Sweet Dreams of Spine Surgery

I’m strapped down horizontally on an operation table in the middle of a room filled with medical equipment, dressed in a yellow hospital gown covered in smiley faces. I look at the leather straps holding my wrists and believe I can rip my arms out, but I’m too worried to do so. Such a violent motion could cause further injury to my broken neck, so I lay there like a frightened rabbit, paralyzed, at least, with fear. Nurses walk by importantly with clipboards, looking down at their paperwork as they hurriedly pass. I feel cold rushes of air on my cheeks and an involuntary shiver runs through me.

I now look down at myself from 10 feet above as a blind surgeon approaches my motionless body, strapped to the green operating table. Empty eye sockets, filled only with darkness, gaze absently at an array of tools on a tray next to me. Drills, assorted razors, scalpels, and gleaming silver hammers with picks. He chooses an eight-inch blade with a curved tip like a pirate’s sword and brings it to my ear.

“My name is Your Doctor,” he says smiling. “And this is where we enter the spinal cord.” He delicately presses the blade into my ear canal. It enters easily. Slides in with no pressure or effort at all, like cutting into jello. He rotates the blade circularly as he presses deep inside my skull, coring my brain out as he begins to hum Mary Had A Little Lamb. He extracts the blade and places it on the metal tray from which it came, exchanging it for a long set of cold metal tweezers. The tweezers go into my year and he pulls out the sludge and chunks of my brain and scalp that are left behind from the coring.

“Excellent consistency,” the surgeon says. He leans his head backwards and opens his mouth wide before raising the tweezers and dropping the bloody gray tissue into his mouth. “Brain food. Sorry, bad joke but I need to stay sharp for this next bit,” he says with true concen, looking down at me has he chews. Brain spittle shoots out from his mouth onto my face and into my slightly open, gaping mouth as he he tells me, “I’ve only performed this next procedure successfully one time before. It was on a Lemur who contracted epilepsy afterwards. Sad.” I noticed at this point that the surgeon had dyed blond hair, combed over an obviously balding scalp in a nasty, messy wave. “China,” he says for no apparent reason, and then begins vomiting wet, bright-green dollar bills onto the floor. A nurse walks into the room with a newspaper and throws it on the mess to cover it up, then exits the room.

Realizing that something truly horrible is going to happen, I strain against the straps that are holding my arms and legs down, only to find that I’m completely paralyzed after all. Panic. I concentrate and put the entirety of my will into budging a toe, a finger, but I’m not able to move. My heart races and thuds in my chest, yet despite the fear and sense of doom I wonder why they’d both strapping down a quadriplegic.

Defeated, I groan and try to say “get on with it,” but I find I also cannot speak. “I know, I know,” the surgeon says with compassion, and lays the tweezers back down on the instrument tray. “That part of your brain is gone.” Next, he picks up a long, thick straw that I hadn’t noticed before, and carefully inserts it into my ear hole. Like an 8-year-old’s juice box, it is equipped with an accordion-like joint that allows it to be inserted straight into my ear before making a 90-degree bend, where it slides delicately down into my spinal column.

After pushing the straw down at least a foot, I expect the blind surgeon to place his lips around it and start sucking, but instead he reaches into his white coat pocket and nervously pulls out a small glass jar. Inside the jar, an enormous black centipede is wrapped around itself in circles. The surgeon unscrews the lid and quickly places the open jar up to the metal straw. Fearful that the centipede might brush against him, he holds the jar, arm fully extended, pinched with his thumb and index finger, grimacing. The centipede stretches towards the opening, revealing its full length of six inches, fangs dripping dark yellow poison, and after a moment’s hesitation, the creature scurries into the straw.

I hear all 142 of its sharp legs scrapping and tapping on the inside of the metal straw as it scuttles through my ear and brain. It then drops into my spinal column, where I feel it moving about, pushing my damaged bones aside. There is a crunch, followed by a nauseatingly intense shock of pain that radiates outwards through my entire body, and I understand that the centipede had taken its first bite. The intensity of the pain takes all of my breath away so that when I open my mouth to scream, no sound comes out. My arms and legs lay motionless like dead fishes as I try to strain against the straps. The crunching of my bones, tendons, and spinal cord continue for minutes that turn to hours, until it finally comes to a sudden stop.

“All done. You may rise,” the surgeon says. I open my eyes to find two nurses unstrapping my arms and legs. One holds a black cattle prod to my temple and pulls the trigger before I have time to react. The shock jolts me upright and I spring to my feet in pain, which is followed immediately by joy that I’m able to move my limbs.

The surgeon points to an X-ray slide lit up on the wall. “Better than new, though you may have lost a few dozen IQ points,” he chuckles. On the slide is a terrifying image: the centipede is stretch vertically up to the base of my skull from the center of my back, forming my new spinal cord and vertebrae. Horror sinks into the pit of my stomach, which must show because the surgeon says, “Not to worry. Hop on the trainer and give the new neck a spin,” gesturing to a stationary bike in the corner of the room.

I make my way over to the bike in a haze, feet seeming to walk by themselves, and throw a leg over the saddle and take a seat. I see that I’m now somehow dressed in a full kit and bike shoes. Not having any choice, I clip in and feel my legs begin pedaling by themselves. I notice a bike computer a moment later on the handlebars. It reads 250 watts. Not bad for riding easy. I put some pressure on and the number jumps to 274, then 298, then 333. Encouraged, I push a bit harder and the computer shows 371, 387, then 407. Nearly effortless. I look up at the surgeon with excitement. His arms are crossed and he has a satisfied grin on his face. I smile back with enthusiasm, not noticing the long thread of drool dripping from my gaping, idiot mouth. “I knew you’d think it was worth it,” he says. But now when he speaks, all I hear is gibberish, so I shrug my shoulders and look back down at the bike computer. 445 watts good. Kenney push harder. 489 watts gooder. Kenney HAPPY. Push more pedals more harder. 524 watts even gooder. Even happy more more. I reach into my back pocket for ride food and pull out a handful of live spiders and wriggling, bloody mice tails, jam the mess into my mouth, and crunch. Centi-spine happy too.

