Rachel Uchitel posts this photo of herself post-operation. The former Tiger Woods mistress had surgery for chiari malformation in which brain tissue extends into the spinal cord.
Rachel Uchitel, a former mistress of Tiger Woods, had brain surgery last week. She pens a column for the Daily News about her life of pain, her decision to have surgery and her recovery.
The moment I was able to open my eyes after brain surgery last week, I ran through a series of questions stored in my head – my own personal test to see if I had truly regained my bearings.
What was my first dog’s name? What street did I live on in Alaska? Who sang the tune “Kiss on My List?” When I came up with all the answers – Hall and Oates sang the 1980 hit – I knew I was alive and that the surgery had been a success.
Rachel Uchitel recovering after surgery.
Since I was about 4 years old, I remember suffering from headaches that would sometimes keep me out of school. In high school, I had severe lower back issues that I later learned were herniated lower disks. I was told back then, at age 16, that I needed to do certain exercises throughout my life and to be careful of my lower back or it would require surgery later in my life. I also had tingling in my hands and feet.
I have been to countless chiropractors in New York City. And I’ve gone through all kinds of pain management regimens, including the beloved epidurals which would work for eight months to a year on my lower back pain. The treatments eventually stopped working and the headaches returned – again and again.
Just getting through the day at Wyatt Lily NYC, the children’s clothing store I own on the Upper West Side, was just as taxing. And spending time with my daughter alone was almost impossible, because I needed someone to be around to take care of me at the same time.
Rachel Uchitel recovers from brain surgery at NY presbyterian. Her boyfriend, John Bown, is at her side.
I was feeling so sick, but didn’t look sick. That was frustrating. I became somewhat of a recluse. Didn’t want to go out or make plans, usually because I couldn’t guarantee that I could feel well enough to keep them. And that lasted for the last few years. My life became about being at the store and being at home with my daughter.
Finally I knew I needed to see a doctor. I couldn’t live with this pain any longer.
My focus became fixing my back pain so I could at least function as a normal person, run my business, be there for my child. My back doctor noted that his remedies were no longer working and told me I might have to undergo back surgery. He suggested I see a specialist, Dr. Roger Hartl, chief of spinal surgery at the Weill Cornell Brain and Spine Center and the neurosurgeon for the New York Giants.
The back of the head of Rachel Uchitel.
After calling and finding out it’s nearly impossible to get an appointment with Hartl, I got an MRI done of my spine and lower back. I personally dropped it off at his office. I hoped he would take a look at my case and agree to take it on. I always believe the squeaky wheel gets the grease and, in this case, it worked. I was in his office the next day. He announced I had nothing wrong with my back besides a few herniated disks. But I did have something wrong with my brain, and brain surgery was the likely answer.
I was stunned. No one had ever suggested anything about my brain at all.
My brain was sinking into my spine, putting pressure on my back. Hartl got me into see Dr. Philip Steig, a world-renowned neurosurgeon with expertise in cerebrovascular disorders and skull base surgery. He is the chairman and founder of the Weill Cornell Brain and Spine Center. Steig would be performing my surgery. I felt I couldn’t be in better hands. I just had to let go.
Rachel Uchitel arrives at Relativity Media presents the premiere of “Take Me Home Tonight.”
I was suffering from a Chiari malformation – a congenital defect in the bottom part of the head where the brain and the spinal cord connect. The structural defect is in the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls motor skills. This causes symptoms such as debilitating headaches, backaches, memory loss, tingling in the hands and feet and brain fog. Although very rarely talked about or diagnosed, Chiari is known to be in one of every 1,000 people. It is only determined with testing through an MRI.
What makes Chiari so interesting to me is that it is an invisible illness. You can look completely fine on the outside, yet on the inside the pain is so debilitating you wonder if you can get through another step.
I quickly decided to have surgery. I had the best doctor. And I couldn’t go on the way I had been living. But setting the date itself was pretty odd. For me at times it was almost like I had set the date of my own death. I had made no plans for the day after Sept. 22. I just had no idea what would happen after the Tuesday surgery.
Uchitel was famously involved in Tiger Woods’ infidelity scandal.
I had met my boyfriend, John, right around the time I had decided to go ahead with brain surgery. After first meeting John, we had an instant connection. I immediately knew that I needed to tell him about the surgery. He clearly deserved to know what he was getting into and be given the chance to run for the high hills or to be given the chance to go through it with me if he wanted to.
I really am still not sure how I got so lucky, but from the moment I told him that I was having brain surgery, John was completely supportive and has been my backbone in this entire process – emotionally and physically. He has even come to my store to help there on days when I’ve been overwhelmed.
John was there with me every single night in the hospital. I’m very lucky to have somebody quarterbacking my life in the moments when I haven’t been able to. I haven’t had that as long as I can remember, and I feel lucky to have found him through this hard time.
Rachel Uchitel with ex-husband Matthew Hahn (left) and daughter.
On the morning of the surgery, I was enveloped with a sense of calm. I didn’t cry. I just wanted to get it over with.
After the anesthesia knocked me out, they shaved the back of my head. I was facedown as they made an incision to the back of my head where my scalp meets my neck. When I woke up, I was already on my back again. I could hear people’s voices, but I couldn’t open my eyes. I do remember hearing my girlfriends giggle over the fact that I was worried I would look like a monster.
We had all wondered if I would come out with a big turban on my head looking mummified. But because the incision was in the back of my head and I had already been turned over, there wasn’t that much to see. My mother was also there. My boyfriend was there.
My best friends, Alison and Diana, have also been there every day, and other friends have shown such support that I cannot even explain how grateful I am.
The hardest part since the surgery has been managing the pain, of course. I was in New York-Presbyterian Hospital Weill Cornell about five days, and I was treated very kindly by all the residents and staff.
Now, some hours are great and I can walk around. But some hours I’m in so much pain in my head and neck and shoulders. I was released Saturday night, and I feel much stronger as a person that I have been able to come out of this.
This experience has taught me a lot about myself. If I can get through brain surgery at 40 years old while running a successful business and being a single mom, I can really do anything.
No one’s hateful words can ever take that away from me.
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