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I Broke My Neck Part 4: Our Experiences With and Insights About the Healthcare System

It’s been three months since I broke my neck and sustained a spinal cord injury. I was planning to write an open letter to Regions Hospital about my experience, but after talking it through with Vanessa, decided it wouldn’t be the best use of time or mental energy.

Instead, I decided that covering the insights I’ve gained would add more value to others than outlining the disappointments from the hospital’s post-op process. The former would empower others. The latter would only lead to unnecessary complaining.

If you don’t feel like reading any further, please just take this point to heart:

You should expect a hospital system to fix what’s broken, but it’s on you as an individual to make yourself whole and well.

I couldn’t have fixed the mess I made of my neck on July 30. Only a well-trained surgeon could have done that. But from the day after surgery, going forward, I couldn’t expect that the medical system would have the knowledge or experience to help me get back to my previous “normal” in the short time it was possible to do so.

In case you missed the first three parts of this story, here they are:

A Quick Rehab & Recovery Update

At the time of this writing, I’m 13 1/2 weeks post-injury.

In terms of muscular strength, my chest, triceps, and serratus, used for movements like dips, bench presses, and pushups, are at about 60% of where they were pre-injury. The rest of my body is at about 80%. The weakness in my upper body pressing movements is typical of the spinal cord injury I sustained, though the expectations were that it would take much longer to regain strength. I’m sure it would have if I had followed the recommendations from the medical group.

As for my sensory nerves, when cold water splashes on my lower body, I still feel pain instead of cold, like the water is pushing on a bruise. In my upper body, I feel cold more than pain right now, so it seems the sensory nerves are starting to respond appropriately. I also have frequent burning on the sides and palm of my index and middle fingers, though it’s nowhere near the level it once was. If the sensory nerves didn’t improve beyond what they have, it wouldn’t disrupt normal life.

And as for my neck itself, most mornings it’s pretty stiff, but once I get up, apply some Young Living Cool Azul Pain Relief Cream or other oils and move around, the stiffness and soreness go away.

The following are some of the milestones from the past few months. Though every spinal cord injury is unique, I thought this might give people in a similar situation a little hope. Early on, I couldn’t find any examples of how people recovered from broken necks or spinal cord injuries, so I didn’t have anything to compare my progress against.

  • Day 1: Walked the morning after surgery, with a physical therapist by my side in case I fell. I believe it was later that afternoon that I also walked up the stairs at the end of the hall.
  • Day 3: Was discharged and walked out of the hospital.
  • Day 5: Stopped taking oxycodone. I had plenty of pills left, but will not take pain killers unless it’s absolutely necessary. It wasn’t absolutely necessary.
  • Day 5: Got my first gym workout in, with the help of my friend Victor Straw. At this point, I needed straps to hold onto anything as my hands weren’t yet working.
  • Day 15: First push-up, after trying to complete one for the previous seven days.
  • Day 39: Completed first (and second) pull-up.
  • Week 5: Weaned off of Gabapentin and extra-strength Tylenol completely. Unfortunately, the Physician’s Assistant at Regions Hospital wouldn’t discuss weaning off of Gabapentin, so we researched how to do it and followed a specific timeline and process. This is not a drug that you stop cold turkey, and you should always do so with the guidance of a medical professional.
  • Week 6: Fractured right hand was considered healed enough to go without a splint. Unfortunately the fracture wasn’t diagnosed until Week 3 when I requested X-rays. It won’t heal like it could have, but it’ll be good enough to shake your hand.
  • Week 6: Stopped using Aspen Collar completely. It was causing more discomfort wearing it than it was leaving it off. I also noticed that my right sternocleidomastoid muscle (the one you see on the front and side of your neck) was swelling enough when wearing the collar that it was pressing on my carotid artery. Again, I had asked about the weaning process with the PA when we saw her in person on Week 3, but she refused to discuss it.
  • Week 8: Did barbell back squats for the first time. I’d been doing leg presses and hack squats up to that point, but this was the first time I put the barbell on my back.
  • Week 8: Stopped taking baby aspirin. The surgeon had me on this to minimize the inflammation from my damaged vertebral artery.
  • Week 11: Went for first mountain bike ride

As I explained in I Broke My Neck Part 2: What I’m Doing to Recover And Why, I did a lot more to take responsibility for my recovery than the guidance I got from the medical group.

I wasn’t willing to wait to recover. I wanted to make my body recover and get on with my life.

There’s a difference between miracles and accomplishments

I landed on top of my head, with my cervical spine taking the full force of my body’s momentum after catapulting over my bike’s handlebars. 

Had there been any rotation with that impact, my preexisting bone spurs would have surely cut the spinal cord. 

I’m certain that the way I landed on my head on July 30 was a miracle.

