No one wants to stop being active and healthy, especially not me.
My name is Chuck and I’m writing my story to provide hope and encouragement to individuals suffering from debilitating spinal deformities. I’ve had the good fortune of being healthy and active all my life. During my carrier, I served as a coach and later as Athletic Director for a Los Angeles area community college for greater than 40 years. Fitness and sports are my life and I hoped to be a role model for the young men and women who were in my program. I exercised every day at least 2 hours each day. I continued to do this even when I started noticing my low back was hurting and my legs were painful. I believed that you need to push through this and I did. Despite my high level of fitness though, I noticed my back pain was steadily worsening and my posture was falling forward as well as off to the side. I came to realize over time I couldn’t stand up straight anymore. Finally, after ignoring the symptoms until I couldn’t anymore, I sought medical care. Again, I felt I could do therapy, chiropractic, have some injections and I’d be back on track. What I came to understand later is that I had a structural spinal problem. In other words, my spine had twisted and was stuck in a position that caused significant pain and forced me to stop certain activities I had enjoyed all my life. I refused to give up exercising, but I couldn’t walk, jog or run at all anymore. The problem worsened quickly and the pain became so significant that it forced me to retire several years earlier than planned, well before projects I had wanted to personally complete could be finished. Constant pain gets you, it affects everything you do and it was affecting my ability to do my job to my satisfaction.
After trying and failing virtually all non-surgical treatment methods, I finally began gathering information from surgeons, and I had surgery scheduled already when I came to meet Dr. Donald Blaskiewicz and Dr. Gregory Mundis, Jr. These guys were special. I had done my homework, so I knew they were capable of treating my problem, but, I also sensed they really cared about me as an individual and my goals in life. They had frank conversations with me about treating my problem, which was called severe kyphoscoliosis with sagittal imbalance and spinal stenosis. In short, my spine was completely out of balance and not curving the way it was designed. I stood pitched forward, and off to the side, which can cause significant back pain, and it did. They didn’t make any guarantees and warned me the surgery was complex and the complication rate can be high at my age. I just knew that my quality of life was miserable and I didn’t want to live like this, so I was willing to take the risks and see it through to completion. I had much in life I still wanted to do.
I had to have 2 surgeries, each very complex, and as a result were spaced 3 days apart. My first surgery, I was told, was a first ever minimally invasive reconstruction called an ACR (Anterior Column Reconstruction) to span 5 disc spaces. This was a major part of the surgeons rebuilding my spine. It went as expected and I returned to the operating room for the stabilizing portion of the procedure 3 days later, spanning 17 levels of my spine with screws for anchors and rods to hold my spine in its new position until it healed permanently that way. Dr.’s Blaskiewicz and Mundis greeted my family afterwards. My children said the doctors were exhausted and drenched, but they took the time and sat down for 20-30 minutes explaining what they did and answering all their questions. My kids to this day ask about them and regard them highly.
I’ll be honest, the surgical recovery was tough. Despite the great methods for receiving pain medication, what they did in surgery hurt and I was in a great deal of pain the first few weeks. Anyone preparing for this type of surgery needs to know this and mentally prepare for it; I think that would help. I was blessed to have my children by my side in the hospital and for the first few weeks at home. After both surgeries, I started from ground zero. I couldn’t lift a foot an eighth of an inch off the floor and it took shear will and determination to do the work expected of me, and I did. My family was there at first, helping me along. I quickly outgrew the need for home therapists and did the exercises myself. Overtime, the pain became less and less. Of course, they warn you that there will be good days and bad. You have a good day, do more than you probably should, and you pay for it the next day. I experienced many of those. Over time though, this subsided as well.
Now, I’m pleased to say I’m pain free. I stand straight again, having regained virtually all of my 6’2” height that I had lost due to my spine problem. I’m back to my 2 hour a day exercise sessions and I’ve even returned to walking and jogging. I honestly never thought I’d do that again.
I had a successful outcome and I must thank the doctors for having the skill and the compassion to see me and my family through some pretty dark days. They give you a lot of confidence to know you can do it. But, as I’ve known all my life from being an Athletic Director, no one person can do it alone. It takes a team. I had great surgeons and great children to help me. But I’m part of the team as well. I couldn’t sit passively by and let everyone do it for me. I did my homework before ever having surgery. I researched my problem, found the best people to do the job, and then afterward, I had to take charge of my recovery. I was determined to see it through to the end. Yes, it hurt like crazy, but I recovered, and I’m back. I’m back to my life, free of back pain and back to my lifestyle. I couldn’t be more pleased.
So, what are my recommendations to anyone considering this type of surgery? I always tell people considering major spinal surgery that there are three things to consider:
- Do your research and find the very best surgeon or surgeons for your type of problem.
- Be willing to put in the work physically to come back
- Have support when you come home from the hospital (for at least four weeks)
These are all critical to achieve a successful outcome.
Thanks to the San Diego Spine Foundation for giving me the opportunity to share my story and hopefully help others who read it.