Broken Neck Update

It’s been four weeks since the day of my injury in Hawaii and I’m holding strong mentally (mostly). Since my last post a few weeks ago, I’ve staying busy by going on long walks with Maybellene, reading, working on Adelaide’s and my coaching company Be The Beast Coaching, reaching out to sponsors, playing chess, and aqua jogging (just twice actually). Adelaide is doing her best to keep me socially engaged with the world, so we’ve had a bunch of dinners with friends. My mom visited for a few days this week, during which she beat me at every card game we played, even the one that I’ve been practicing with Adelaide for three weeks and my mom had never played it before.

Despite not training, commuting by bike, or being allowed to ride in a car, the days have been going by fairly fast. Or, I should say, they aren’t dragging by like one might expect. I attribute this to the endless hours I spent doing very little as a bike racer—the many months when I was jobless and training full time. Even if I was doing three to four hours of riding most days, that still leaves a lot of down time. Add in the weeks of being sick and not training at all and I’ve conditioned myself to being very good at boredom.

The lack of exercise is certainly draining on me though, and I’ve noticed that I’m more irritable and have fewer (and lower) highs than usual. Exercise is pretty much the entire point of my existence, as many know, and even when I’m finished as a professional athlete, training will remain. My appetite has also shrunk to that of a normal person…maybe an extra hungry normal person, but a normal person nonetheless, and it’s easy to forget to eat lunch. It’s not easy to forget dessert though.

Adelaide is now the only athlete in the household (other than Maybellene), and often the highpoint in my day is having her explain how her intervals or long run went. With CIM (California International Marathon) coming up in less than four weeks, she and our run group (Run Boulder AC) are about to hit peak form. I enjoy listening to the details of their workouts, which are increasing in intensity and duration, and I imagine myself running with them one day in the future.

I had a few scary days last week when I began feeling tingling in my hands, arms, and legs. I’d had a very faint itching/prickling sensation for a week, usually only when I’d lay down in bed, but for those first seven or eight days it was so light that I thought I was imagining it. But after a particularly strenuous day (30 minutes of aqua jogging and 30 minutes of kicking with a snorkel), my neck tightened up in the evening and it became apparent that the itching sensation was no longer simply my imagination. Unfortunately by then it was the weekend and I couldn’t call my neurosurgeon, Dr. Lamond. I sweated through a few restless nights, picturing my vertebrae shifting and pressing and slicing into my spinal cord—thoughts that made the tingling sensation even more intense. I calculated what just one percent of power loss would amount to nearly five minutes in an eight-hour Ironman. Any loss in physical ability would be devastating to me.

Out of desperation, I called Jason Glowney, a sports orthopedist with Boulder Biologics who I, and probably every athlete in Boulder, has seen for injuries in the past. Jason was the doctor who ordered my CT and MRI scans as fast as possible after I got back from Hawaii, and I trusted that he’d know what to do about the tingling I was feeling. He quickly reassured me that what I was experiencing was a normal part of the healing process, and that the inflammation near the injury site was most likely causing nearby nerves to become irritated. As long as I wasn’t noticing weakness, incontinence, or a few other serious complications, I’d probably be fine. To keep tabs on my grip strength, at least twice a day I squeeze Adelaide’s forearm until she yells at me to stop. As long as she has bruise marks, my spinal cord is in tact. Just kidding. Eventually did get a hold of Dr. Lamond, who confirmed what Jason said.

Vigorous exercise.

The recovery process is going to be much longer than I originally thought. At my appointment with Dr. Lamond a week ago, he informed me that I had another five weeks to go (a total of eight weeks from the injury and four weeks from today) before I could take the neck brace off. But even then I’ll still have to wear it a month longer for ‘risky’ things like being in a car or walking outside. It takes a neck fracture 12 weeks to fully heal, and Dr. Lamond and Adelaide agreed it wouldn’t be worth re-breaking on a bike ride, so I won’t be back on the bike outside until January 9th.

I have been given the OK to ride the trainer, which I plan to start up a the end of this week. It was unclear how long I’d be banned from running and swimming. I think, and am pretty sure, that by eight weeks I’ll be allowed to run and swim with a snorkel, and that my neck will be ready for it. At this point though, I’m giving it one more week before I get back in the pool to aqua jog and kick with the snorkel, since it doesn’t seem worth it to irritate the spine like I did last week. Patience is key, and I’ve got a lot of that. Anyways, this time is best used to build motivation and allow pent-up energy to be synthesized into white blinding rage for race season. Adelaide and I have an awesome race schedule for 2020, which includes a few full Ironmans, Challenge Mexico halfs, and a couple big, non-branded races in France come August.

Tracey Jacobs has been giving me massage to keep my back and shoulders loose, and I’ve been seeing Bette Long for psychotherapy once a week. All in all, I’d say I’m handling this injury better than expected, although the life I’m living is really only enjoyable because I know that there’s an end in sight—January 9th. I wonder if life in general is only enjoyable knowing that there’s a definitive end to it.

On that note, see ya.