Baseball season is back underway and one of the lessons I have learned as a lifelong Mariners fan is that things can change quickly. A promising start can fall off quickly with several losses in a row. Likewise, when all things look bleak, an amazing rally can sometimes surprise and astonish you. But most importantly, baseball, as well as life, is about the long game – one game in a 162 game season does not usually make or break the team.
This last season of mine personally threw me a curve ball that I was not expecting. Many of you heard some of the details, but I wanted to let everyone know what I went through, the lessons I take from it, and my outlook and excitement going forward. I also want to thank those who have been so supportive through this season.
On February 1 of this year I had to have an emergency surgery to remove a benign tumor that was on my spinal cord in my low back. I had been having sciatica type pain in my left leg and foot for many years that would come and go, but had gradually and insidiously gotten worse over the last couple years. My health was in fact one of the reasons we spent a year in Costa Rica last year on a working Sabbatical. And while the experience was life-changing and emotionally rejuvenating, my pain levels continued to increase. We made the decision to come back to Spokane and settled in a great neighborhood which happened to be near two hospitals. We didn’t know at the time, what a blessing this would turn out to be.
As we settled in over last summer and fall, I began to notice the pain and numbness began spreading to the right leg as well. With our training, we knew this was more than a compressed sciatic nerve and knew I needed imaging. My guess at the time was a disc problem and I was able to get into my primary care doctor and get an MRI ordered. I had the MRI on January 2nd and the results showed the presence of a tumor that was compressing and tethering my spinal cord in my low back.
At this point I knew I would need a surgery. I am obviously a strong believer in alternative medicine, but looking at the MRI, I knew there was only one solution. I was born with Spina Bifida and had surgery before 1 month old mostly normally and was able to play soccer, baseball, and ski and snowboard. I had some mild low back pain as a child, but nothing debilitating. The MRI suggested a type of growth called an intradural lipoma which is a semi-common, very slow growing complication of Spina bifida and tends to show up between 20 and 50 years old.
I was referred to a neurosurgeon but before I could get into my appointment, I began developing the worst headache of my life. For two weeks, I could barely get out of bed. The headache would improve with laying flat and dramatically worsen with my head above my body. It was determined that I had developed a cerebrospinal fluid leak due to the tumor breaking through the dural layer. When the headache suddenly worsened on January 30, I ended up in Sacred Heart ER and was admitted. After more MRIs (a 3 and a half hour process under sedation), my neurosurgeon determined we needed to do surgery right away. I underwent the procedure on February 1st and the next few days were pretty blurry.
Apparently the surgery was very tricky. I had a rare split in my spinal cord called a diastematomyelia (say that three times fast). The tumor had intertwined with my nerves and the doctors did their best to tease out the good from the bad. However, when I came to I was in excruciating pain in my right leg – it felt like it was exploding, despite being on high doses of dilaudid and hydrocodone. I also had almost complete numbness below the waist, which is quite a frightening development. It was determined that I had developed inflammation in my spinal cord and this was causing the symptoms. I was started on high dose steroids and began ramping up on gabapentin for the nerve pain.
Over the next 2 weeks, I was kept in the hospital – first Sacred Heart and then St Luke´s Rehab Hospital to learn how to use my new body. I had to learn how to walk again – first taking only a few steps with a walker, then able to walk the hallway, then moving on to a cane. I had to relearn how to use the bathroom and figure out how to put on socks. It was a truly humbling experience. But overall compared to the headache I had before the surgery, I would take all this in a heartbeat.
I have now crossed the 4 month mark and can feel that I am getting back to myself. I left the hospital with a medication list of over 10 things and within a month was able to get off almost all. Now I am only on one medicine (Lyrica) for the nerve pain and am hopeful of some day being able to get off of this as well. I still have a hard time standing or sitting for long periods of time, but am noticing improvements in both of these and am looking forward to being able to return to work soon.
I am someone who believes that things happen for a reason and am always looking to learn from what is happening. I wanted to relay some of the takeaways I had from this experience.
- I find myself re-inspired about medicine. I had many great doctors and nurses throughout the process. Many of the nurses truly made the experience much more palatable. This is the first time I have had to stay in a hospital since I was a baby and I was impressed with the caring and warm nature of most everyone I had to interact with. Not practicing made me miss the job of a person who gets to interact with people at their most vulnerable and find ways to make their experience easier and find strategies to solve problems together.
- There is clearly a place for naturopathic medicine within the larger medical field. When I was in the hospital, they were adding more and more medicines to my regime, often that I didn’t even need. They put me on Pepcid assuming that I would have heartburn – even though I never had this. Coming out of the hospital I was able to wean off most of the medicines quickly and use natural products instead of medications. Also, I wanted to give kudos to my wife for being the only one who was able to stop my post-anesthesia hiccoughs in the ICU. They tried many medications and tricks for a case of hiccoughs that lasted many hours. Julia ran to a close-by juice bar and got me a beet and green vegetable juice. Within a few sips, the hiccoughs went away. I am not sure how she knew that would help, but I do trust her instincts and am grateful for the intervention. A tip to try if you can´t stop a bad case yourself.