From the moment I stood up from my hospital bed the morning after, what I would do with that miracle was up to me. Each milestone above, and the dozens more I didn’t mention, were accomplishments that I could choose to pursue.

Why is this distinction so important? Because if my entire recovery is miraculous, it becomes something reserved only for those who are blessed with such a recovery.

Not being completely paralyzed after the crash was a miracle. Everything else required discipline, consistent effort, and a willingness to risk pushing myself beyond what’s considered 100% safe.

That makes the rest a series of accomplishments. And if they’re accomplishments, they’re not special. I’m not special. My recovery isn’t special. Where I’m at is a product of what I’ve done, which means that others in similar circumstances can achieve similar outcomes if they’re willing to do the work.

To be clear, though, going beyond what’s considered 100% safe does not mean doing something risky or stupid. It only means that there haven’t been enough other people who took a chance to show others that they didn’t need to take a passive role in their recovery.

Why do I bring this up? Because when someone says my recovery is miraculous, it suggests that it’s the result of a miracle alone. Or, for a non-believer, it suggests that it’s the result of fate.

I don’t see it that way. I believe God protected me from being a quadriplegic and then left the rest up to me to work for. I hope that if you get hurt or sick, you see it the same way.

Prayer is important, but you also have to get up off your knees and do the work necessary to accomplish what you’re praying for.

Know Who’s Responsible For What

We’ve repeatedly been told that the surgeon who performed my surgery, Dr. Mendes, is one of the best. Likely the best in our area for spine-related surgeries. While we didn’t “shop around,” I have no reason to doubt that.

His responsibility was to repair the damage I did when I crashed.

That involved removing a couple of discs and bone spurs, coming up with a solution for my fractured facets, and to treat the Central Cord Syndrome that came from the compressed and flattened spinal cord. So, he completed an anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF) and put me on high-dose Tylenol and gabapentin. The Tylenol was to minimize inflammation, and the gabapentin was to dull nerve pain.

Following the surgery, the neuroscience team’s only responsibility was to make sure my neck and spinal cord heal, and that the installed hardware doesn’t fail.

They’re not responsible for what happens above and below my neck.

I am.

I know that if I focus too much on protecting my neck, the rest of my body will suffer.

Wearing the Aspen Collar longer than necessary would cause atrophy in my neck and upper back, which could lead to other spine issues. Avoiding the gym altogether, rather than avoiding only exercises that put my neck at risk, would have made me weaker and fatter, increasing my risk of blood sugar and cardiovascular problems. It would have also negatively affected my mental health.

Not only that, but by remaining as active as possible and resuming resistance training quickly, the hormonal effects of exercise help to speed recovery from injuries. That’s why strength training is so important when you’re injured.

I live in my body, so my whole body is important to me, not just the special part that’s important to the specialists.

Read also: Torn Bicep Tendon? How To Speed Up Recovery After Surgery.

Start With the Right Expectations

There was only one instance since leaving the hospital that Vanessa and I felt frustrated, angry even. It was after meeting with the Physician’s Assistant for our 2-week post-op check-in.

We expected to meet with someone who was sincerely interested in what we were doing, how I was functioning, and who might share some insights into how others have sped up their recovery process. The appointment was the complete opposite.

The PA didn’t ask about what we’d been doing. She cut me off when I asked about getting off the Gabapentin, saying that I needed to be on it, and when I brought up acupuncture, telling me it was too soon to do it (even though there’s published research on acupuncture’s impact on spinal cord injury recovery). She didn’t do anything more than a few subjective muscle tests, measuring my progress by her subjective standards, not based on my own previous abilities. We left the appointment in awe and anger, as we expected to feel some level of personalized care.

In time, though, we realized we’d gone to the appointment with the wrong expectations. We understood that the PA was only there to give us the standardized guidelines and then move along to the next patient. Six weeks later, when we saw her again and had the same experience, we didn’t get frustrated because we had the right expectations.

Once we understood that the neuroscience team’s main interest was in making sure the hardware held together and there were no surgery-related complications, we let go of the hope they’d play an active role in, or even be interested in, my overall recovery.

The fact that I was getting back to “normal” in a fraction of the usual time wasn’t of interest to them, and that’s okay.

I hope that by sharing all this here on my blog, it’ll be useful to those who are interested, whether that be a patient or a physician.

The medical system might not be as we’d like it to be, but it is as it is. There’s no use in getting upset that it isn’t what we’d like it to be unless we’re going to take on the monumental task of changing it.

Changing the sick care system isn’t as important to me as empowering people to take charge of their health, because here’s the reality:

No matter how good and caring, and useful the medical system is, your health and fitness are ultimately your responsibility, no matter what kind of condition you’re in today. It’s all on you to be stronger and healthier and fitter tomorrow.

Feel better. Get stronger. Amaze yourself.

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