Rage Goes Silent? So What's Up With That?
your back, my friends. No, this is not an article about office
politics. Nor is it a diatribe on racing tactics. It's about how
I hosed my back doing what I thought was a pretty simple thing
that landed me in surgery, wondering if my running days were over.
Don't let this happen to you.
how I did it. It was time for an annual ritual that I had done
for a dozen years and counting: Get the Christmas lights out of
the attic. I folded down the stairs in the garage, climbed into
the attic and located the box, which was all of 15 lbs. or so.
The box, while light, was wide and I had my arms fully outstretched
to support it, totally ignoring my center of gravity. As I steadied
myself to walk back down the stairs, I shifted my weight to my
left foot to raise my right foot and felt a jolt go down my legs.
I found myself actually wondering if the lights had somehow been
left plugged in and I had received a shock. Nope. I continued
down the stairs, put the box down and tried to shake it off. Whatever
I did now seemed to settle into my left upper quad. I thought
to myself, "that wasn't good."
proceeded to go cut a Christmas tree, drag it through the field,
secure it to the top of the car, etc… Monday, I was in my G.P's
office and he diagnosed what I suspected: a herniated disc in
one of my lumbar (lower back) vertebrae. I had heard about these
and had known people who had them, but had no idea this kind of
pain was what those folks had to deal with. Thinking about how
Bruce dealt with sciatica for so many years, I thought I could
handle it too. I told them the pain was a "7" on a scale of 1-10
(big mistake). He gave me codeine, prescribed exercises and instructed
me to come back in a week. Three days and 21 codeine pills later
(the codeine wasn't doing a thing to knock down the pain), I was
back in his office, which I didn't think I was going to need to
do. This trip, I couldn't walk and actually had to be wheeled
into the doc's office…quite a dramatic and humiliating scene.
My leg was now numb down to the ankle and I was in excruciating
pain. It was like I was being repeatedly stabbed in my quad. My
leg had weakened to a point where it would buckle. Fortunately,
Donna had a way of getting people's attention. My G.P. put me
through some tests and now, couldn't get my leg to move with the
ol' hammer on the knee test. I guess that is a big deal. I couldn't
help but notice the look of concern on his and Donna's face. Suddenly,
within the same day, I got an X-ray, was MRI'ed, got some beefed
pain medication and referred to a neurosurgeon. I said, "…a neuro-what?"
(I honestly didn't know what kind of doctor that was. I thought
it would be an orthopedic surgeon). I was going to find out on
December 19, which was the soonest I could get in…13 days after
the injury, which in the HMO world of let's-see-how-much-pain-this-guy
can take is light speed.
report indicated a "relatively large disc fragmentation on the
L2-L3 lumbar vertebrae." This implied something was floating around
and I thought that it just needed to be plucked out. No big deal,
right? This was my first experience of the irony of how finding
something bad was actually good and that people with chronic pain
sometimes couldn't pinpoint the source. It was ironic that I found
myself doubled over in pain and felt very lucky. The more people
I spoke with, the more I realized that your spinal cord and sciatic
nerves are not to be taken for granted.
all I had to do was survive somehow until the 19th which was a
week away. I hadn't slept in three nights. What's seven more,
right? I couldn't believe that 10 days earlier, I was pumping
out sub-six miles in the Civil
War Relay and now I couldn't walk. The world looked different.
Simple tasks became huge. I felt old and weak. I was completely
dependent on my wife and children. There was only one position
(sitting on the couch with my legs straight) that I could escape
from the pain (even on Percocet; a very powerful narcotic) and
I would remain in that position for most of the week. I was scared
and didn't want to show it to Donna, Jackie and Shawn, but there
was no way I was going to John Wayne my way through this one.
week went on, I noticed my quad had atrophied significantly. In
13 days, I lost an inch and a quarter in muscle. I was in sorry
shape by the time I got in to the neurosurgeon. My blood pressure
was a scary 154/122. By then, I could barely think straight and
needed to write down my symptoms for the neurosurgeon, who also
happened to be a tri-athlete. The first thing I listed was my
10k time at the top of the page and it caught his eye. He said,
"That's a pretty good 10k time." I replied, "Yeah, the mile ain't
bad either" (I listed that, too). I asked, "Can I do it again?"
