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Nearly two weeks ago, I checked into the hospital for what was supposed to be a relatively minor procedure to address an “extremely rare” complication related to last year’s spinal fusion.

When the surgeon got in there, he unexpectedly discovered that my body had reabsorbed the implanted bone grafts while the rods and screws were loose and moving around. This happens in 3% of cases, he said, and he has no idea why it happened to me, as I do not have any of the risk factors for poor healing. As he delivered the bad news to me upon my awakening, he expressed surprise that I was even able to walk around in that condition.

In response to the situation, he had to completely redo the fusion, making for a much longer recovery than we anticipated. One planned night in the hospital became four. One week of missed work will now likely be three. One month of taking it easy now becomes a season, at least.

Twice I fainted in the hospital, and my blood pressure and pulse dropped so low for no apparent reason that they ran tests to see if I had suffered a heart attack, but really the hardest part of the whole ordeal has been coming to grips with the reality that everything I went through last year I must now do again.

However, the situation has been made easier thanks to the help and support of friends, family, an excellent team of nurses and physical therapists at the hospital, and of course my wife, who is now picking up the slack for me in every facet of our life.

Just 12 days before the surgery, I ran the Mount Washington Road Race and we celebrated at the summit. We thought we were at the top; little did we know we were heading back to the beginning. The lesson: I will never take days like that for granted, as they are never guaranteed to come again.


Day 458: Mount Washington

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In my mind’s eye, June 20, 2015 represented the end of an extensive journey back from a major operation. Long ago on the eleventh day of my recovery, I began keeping a log of the daily indicators of my progress, small steps all leading towards this late-springtime Saturday morning in New Hampshire when I would return to racing by competing in the Mount Washington Road Race and, upon reaching the summit, declare my recuperation complete.

Beginnings and endings make for nice stories, but they are sometimes just myths. Even as conditions improve and problems slip into the past, they still exist somewhere. Perhaps that is why alcoholics often still label themselves as such even after decades have past since their last drinks. My back will always demand my attention and vigilance, just as diabetics must continue to practice daily blood sugar management, as opposed to achieving their target A1C values and leaving their endocrinologists’ offices thinking they have wiped their hands clean of the disease. Not that I am complaining or feeling bad for myself; we all know that life could have dealt me a much worse hand.

Next week, I undergo a third back operation to correct what my surgeon terms an “extremely rare” complication related to last year’s procedure. Although I can run up the highest mountain in the northeastern United States, I cannot jog around the block or even go for a walk without significant pain. Go figure.

While this past Saturday was not the metaphorical finish line that I anticipated, the occasion still carried a significance. As I neared the summit, I remembered that exactly 15 months earlier I laid in a hospital bed unable to do anything more than slowly shuffle about the unit with my walker and a back brace. The days that I thought I would actually make it back to competitive racing were vastly outnumbered by the days I felt in my heart that I never would, but I always kept working and accumulating small daily indicators that I was inching back towards my old self.

Effort alone, however, is not enough, and I never would have gotten to this point without the help of many people, including my surgeon, Dr. Jean-Valery Coumans, my physical therapist, Sue Bloom, and most of all my wife, Joanne, who has experienced this saga from spending sleepless nights on a couch in my hospital room to waiting for me at the summit. Literally and figuratively, it was a long way back to the top of that mountain, and I could not have gotten there alone. We got this far, and will go even farther, together.