By David Schissler – Not long ago I saw a fantastic documentary on HBO about Lindsey Vonn’s battle with numerous injuries and multiple comebacks during her career. It drove home how determined one must be to do the work and maintain the mental toughness it takes to come back. I couldn’t help but identify with her since I’ve been down that path seven times in the last seventeen years due to joint replacement surgeries.
It’s been a slow start to the ski season for me this year. Last fall, after years of managing back pain, the jig was up. I simply reached a point where I could no longer support my own weight for any practical amount of time. I could only stand or sit for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. The “fix” was a Posterior Lumber Interbody Fusion (PLIF) or lumbar laminectomy early last October. For those fortunate enough not to know what that is, it’s when the back of your vertebrae are removed to allow more room for your spinal column and then fused, or quite literally screwed together to keep them in place. Obviously, this was a very big deal.
October was a hellish situation of managing pain and body functions. Thank God, much of the month was spent asleep due to the pain meds. It was a potent cocktail. Any move from bed required a walker. Very few things will make you feel older and more reliant on others than spending your days with a walker.
My condition improved somewhat in November. I spent less time flat on my back in bed and there was a little less pain. The best development was that I progressed from the walker to crutches. I know it doesn’t sound like much but believe me the transition is liberating. The added mobility is proof of progress however slow it may be.
By early December I had shed the crutches for a cane. I also reached a point where the level of pain decreased enough to discontinue the pain meds. Another milestone reached. Late in December I began my physical therapy sessions. I went for an hour, twice-a-week, for six weeks and did parts of the routine a few days a week at home. The workouts were intensive with numerous exercises designed to build leg and core strength. I started therapy with a cane and ended walking out on my own feeling stronger and more stable than I had in recent memory. I was very pleased with my progress. I had to try to ski.
Of course, before getting on skis post-op for the first-time I had a conversation with my doctor. A skier herself, she understood my desire to return to the slopes but wanted me to know the risks. She was concerned about over-loading the vertebrae adjacent to the repaired area. We discussed sticking to groomed, smooth green dots and blue squares along with the need to keep the speed down and to limit the time on hill. Armed with the knowledge of the risk and how to mitigate it, I headed to New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
On January 30th, one week shy of four-months post-op, I went to Loon Mountain. The Kancamagus Express quad services beautiful, well-groomed green and blue terrain. As I pushed off for the first time I concentrated on the terrain before me and my body positioning. It was rough at first. I didn’t get low enough and certainly wasn’t very quick but I was stable and that’s all I hoped for. Within a few hundred yards I began to loosen up and link my turns more smoothly. I was much more comfortable on my second run and felt strong enough to go a little harder. I headed to South Peak and my favorite run at Loon, Cruiser. The name is apt. Again, concentrating on technique and my body’s response I linked a few GS turn together and then quickened the rhythm to slalom turns. That’s when I knew I was better off than I had been last season before the surgery. After a couple of hours and 7 or 8 runs I heard my doctor’s advice and the words of my therapist in my head. During my workouts he would say “take what your body gives you David”. I called it a day.
One week shy of four months post-op.
The next day I felt surprisingly good. I wasn’t nearly as stiff or sore as I expected to be. I decided to ski again. This time I went to Bretton Woods, where I knew I could rely on some of the best snowmaking and grooming in the East. I was also excited about riding the new 8-passenger gondola to the summit. The tentative nature of the day before was gone. The proof is in this video clip.
One of my friends recently asked “just how much hardware are you carrying?” I took inventory and explained that I have a titanium spike in each hip, one with a ceramic socket and one with a plastic socket. Each has three titanium screws. There are three titanium screws in each shoulder, twelve titanium screws in my neck along with two titanium bars and now six more screws and two more bars in my lower back. I’m a walking hardware store with the operative word being walking. There were days when I had my doubts. Persevering through the procedure, post-op recovery and physical therapy will test anyone’s mental toughness and determination. Like Lindsey, I’ve always had getting back on skis as my motivation. Half-way down on my second run my wife Ann asked me “How are you doing?” My response, “I’m so happy I could cry.” The relief of knowing the surgery was a success and that skiing would continue to be a large factor in my life was all the validation and encouragement I needed.