Terry's room and explained what was going to take place during the emergency surgery. There were three things that would be done:

  • Decompress the critical spinal cord compression;
  • Realign the spine to restore the normal lumbar spinal alignment; and
  • Fuse and stabilize the spine in the correct position.

"There was no way that he was going to be able to wait for elective surgeries to be back up and running again," Dr. Abraham said.

Dr. Abraham has been practicing since 1988 and is also an associate professor of surgery at Dalhousie University, co-chair the Canada East Spine Centre, past-president of the Canadian Spine Society (2004 and 2005), having been involved with the society on an executive level for more than 20 years. As well, he received the 2018 Canadian Orthopaedic Association's Award of Merit for recognition of spine surgical services, research and teaching.

"The degree of spinal cord compression that he was experiencing was fairly extreme. If left untreated, there was a potential for further neurological compromise and perhaps a less than satisfactory outcome," Dr. Abraham said.

Undergoing back surgery can be a scary thing, but Terry knew he was in good hands.

"Before going under for surgery, I thought to myself everyone in the room was an angel without a face," he said. "Then I remember thinking, 'I hope I remember that' because I need to write a song."

When he woke up, that was the first thing he thought about, and the rest of the song just came to him.

"When I sing 'They cradled me and they carried me 'cause I couldn't do it on my own,' they did, they did that for me," he said.

Flat on his back in a hospital bed, recovering from after spinal surgery, Terry typed the song out on his phone.

"That first evening after surgery, I had that chorus in my head, so I started working on the structure of the song. I was foggy, but I was clear in what I wanted to say," he said. "It just poured out of me."

Terry1

Terry Whalen, centre, playing a gig at Saltwater Sounds in Miramichi in November 2018 with his son Terry James, left, and Steve Marriner, a multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter and record producer from Toronto, Ont.

CLOSE TO 25 YEARS OF BACK PAIN

Terry had been dealing with back pain, on and off, for close to 25 years. It started when he was 26- or 27-years old playing hockey.

"Someone slewfooted me from behind and I landed on my back, and got up and just kept playing," he said. "Every once in a while, it would act up when I'd do something to aggravate it and I'd rest, and it'd get better."

This most recent flare up, which led to the May 5 surgery, had been happening since the end of December when Terry's son, Terry James and his girlfriend moved into their new house.

"I was lifting furniture, and of course, I took the heavy end of everything - and the wrong end of everything," he said. "It was pretty bad, to the point where I'd missed a couple days of school, but over four months, it just wouldn't go away."

Terry said the pain would shoot down his right leg - he'd go to physiotherapy, have acupuncture and heat treatments, but there was no real relief.

'I CAN'T LIVE LIKE THIS'

On April 28, the pain was so severe Terry called an ambulance to bring him to the MRH because he didn't know how his wife, Donna, would be able to help get him in and out of their vehicle.

"The pain was a 10 plus. All through the years, it was never that bad. It scared me enough that I called the ambulance," he said.

Since this happened during the global COVID-19 pandemic, Terry didn't recognize the Emergency Department (ED) physician because he was wearing full Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

He was given pain medication through an IV which finally provided some relief.

"They did an X-ray, and there was nothing to see on it," he said. "So I phoned Donna to come get me."

Terry was back home again, but not for long because by April 30, the pain was back.

It was so bad, he couldn't stand, he couldn't sit, and he could barely lie down, so he called the ambulance to come get him again.

"While waiting for the paramedics, I got onto the bed and cried like a baby. There was so much pain, I couldn't bear it," he said. "It was just excruciating, and I thought to myself: 'I can't live like this.'"

GRATEFUL TO VISITOR RESTRICTIONS

Terry arrived at the ED and was admitted to the MRH until they scheduled an MRI. He said the first night in hospital was rough.

"A lot of stuff went through my head. I'd dealt with this pain for more than 25 years. I'd come to understand its peaks and valleys, but this was different," he said. "All I could think was 'I had cancer in my spine, I'm going to die and I'm never going to see my family again.'"

The next day, although still in pain, being managed by medication, he was in a better place mentally because he knew once the MRI was done, he'd know what he was up against.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Horizon facilities have had strict visitor restrictions in place, which Terry said was a blessing.

"I was relieved because my family didn't have to sit with me and I was no burden to them," he said.

His family would disagree, but for Terry, burdening his family was a big concern. 

"It was very difficult not being right there during the whole ordeal," Donna said. "You simply have to relinquish the power of your voice to another person - usually a stranger to your loved one, but luckily it is usually a nurse."

Terry3

Terry and Donna Whalen, outside their home in Miramichi.

Donna said when he was sent to Saint John, it happened so quickly, that no one had time to think.

"Once there, he was welcomed by such a supportive team that he felt comforted immediately. This made things easier to bear at home," she said. "Although I couldn't be right there, I felt I was only ever a phone call away. And for that I am truly appreciative and thankful to staff.  We feel very fortunate to have had such great expertise and care."

While waiting for the MRI, Terry said he likely knew a lot of the staff coming in and out of his room, but because of the PPE all he saw were their eyes.

"It was just surreal, it was like I was in an alternate universe," he said. "They say eyes are the window to the soul, and I really felt that."

The MRI was done May 4, and the rest is history.

RECOVERY

On May 6, the day after his surgery, Terry could walk again - something he had been unable to do by the time he was admitted to the MRH on April 30.

On May 8, Terry was back home in Miramichi and said the pain in his back has been minimal. He's following Dr. Abraham's orders and doing his physiotherapy exercises.

"Even the day after the surgery, there was no pain in my back, but I'm still dealing with the sciatic pain," he said. "If I had no sciatic pain, I'd be dancing around, doing a jig. But every day, it's getting better."

Dr. Abraham said the continued sciatic pain is to be expected but will improve by at least 90 per cent.

"With regards to back pain, the improvement is a little less certain but, by the four- to six-month mark after surgery, back pain levels are improved by around 80 per cent, compared to preoperative values," he said.

Terry said he believes people are tested from time to time, but this was the biggest test he's ever had.

"I'm a big guy, so I'm working on that, eating healthier," he said. "But I'm never going through this again. Ever. I'm changing my lifestyle."

Dr. Abraham said Terry is motivated and has been cooperative with the postoperative treatment so far.

"Mr. Whalen has tremendous insight regarding his spinal issues and realizes for long-term relief and maintenance, he needs to concentrate on a rehabilitation program including weight reduction, physical fitness, daily exercise and a general change in lifestyle," Dr. Abraham said. "He has a 90 per cent chance of making a complete recovery and being able to function quite normally."

 Terry2

Terry Whalen in 2015 playing a home-made cigar box guitar in front of Whalen's Barn, a former coveted music venue in Miramichi.

When there isn't a global pandemic, Terry doesn't think hospital staff get enough credit for the work they do.

"I'm just so grateful. They don't get enough credit for what they do," he said. "So I hope they hear the song because I'm just so appreciative of how well I was treated. They were unbelievable. They just treated me so good."

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