What Happened & How: A look “back” at my injured spine and year of suffering

What Happened & How: A look “back” at my injured spine and year of suffering

Just over a year ago I was a very active and healthy man…or so I thought. The #1 question I’ve been asked since my injury and subsequent neck and back surgeries is, “How did this happen??” I hope the below helps shed light on the year-long battle the ensued. I’ll share separate subsequent entries about fighting the insurance for approval, road to recovery from surgery (week by week) as I gain strength, the ensuing mental warfare that is the recovery stage , as well as some tips and tricks I learned along the way that no one told me about (for example: buy flip flops because you cannot tie your shoes). Till then, I feel the need to share the beginning of my story with the hope of helping others going through something similar. FYI my new spine pic is below:

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my new spine

August 8, 2017. The day a genetic condition that lay dormant inside me unleashed itself changing my life forever. Its human nature to find one event to blame or find a point in time and say, “you should have not done that.” I have since found out that my injury was due to a genetic problem that was undetected until it was too late, but I still find myself continuously reflecting on that day. It’s often easier to affix fault to an action then to accept poor luck or unfortunate circumstances. This is something I’m still working on.

For background, in May 2017 I had recently been promoted to Director of Business Development at Plenti and I felt that I was on top on the world. I was a Director — something I had fought so hard to become. The world has a funny way of teaching you what’s important when you begin to go down the rabbit hole of career progress at all costs…No less than three months after my promotion, while on my first business trip, I went to the gym at 6am as I had trained my body to do daily. But this time, as I jumped up and landed during a burpee, everything was different and the same all at the same time. Upon landing, I immediately felt a series of POPS through my lower back. It literally felt like an explosion. I fell to the floor unable to move.

Lying on the floor, all I could do was stare at the ceiling while the pain set in. Those moments felt like an eternity. The pain so intense that unless you’ve felt it before you can’t identify it…it’s so all-consuming and debilitating.

I was somehow peeled off of the floor and managed to sit through my business meeting in extreme pain and discomfort. I then took a four hour train back to Grand Central the same afternoon. Upon arriving, the train emptied out and I found myself incapable of getting up. My mind yelled “move” but my body wasn’t responding to its commands. The train conductor and his crew had to physically pull me out of the seat and get me to my feet. I made my way home still not knowing what was wrong and fearing the worst. In the middle of the night, I woke up screaming in pain as if someone was ripping my lower half of my body away from me. I must admit that months prior I had a glimpse of this pain. After a day of lifting boxes while moving into my new apartment, I experienced a mini version of this that night. An excruciating pain on this level though was something I had never felt to such a degree before, and this time I wouldn’t be bouncing back.

The following morning, it took me about fifteen minutes to inch out of bed, screaming from the pain that even the slightest motion brought on. I spent the next few days on the floor barely able to move. I limped to a nearby Urgent Care where they gave me a trigger point injection at the Emergency MD spot. The doctor reassured me I’d be fine. However, it wouldn’t be fine. What I found out after was that the cause of this injury was a genetic mutation in my lower spine that had finally caused the discs to rupture to pieces — forever changing me, my identity and my capabilities.

In short, I spent the next year of my life trying to repair the damage and avoid surgery. I slept on the floor almost every night because my back couldn’t handle a mattress. I would sleep next to the bed as my girlfriend (now fiancée), Lauren would lean over with her hand so we could hold hands as we fell sleep.

Knowing that a trip to Urgent Care was not enough, I began seeing doctors at Columbia University Medical Center specializing in acute and chronic spine and sports injuries. I was given the diagnosis of ruptured discs. Despite constant complains that something else deep down was very wrong, they dismissed my concern with the simple nod of — weak core. So with the hope that core strengthening would be a cure, I went to PT & Acupuncture regularly (3–5x a week) to help combat the injury. In the process, I forged strong relationships with the lovely, talented and amazing folks at SPEAR on 57th street here in NYC. I worked overtime at home on flexibility and at the gym on core strength.

As of December 2017, I was told by the doctors I was in the clear. I thought I had succeeded. Surgery had been avoided. My incredibly strong core seemed to be holding and I could slowly return to my daily activities including working full-time. Yet as I’ll explain in another entry, a lack of a strong core was not the issue. I’ve attached a picture of me here for no other reason than to show that weak core was clearly not the problem — I spent hours on my core not to have abs but to ensure my recovery.

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Generic medical diagnosis — weak core despite working out. This is a picture days before the injury

In December, I got the news….the Doctors cleared me. I beat it — I did it. I came back from the worst pain imaginable and beat my degenerative disc problems. Tears rolled down my face. In celebration, my father and I took a trip to England to see four soccer games in six days. A dream vacation for a dream recovery. Life I thought, was good.

Throughout all of this, I knew I wanted to get engaged and knowing that I could bend down and not worry about getting up cleared the path to finally do it. I planned the greatest trip of my lifetime with my father to see four English Premier League games in England and let him in on what I was planning to do. I told my mom on the plane and brothers’ not long after.

