If you do call yourself a runner, can you handle the truth?



From the Rage Archives

Truth is found through devotion,
and intensity is the only true measure of devotion.

The Rage Goes Silent? So What's Up With That?

Watch 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.

Here's 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."

I then 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.

The MRI/radiologist 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.

Now, 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.

As the 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).

I'd never 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.

The doc 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.

When I 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.

The anesthesiologist 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 filled.

To say 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?

I have 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.

It's 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.

I will 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.

And that's The Truth. - The Rage (3/1/03)


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   Date and time page last updated: 06/04/2004 8:02 PM