He said, "Hell yeah." I asked, "Will I still be able to beat Tommy
Williams?" He said, "Hell, yeah." I told him, "Let's do it." Basically,
the procedure called for an incision about three inches long and
removal of the disc jell which was smothering the nerve controlling
my leg, pressing it up against the vertebrae. If everything went
right, I'd be on the table about an hour. No big deal. He expressed
his concern of my weakening leg and asked me what I was doing
that afternoon. I checked my Palm Pilot and noticed I didn't have
much going on. He found an open table and put a quarter up for
me. I'd play the winner at 6:00 a.m. the next morning (I had an
open slot then, too).
been in surgery before, but thankfully, I had Jackie, my 15 year
old, explain the whole process to me (e.g. she had ear surgery
twice). She told me not to worry.
said I had a lot of things going for me. I was in good shape,
didn't smoke and might recover quickly. The nurses said there
was a good chance that once the pressure was taken off the nerve,
the pain would be gone immediately.
checked in the next morning, I made sure they hadn't scheduled
me for a lobotomy, castration or one of several procedures my
wife had threatened me with (with the exception of cloning) over
the years. Sure glad I checked (nice try, Donna). When you can't
move without excruciating pain, it's amazing how hard the simplest
things can be. When they wanted me to take my clothes off and
slip into the surgery gown…you know, the kind with the stupid
ties in the back. Why the heck do they put them there, anyway?
If you ever have to put one of those things on, tie them first
and slip it over your head. There was no way I was going to call
the nurse in.
introduced himself and they carted me off. The last thing I remember
is the familiar feeling of a blood pressure reading on my arm.
I woke up in the hallway (the whole thing was an outpatient deal),
noticed folks walking by and a nurse waiting for me to wake up.
The pain was completely gone. I couldn't believe it. The last
time I looked at the clock it was 7:45 a.m. By 9:15, I was walking
out to see Donna. At 10 a.m. I was walking to the car. I felt
great. The doc called me at home to check on me that afternoon
and I said, "Doc, whatever you're making, it ain't enough." He
told me it was no surprise why I was in so much pain. He said
the rupture had been so massive the entire vertebrae cavity was
I am a lucky man is the biggest understatement of my life. 100
years ago, they would have set me out on the front porch with
a bottle of Scotch and a .45. You understand what I'm sayin'?
You know what I'm talkin' about?
been preparing for my return to running again in late March, which
is in another three weeks. After a lot of hard work, my left quad
is still noticeably smaller than the right, but the strength is
coming back quickly. The nerve seems to be recovering more each
day as the numbness has subsided significantly. I now understand
all bets are off when it comes to nerves. They absolutely DO NOT
want to be fooled with. The phrase "must have touched a nerve"
has taken on a whole new meaning. I have been told that my chronically
tight hamstrings, which I have done nothing about for my entire
life, were probably contributors to my back injury. Subsequently,
my P.T. has included lots of stretching, which has improved my
range of motion from 60 degrees to 72 degrees on my weak leg…a
huge improvement. 77 degrees is what we are shooting for. My P.T.
also includes abdominal strengthening to help take the pressure
off my back. I am logging lots of hours walking hills, on the
treadmill and step-ups on my left leg to gain strength.
working. I am a long ways from racing shape, but I am confident
I can come back. I am in no hurry. My patience has paid off. It
has put me in the position of getting back to running much sooner
than I had expected.
never forget those 13 days and how they taught me what truly was
important in life. I never felt closer to and more appreciative
of my family and friends. If the doc had told me that he could
take my pain away, but I would never run again, I would have easily
taken that deal. Needless to say, I had a very thankful Christmas.
Getting to run again is a bonus.
The Truth. - The Rage (3/1/03)