On January 6th, I proposed. Under the guise of a “DJ show” (I moonlight as a DJ), I surprised her with an empty room covered with our pictures in Pulqueria in downtown NYC. She said yes and we celebrated all month. A months of bliss if I may say — “fixing” my back, setting up life with a fiancée…life was good.

Come February, I heard and knock and rushed to the door. I slipped on my dogs toy and felt a small tinge on my back. Nothing too crazy, and nothing a week of sleeping on the floor couldn’t help. Then it happened again in March. Minor relapses I told myself. Mentally, I reassured myself I’d be okay. For the next three months I continued to get stronger and was confident that I had been healed.

On May 8th, while DJing at an event in Englewood, NJ, I innocently bent down for an iPhone charger. Immediately it felt as if someone had taken a sword and cut through my entire back — again. It came out of nowhere and I knew from that moment on that my life would never be the same.

My father came to get me and I was taken home to sleep on the floor. That night I woke up at 3:57 am screaming in pain again. The pain was all consuming and the re-injury from such a simple task was devastating. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t straight up nor bed down. I was stuck in a purgatory of existence with no relief. It was all happening again.

I woke up the next morning knowing I needed to take action, so I proceeded to schedule five consultations with surgeons, and 3 other non-surgical doctors to speak with about my condition. The reason I went to see doctors who were not surgeons in my mind was simple — if you go to a barber for a haircut, they’ll always recommend a haircut. I needed multiple opinions from those who were vested (financially) and also not vested in my recovery. Doctor after doctor all had the same answer.

Fusion surgery.

I had a mechanical problem in my lumbar spine, L4-L5-S1 that was not going to fix itself and only get worse as time went on. No amount of core condition could make this go away. I was 29.

Xlif, Alix, Plif…I had a lot to learn so I got to researching, interviewing doctors and preparing for my new life. I left no stone unturned and settled on Dr Roger Hartl from Weill Cornell.

We set the date of June 21st for the surgery. The day my old life would cease to exist and I would undergo the painful process of spinal fusion — where my damaged discs would be removed, rods inserted along with screws, cages, plates etc into my back and providing stability for a spine that so desperately needed it.

Two days before my 30th Birthday on June 9th, I woke up with shooting pain down my arm. The pain persisted — I lost feeling and function of my arm. I thought I had slept on my arm so made no fuss about it…but the pain got worse and the lack of functionality of my arm did as well. I celebrated my 30th Birthday with a smile, hiding the immense pain and fear that was parked in my brain.

On, June 12th the day after my birthday, an MRI confirmed my fear. Another disc had ruptured and was pressing on my nerve — I was going to lose permanent function of my left arm if I didn’t act quickly. I had to have the back and neck surgery done together was the prognoses from Dr. Hartl. Ok I said, once in the repair shop, might as well have it all fixed- like a mechanic, once the car is being repaired whats another few hours.

But…my heart sank. The feelings of helplessness consumed me but I convinced myself I was going to be ok. If only I knew this was just the start. While it is impossible without documented MRIs throughout my life to tie the two injuries together, a weak base causes things to shift up top. This is true for architecture, education etc…and I believe it to be true for my back. My back instability and constant rubbing of the bones due to the lack of discs caused instability in my spine and with one wrong turn, my neck turned from normal to a mess- in the blink of an eye I now faced two surgeries, two general anesthesia and a projected 10 hours plus of surgery.

The next day, the insurance denied the surgery both on my back and my neck (I’ll insert a separate entry about insurance at a later point). In short, they refused to provide me reasoning beyond “not medically necessary” and rejected all of my doctors’ appeals. When I relayed this information to my doctor he calmly let me know that the fate of my left arm was in jeopardy. The nerve was being compressed and permanent damage and lose of use for ever were very real possibility. I had to proceed with the surgery whether Anthem Blue Cross approved or not — to save my arm. The back unfortunately, would have to wait.

I proceeded with the neck surgery on June 21, 2018 despite no formal approval from my insurance. A matter a fact, they rejected the surgery in the face of me losing my arm and despite having the evidence from the MRI. The Doctor and his staff found ways to make it work. Fast forward to June 30th, while in the heart of recovering from my neck surgery, the back surgery (after many appeals, written & verbal appeals complete with documentation to a state regulated authority who then involved a federal third party), my back surgery was approved. David vs. Goliath — Ariel vs. Insurance — and I won. I would be approved and the surgery would take place on July 12, 2018.

This is just an entry about what has led up to the surgeries. The year of torture, hope, belief, sweat, tears and fear that led to where I’m today. I don’t regret a single thing from the past year and know I exhausted all options prior to resorting to surgery. I’m not a medical professional nor do I claim to have any medical knowledge. I listened to the professionals and worked my very best to try and overcome this genetic condition that unfortunately, was insurmountable.

Thank you all for reading, and for your love, prayers and support.

Ariel #wellness

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