Sinus Surgery Was Harder Than I Expected

Pamela Bullock, 38, is a substitute elementary school teacher living in Media, Pa. For years she had as many as five sinus infections a year. Allergy shots, over-the-counter allergy medications, and other treatments were little help. She was frustrated; she'd tried every alternative until surgery seemed like the only chance for relief. Bullock finally had surgery in September 2008 to open up her sinuses and correct a deviated septum. The recovery was much tougher than she'd expected, but she's glad she had the operation.

I work as an elementary school substitute teacher, and Im with kids all the time. So it's not too surprising that I'm surrounded by sick children. But four or five times a year I was coming down with something I knew wasn't just a cold. I would get a sore throat that didn't seem to go away, pressure around my eyes, and sometimes a mild headache. The symptoms seemed to last for days; I'd get nasal congestion, then postnasal drip, and I'd know I was in trouble——yet another sinus infection.

Typically I'd go to see my doctor and he would put me on antibiotics. Or I'd wait to see if the symptoms would just go away. I tried a humidifier at night to alleviate the stuffiness, along with nasal sprays. This would help a little, but it was very tiresome to feel like I constantly had a cold. I was rundown and felt miserable at times; I was frustrated that nothing seemed to fix the problem. I tried allergy medications such as Allegra, but they didn't really help either.

I know teachers are prone to sinus trouble because they're exposed to more cold viruses than people in the general population, and sinus infections can start with a cold. However, my doctor told me that people with allergies are at greater risk of sinus infections too; basically, anything that causes tissue in the sinuses to swell can start the process.

I decided to get checked for allergies. They tested me for dozens of different things, but the only test that came back positive was for a dust mite allergy. I started having regular shots to treat the dust mite allergy about two years ago, and I still have them every four weeks. Unfortunately, they didn't solve my sinus trouble.

I decided to go back to my ear, nose, and throat doctor because I wanted to see if I was having any physical problems beyond the allergies. To help open the nasal passages, he recommended a nasal spray to ease the congestion, along with a mild steroid. This treatment made things a little better, but it wasn't enough. After two or three months, during which I had congestion and a runny nose almost constantly, we discussed sinus surgery. My doctor obviously didn't want to perform the surgery unless it was the only alternative; he didn't push it. During the procedure, he said, he could open up the sinuses around my eyes and along the cheek area by inserting instruments through the nose and carefully cutting away tiny bits of tissue and bone. My septum, which is the cartilage that separates the nostrils from one another, was also too far over on one side, making it very hard to breathe out of one of my nostrils. The plan was to fix this deviated septum and fix my sinuses at the same time.

A month before the surgery, I had a CT scan so my doctor could locate my sinuses precisely. He told me the sinus surgery was more complicated than my tonsillectomy (I had one in my late 20s).

I don't know if its because Im older, but the recovery from this surgery was much harder than I'd expected. The worst part didn't happen immediately after I woke up, though I do tend to get sick from general anesthesia. I had discussed this with my doctor ahead of time and they added something to the anesthesia that helped the nausea.

The really difficult part was that I felt like I couldn't breathe. My nasal cavity was packed with material and I couldn't breathe through my nose. Breathing through my mouth was hard too because Id had a tube down my throat, and it was sore. I don't think of myself as being claustrophobic, but waking up and not being able to breathe—well, it was a little scary. And it was difficult to breathe out of my mouth all the time.

Also, the surgery was done on an outpatient basis—I arrived at 7:30 a.m. and left at 2 p.m. That was a surprise too; I really could have used a few days of recovery. One of my doctors had the same procedure done in Germany, and she spent several days in the hospital. For me, it was tough to go directly home after surgery. But they want you in and out.

The first two days after the surgery were the worst. I couldn't sleep because I still had to breathe through my mouth, and it kept waking me up. I went in to have the packing removed two days later, which the doctor did through my nose. It wasn't painful, but it definitely was an uncomfortable feeling. At the same time, it was a relief to have it out. After that I felt much better—but not for long.

My nasal cavity area started scabbing, which made it hard to breathe again. This happens to everyone and I was supposed to wait a week to go back to have the scabs removed. However, I couldn't wait because I was having so much trouble breathing. After only five days I went to see my doctor, and he cleaned out the scabbing, using a tweezers-type device and a scope that he inserted through my nostrils. Like having the packing taken out, it wasn't painful, but it was uncomfortable. I had to go back every week for six weeks to repeat the scab removal process, which is typical for people recovering from the surgery. Not to be disgusting, but its amazing whats in there. At first I couldn't look, but by the sixth week I got kind of interested.

It was a good two weeks after the surgery before I felt good, and it definitely took longer before I was able to breathe fully through my nose. But now my nasal passages are much clearer.

My insurance covered the procedure, and I only had to pay the hospital co-pay.

Unfortunately, I'm still not completely free of sinus infections. I've gotten a couple of them since the surgery, but that may have just been because I was run down after recovering from the operation. And my 8-year-old son was sick, so he may have passed something along to me.

Still, Im glad I had the surgery done. It wasn't a cakewalk, though, and I think its much tougher than many people think. It's possible that mine was more difficult because I also had the deviated septum. However, Im hoping that as time goes by, it will just keep on getting better, and my sinus infections will be a thing of the past. I feel much better already.

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