- I hope I have gained compassion for other people who are going through challenging health problems. I have experienced the fear and uncertainty of an unknown health problem and outcome. I have suffered with pain so bad I could barely see. I went through the wild hormonal shift of high dose of steroids that are weaned down and it takes a day or two for your own adrenal glands to begin making cortisol again. I hope to be able to use these experiences to help others in the future.
- I have learned the importance of someone´s health story. The more my journey went on, the more I found myself attached to my illness story. I wanted to tell each new doctor or nurse all the details, with the hope they would find a solution for me. Even writing this post feels like part of the same story telling. I have seen patients do this in our practice for years – bringing stacks of records and tests and wanting to make sure I understood their illness and their suffering. I do appreciate hearing the stories of others and finding a way to move that story in a new healing direction. But I also learned that these stories can sometimes prevent us from moving forward and healing. We can easily become attached to ourselves as sick and focus all of our attention on what is wrong. For myself, the most dramatic steps forward for me have come when I began to try to find way to look at my story differently, focusing instead on what is good. Or seeing weak areas as something to overcome. My first shower after surgery was amazing, My first walk around the block with a cane was amazing. My first bike-ride as the dizziness from the medications I had stopped finally cleared was amazing. I am not back to where I want to be, but I am choosing to focus on my story as a healing one and trying to let go of the sick story.
- I feel re-inspired about Naturopathic medicine. My brother asked me recently if I had any regrets with choosing naturopathic medicine and whether I would do it any differently knowing what I know now. I had to think about it for a little while. In some ways it would have been easier to go into a different kind career or a different field of medicine where there are jobs where you don’t have to pave your own way. But as someone who feels called to seeing people be able to truly heal, I see naturopathic medicine as the best option for whole body health. One of my mentors, the late Bill Mitchell, ND, used to say that all of allopathic (Western conventional) medicine was included in naturopathic medicine, but not all of naturopathic medicine was included in allopathic medicine. In naturopathic medicine we have to choice to recommend prescription medications, surgeries, or other allopathic interventions if these are the best choice for clients. I needed to have this surgery as I was beginning to have muscle loss and would soon lose bladder and bowel control according to my doctor. But surgery and medications should not be the only choices for someone. We have many more tools like herbs, homeopathic medicine, hands on therapy, diet and exercise changes, etc. These are often better options for someone to heal. And we take the time with our clients to see where the illness lies – we can focus more on mental, emotional, and spiritual components of illnesses – whether as cause or consequence of physical problems. As a naturopathic physician, I feel that I have been gifted with a wide toolbox to help those who are suffering and that when appropriate, I will recommend an allopathic intervention. As another one of my mentors, Patrick Donovan, ND, put it, ¨Don´t practice naturopathic medicine, don´t practice chiropractic medicine, don’t practice homeopathic medicine… Practice Medicine!¨ The best medicine meets that patient where they are and finds the best intervention at that time and place, preferably the one that is safest, most effective, and with the fewest side effects. I still believe that Naturopathic medicine in the best way to put all this together for healing.
Thank you for reading this far and lastly I wanted to take the time to thank some people who were instrumental in allowing me the time and space to heal and help our family in this challenging season. First I want to thank my wife, Dr Julia, who was truly amazing in this challenging season. She claimed she was paying me back for giving her 4 seasons away from work when she had each of our children, but she truly went above and beyond taking care of the family, finances, and seeing all of my clients in addition to her own. I also wanted to thank all of our parents – Susan and Franko. Doug, and Sherrie-Sarah and Richard for helping out with childcare, meals, and finances. I also wanted to thank our friends who helped out with groceries, meals, fellowship, and emotional support – including but not limited to Rob and Jennie, Ryan and Rachele, Dan and Julie, and many others. I wanted to thank my medical team with a special recognition for the team St Luke’s Rehab hospital. They are a great resource and one of the top places in the country for spinal cord injuries and we happened to move back a mile away from them – again I think all things happen for a reason.
I am optimistic for the future and look forward to the next season. As a lifelong Mariners fan, I have learned to always be ready for next season and be accustomed to things looking pretty bleak. But I always remember those moments like 1995 and 2001 where something amazing and magical happened when everything comes together. I see something like this on the near horizon for me and my family and am grateful for the opportunity to share my journey with each of you and to be part of your healing journey as well. I am not quite back to doing direct consultations but am excited about being a part of the conversations again. Let’s play ball!