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Living In A Van While Coping With Surgery

It’s been 5 months ago today I had major abdominal surgery. Looking back at the challenges and logistics we had to think about surrounding the surgery, I am grateful for how well it turned out. When people think about living full-time in a van or RV, most people don’t think about the rare complications that can arise. Some people think about it so much they are too fearful of even trying this lifestyle. But what we have found is having a supportive group of family and friends was vital to my comfort and recovery. Strong relationships are a type of abundance that many people miss out on and in my opinion, are far more valuable than money. Even if we were not living on the road full-time, that community support is very much needed. In a time of social distancing, division, and so much fear of illness and death, now is the time we all need to come together and support each other.

There were so many things I wanted to accomplish during these last 5 months but also realized my body, mind, and soul needed time to heal. We need to be gentle with ourselves when our body is in extreme stress and recovery. I am intensely grateful for how this all turned out. I was safe, I was very comfortable with all basic needs met, and I did not have to rush my healing process to get back to work. I do feel like I’m getting back to my old healthy-ish self with a few reminders here and there that I am still recovering even now. Those moments, pinches of pain near my incision, are reminders of my growth. Growth in life is most often painful, physically and mentally. It is also extremely worth it to take the time to embrace that growth even if you didn’t intend for it to happen.

As I sat writing the first part of this post 5 months ago, I listened to the relaxing rushing waters of the waterslide at the pool just outside our resort room near Orlando, FL. The warmth of the Florida sun surrounded the area with my favorite temperatures, mid-80s with a light breeze. I was sipping on my hot organic tea with ginger, orange, and turmeric while on a liquid diet the day before the surgery. I put myself in a calm, happy environment to mentally prepare and be physically comfortable for the days ahead. Being in the right environment is one of the reasons we travel so much in our van. We like to experience our surroundings as much as possible. Sometimes, when life throws a surprise at you, it’s not as easy to control it as much as we’d like.

When all this craziness started with pain in my abdomen, I hadn’t thought much of the bigger impact on how we live van life. We’ve handled so many difficult health situations before. But after the multiple doctor visits and further diving into the reason for the pain, the nervous thoughts began to run through my head. Around March they suggested surgery. That opened a can of terrified worms feeding on the unknown. Questions started popping in my head. Where would we park and for how long? Can we afford to pay for a campsite for that long? How am I going to get up into our bed after the surgery, it’s too high? Don’t even get me started on the challenges with not having a permanent toilet and shower! Periods have been challenging enough living this lifestyle, at that time it had been getting unpredictable and extremely painful. I don’t mind being out of my comfort zone to learn and grow but just taking care of simple creature comforts was proving more difficult than I had bargained for. After I freaked out and cried a bit, I took a deep breath and remembered we are always ok, always taken care of those basic needs. Somehow, someway, we are always put in the right place with the right people.

We knew going by the water would calm my racing thoughts after hearing the news. The relaxed environment made discussing options with Joe more productive. Because of our van, we were able to stay at a free location right on the water just south of St Petersburg. The sunsets were breathtaking. We also visited a very good friend in Tampa. She is our 3rd mom, giving us support and constructively questioning us to think outside the box. Without us mentioning we were concerned about it, she offered her home to us for the post-surgery recovery which could be anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks (it ended up even longer). That immediately released a huge weight from our shoulders. Again, we could think and plan more clearly. Trying to control as much of the unknown as we could.

A few weeks later, Joe’s dad asked if we were in the area to come for Easter dinner. We were excited to go. We completely turned around from our route to southern Florida to be able to spend more time with him. The beauty of this lifestyle is that we can change course at any moment. We ended up spending about a week there. Their home is a very comfortable and happy place. We preferred to stay with family for my recovery but didn’t want to assume we could. Dad’s wife, Tina, invited us to stay for my surgery.

As the weeks flowed by and doctor appointments kept us coming back to Orlando, we crawled along dealing with the pain and challenges balanced with prepping and planning for after the surgery. Frustration mounted when we got all the way back to Orlando for an appointment only to have it canceled because I had a sinus infection. We shot back out to explore the Atlantic coast with our gig work. Then surprise! Excruciating pain and heavy bleeding hit and I found it difficult to handle with our emergency toilet. We were nowhere near family or friends in St Augustine. We had ventured farther than our comfort zone. We didn’t want to spend money on a hotel because we were saving it for the hospital bills. My dad saved the day using his timeshare points for the same resort I used for the first week of recovery back in Orlando. During that stay, we realized we really needed to find a spot to hunker down through this whole experience. The weather was heating up faster than we planned, which was not safe for Juno in the van. Normally we would be traveling north by this time. The uncertainty along with the back and forth was wasting time and gas. We still had about 2 weeks before the scheduled surgery on May 25th. So, we confirmed with Joe’s dad and his wife to stay as long as we needed to. The stress was getting to both of us and we felt it best to eliminate more uncertainty, keeping me as calm and healthy as possible before the big day.

