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I’ll say it right away: I was scared. Shit, I am scared! As I age, I am beginning to recognize my fragility, my temporality. I knew this transformation was going to happen. This life stage I am now entering in my mid-40s was exactly why I threw myself a huge 39th birthday party (#the39 anyone?) and why I trained for the entire following year to become an Ironman at age 40. I knew that period of my life needed to be punctuated with really big milestones, memories and accomplishments.
Prologue: The Surgery <Short> Story
After the madness that was Q2 of 2020, I needed to regroup. I took a week off at the beginning of July and went literally nowhere. It was hot as fuck outside – I don’t even think I left my house most days. I sat in my fragility, in this life stage. I knew my spine needed tending to. And I was scared. Yet, it was time to face my fear.
On July 16th, I adulted big time: I went to see a spinal surgeon. He was the one I would trust based on 1 – his capabilities, reputation and recommendations from others in the “serious-back-having-problems community” and 2 – having seen him before some 7 years prior. It’s a long story. Bonus: his entire team is top notch.
And I knew some of how this story was going to unfold… MRI, then a decision: PT, shots, both, or surgery. One step at a time.
On August 13th, I sat down with Dr. Pateder to review the MRI. He didn’t need to say anything. I’m no doctor, but I saw. I knew immediately that I needed to functionally be fixed. The literal core of my body was injured; the most fragile part of my spine, essentially broken.
I burst into tears almost immediately. I asked Dr. Pateder for permission to remove my mask so I could breathe and wipe my face. He might be a surgeon, but the empathy he showed me in that moment was critical. I heard: “I am going to leave you to think about all this and to go through what you need to go through to make a decision. If you chose surgery, my team and I will be here for you. But you need to make a commitment to this journey because you won’t heal if you don’t.”
In late August, I brought my boss Kristine Rohls into the inner circle that is my personal board of directors: those I don’t make any life decisions without consulting. She said something only she can: “Caroline, it’s never too early to take care of your health. I support you.” I think I burst into tears then too. She gets me.
On Monday October 19th at 6:45AM, Dr. Pateder was all dressed up for work at what is his superpower: fixing spines. He showed up in my pre-op room at Reston Hospital in his blues. “Your recovery is going to be positive on the overall trend. It’s going to take a year before you are “back to normal”. And that journey is going to be full of peaks and valleys and ups and downs. I need you to keep the long-game in mind. So you can fully heal.”
Noted. The long-game, I know. I am a strategist, a visionary, a change maker, an endurance athlete.
The Business of Healing
Before I went under, I already had homework. “When you wake up, I want you to move your left leg and use your hip flexor. I am going to stretch it out of the way to get to your spine and it’s going to be sore.”
It is in this exact moment that my healing actually began.
(Also, he wasn’t kidding: he bru-ta-lized my psoas.)
One of the things I had been scared of all this time was “the hardware”. I couldn’t imagine my body being the recipient and holder of foreign or replacement parts, metal, screws, and who knows what else?!
Two weeks later, I sat down with Juliana, Dr. Pateder’s PA for a post-surgery report and check in. After I stood for some X-Rays, like I had so many times before, I felt a sense of excitement wash over me: I couldn’t wait to see the hardware.
The fuck?! What had scared me for years up until just 2 weeks ago was now a source of extreme curiosity and marvel at modern medicine married with the body’s incredible resilience.
It is only once I saw and experienced what I was actually scared of that I was able to see the possibilities beyond this fear.
I didn’t cry then: I was too intrigued and inquisitive to get emotional in that moment. Some 15 minutes later, it’s in the truck, as I reflected on what had just happened, that I had the emotional release I had been waiting for for so long. I exhaled.
Now enabled by a cage, I was free to feel confident, precisely at my core.
Six weeks later, I am repaired, resting and healing. And reflective.
The business of healing: it’s simple, in a complex way.
The Lessons Of Healing
The barometer. First, I listen. How does my body feel? The answer is the barometer for everything I do. It now goes with me everywhere. I have built my convalescence agenda around it and am practicing for integrating it into life, for the next and after phases. I’ve also begun using it to check in with my mental health. This barometer has brought me an awareness I have never experienced before. It’s essential to the growth I seek.
Slow play with balance. Some days I push, somedays I rest. I intuitively experiment. And back to the barometer. Slowly, and close to Earth. Grounded. I observe myself. Chomping at the bit at times, but remembering: I cannot fall. My recovery depends on it. So that’s my job right now. Stay out of the hospital and don’t fall.
Exercise discipline. The regimen of a seemingly repetitive physical therapy program is necessary. The consistency of routine is a must. Just do the work. And enjoy it. Luckily I have Asmita and Carlos on my care team. And it doesn’t hurt anymore!
It takes time. So I practice patience. And gratitude for the gift of time that being employed affords me. The body will heal on its schedule. Other than treating it and our whole selves the best we possibly can, there is no accelerating healing. I am literally growing bone. It is a long-game. And it’s exhausting.
Respect for humility. Intentionally experiencing all of this has brought me to a new level of understanding for humility. I am small, in a big way, of course! But I am finally comprehending what it means to surrender to the forces of the Universe. I am going with it. There is no other choice for me anymore.
Begin, again. Every single day. Start over. Do it again. From the beginning. In healing, and in life.
This experience has literally changed my life. I am no longer scared and I will never wait on a health decision again. I hope sharing this story inspires other to take care of themselves, and each other.