The next challenge was Joe’s dad’s house (and our other friend for that matter) was just over an hour away from the hospital I was scheduled to have surgery at. We still needed to be close to the hospital and comfortable the days prior and just after. If you haven’t had abdominal surgery, there is a special bowel prep that would DEFINITELY not go over well in the van. We checked in 2 nights before the surgery and planned to check out about 2 days after. With the Covid restrictions, there had not been a clear answer if Joe would be able to stay the night with me in the hospital. It’s good we had the resort room because they did not end up letting him stay. I ended up staying in the hospital an extra night due to pain and massive bruising. When my doctor came in to give my final release, I asked if it was ok to drive just over an hour back to Joe’s dad’s house. He was very concerned and did not recommend it. So we extended our stay at the resort for a week total.

The drive back to Joe’s dad’s house took almost 2 hours because of traffic, back road, and Joe trying so hard to drive carefully for me. He tried to avoid bumps and hard stops. Everything hurt. I was pleasantly surprised with the welcome home I got. Dad’s wife Tina had a tray with homemade soup from their neighbor. They brought me ice packs and heating pads. They pampered me so wonderfully. The days before the surgery we had set up their guest room with our bed from the van. I wanted to be able to sleep in my own bed. Joe and his dad put a big tv in the room for me. Our cat, Juno was settled in and taken care of while we were in Orlando. Juno was so happy I was back home after the week she purred extra loud and cuddled in close to make me feel better.

Over the following weeks, I had a few follow-up appointments to make sure I was healing properly. The first was 2 weeks after. At the time, I thought it was a good idea to make appointments for both my gynecologist and my chiropractor on the same day since they were close to each other. My chiropractor helped with more natural ways to aid my healing as a nice compliment to my gynecologist. That day ended up being about 7 hours between driving and appointments. Way too much traveling for me that soon after. That night, I had gotten up around 1 am to use the bathroom. Luckily Joe was still awake and came rushing in when he heard me fall. I had passed out getting up off the toilet. I fell and hit my head on the door, also bruising my shoulder, hip, and knee. The bump on my head hurt the most and the rest just added to the multiple black and purple colors wrapped around my body from the surgery. Again, another reason I was grateful to have the convenience of a home bathroom instead of trying to recover in our van.

I gained my strength back by taking long walks around their neighborhood. Joe’s dad even made a comment one day, he could tell I was starting to feel better because I was loading the dishwasher and cooking for them. It wasn’t much but he could see I was bending and moving better. I had the little pillow the hospital gave me to hold on my belly when I coughed or sneezed. It was also useful when I laughed too much watching comedy shows. Laughter is the best medicine except when your belly is healing. We stayed for about 3 months. I tend to take longer healing as I’ve learned from my other surgeries. Late August we celebrated by going to the beach to our resort on St Pete Beach. One of my favorite places. It’s always been healing for me. We go every year and miss seeing our friends that come that same week. This time we actually relaxed and enjoyed it. We usually found ourselves working running gigs but this time we stopped working to enjoy the special moments of life more thoroughly.

The week after the beach we moved the van out of storage. It had been sitting all summer in the hot and humid weather of Florida. No matter how hard we tried to ventilate and protect it, we still ended up with mildew on the seats, fans, and other surfaces. We knew it was time to get back on the road but we didn’t know where we were going to go. During that week of cleaning the van, our friends called to check on us. They were wondering where we were going to hit the road. Just as life tends to do when we are ready for the next adventure, they offered us a job that would take us to home shows all over the country. We get paid to travel essentially. It seemed like it would work out well for the new open adventures we were looking for. We surrendered to the experience and have traveled about 8,500 miles in the last 6 weeks. We have gone to places we would not have planned for and we met people we never would have met otherwise, made new friends, and connected with distant family. As I finish writing this post, I am sitting yet again, listening to relaxing music with the rushing water of a creek here at a campground in a Tennessee state park. This has been almost full circle from where I started. I have climbed steep grades at the Arches National Park in Utah, I have danced the night away at our friend’s wedding a few days ago, I have rested after both of those because my belly reminded me, I’m still healing. But most of all, I am living the life I wanted with the added perk of never having to worry about traveling with my period again!

These last 5 months we have experienced things I never thought we would have to do when we started van life. I thought I was done with my health challenges and done with surgeries. But it looks like we have to be prepared a little more for the unexpected. There is a balance here. It’s impossible to plan for everything. You’ll be so stressed out which is the opposite of why we live this lifestyle in the first place. I am learning again to identify what we can control and know there will be surprises along the way that we have to roll with. Expect the unexpected and go with the flow. This is just another feather in our hat of life experiences. Another reason we are called the Rolling Rogans. I am beyond grateful for the family and friends in our lives that have reached out to help. As growing adults and especially as vanlifers, I feel we tend to be on the more independent side. We can do it all ourselves. But this has been a reminder, we need to build and maintain those relationships at all times. They are what it means to live an abundant life.

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