“One trip or fall, one heavy blow to the head and it could leave you in a chair, or even worse, not with us anymore”. Those words will stay with me forever.
Booking in for surgery the clerk turned to me and said “You are too young for this”. I didn’t have time to take that in, but it was profound.
The 19th February 2021 is a day I wont forget. 6am, 6,000 miles from home and ready for emergency surgery. That’s when things hit me. Into a surgical gown, stripped of all my possessions and surrounded by medical staff. “Let us check your mouth, you will have a breathing tube…. let me just mark the spot for the incision”.
Let’s rewind a month earlier. Waking up with a pain along my left arm, that I can only describe as an intense burning. Throwing ice onto my arm to relive the heat, the pain. No feeling in my left hand. I knew something was up, this pain can’t be possible. Is it a trapped nerve? Yeah, probably. It will pass.
I saw the doctor as soon as I could and he gave me some strong prescription painkillers. Everything will be fine in a few hours I thought. Those hours turned into a day or two, then a week. Still the excruciating pain. Icing my arm every morning, mid-winter and joking I could heat a small city. The thing was, and little did I know, this was no laughing matter.
At the beginning of February I visited the doctor again still in extreme pain and discomfort. Aside from changing my medication, he ordered an X-ray. I had my blood pressure taken, which was 150/100. I knew this was concerning. The X-ray results were back quickly and were showing some damage to my cervical spine, degenerative disc disease. “Ok, so a slipped disc” I thought.
I went to see the doctor to discuss the results, my blood pressure was still significantly high. The doctor said he would order an MRI immediately. Two days later I was in the tunnel having my scan.
The results came around quickly and I had access to them. “Severe spinal canal stenosis with subtle abnormal cord signal in keeping with focal myelomalacia”.
Ok. What’s this then? Myelomalacia? That’s new to me. So I did the worst thing – and googled it…
Myelomalacia is a pathological term referring to the softening of the spinal cord…There is no known treatment to reverse nerve damage due to myelomalacia. In some cases, surgery to allieviate the injury to the area may slow or stop further damage. As motor function degenerates, muscle spasticity and atrophy may occur”
Wow. I don’t trust googling medical conditions, but this hit me hard. So I called the doctor. “Come in Wednesday and we will take a look”.
I went in to see the doctor again and my blood pressure was highly elevated, 159/109. Immediately I was prescribed some blood pressure drugs. It was concerning both myself and the doctor, I’m 44 years old, I don’t carry much weight and exercise regularly (aside of my working practice!). How can this be?
A few days later the pain had become worse and worse. What was more evident though was my forgetfulness, clumsiness and dropping everything I tried to pick up. I remember trying to put the keys in my apartment door and dropping them on the floor. I couldn’t even feel them to pick them up. Opening the door and stumbling into my apartment. Surely this can’t be right? What is happening to me? I’ve just turned 44 years old, surely this can’t be happening. But it was, at an alarming rate and deteriorating rapidly.
A day or so later the doctor called me to tell me I needed to see a consultant neurosurgeon in Seattle immediately. On Wednesday 17th February I visited the consultant. At first I saw a nurse who took my vitals. My blood pressure was still high, very high indeed. The nurse did a few manual muscle tests and then opened my MRI. “Oh God” where her words. I won’t forget that. Ever.
“Let me get the Dr.” she said. Within a few minutes the consultant came in and started some testing. “Stand over there and close your eyes” he said “now walk towards me”.
Then he sat me down. “We have to operate immediately, as a matter of emergency” he said. “Why? What’s up?” I said. Then there was a silence that seemed and eternity, but was probably a matter of seconds.
“This is an emergency procedure for a cervical myelopathy. The rate you are declining is of huge concern. We need to operate to take the pressure off your spinal cord”. Right there in that moment, I had no idea what to think. I asked when they needed to operate. “Friday morning, 6am”. Wow. “What next?” I asked tentatively. “Tomorrow you will need to come back here, we will do some tests and talk you through the procedure”.
Myelopathy describes any neurologic symptoms related to the spinal cord and is a serious condition. It occurs from spinal stenosis that causes pressure on the spinal cord. If untreated, this can lead to significant and permanent nerve damage including paralysis and death.
I left the hospital in some form of shock, but didn’t really feel any emotion. The first thing I did was call my parents back in the UK. Both of them were silent when I explained I needed an operation in less than 48 hours. I then called my club to let them know what was happening. They were just as shocked as my parents.
The next day I went back to the hospital in Seattle. It still hadn’t sunk in what was happening. The nurses took my blood pressure, which was still high, and then did some COVID testing. Pretty standard in 2021. Then the nurse who had been with the Dr. the day before came in. I don’t really remember too much of the conversation, as she outlined the potential risks of the surgery. “Spinal cord fluid leak, paralysis and unfortunately, death”. Wow. I though the operations was going to help was my thoughts.
I left the hospital and went to see the team in a friendly match. I started to hit me what was going to happen the next morning. The staff and players wished me luck. And that was it, I didn’t know when I would see them again.
That night I hardly slept. Every thought in the world went through my mind. ‘who’s going to let my parents know?’, “will everything be ok at work?’, ‘what about the players and staff?’. I would be lucky if I slept at all that night.
5am the next morning I was collected by our Director of Rehab, Nicole. I probably spoke absolute rubbish the whole way, but the nerves were pretty evident. Nicole dropped me outside and that was it. I walked into the hospital entrance, past a man and a metal detector and walked towards the lift.
I arrived at the admissions desk, which somehow felt like a basement. There were probably 20 other patients next too me. At that point I decided to reveal on my social media that I was having emergency surgery. My phone was red hot, so many lovely messages, but not much time to reply.
A nurse appeared and called out my name. I remember walking along a corridor and into a cubicle. That was it. Clothes off, gown on, X marks the spot on my throat. I remember a few nurses coming in and a couple of neurosurgeons, they explained the operation. “We are going to remove two cervical discs, add in a cadaver bone graft and then fuse your spine with a plate & screws”. Now it was getting real. There were tubes coming from my arms, both sides. All my clothes and possessions were put in a bag, labelled and taken away. The last thing I remember is being wheeled out the cubicle.
“Andrew, Andrew, can you hear me?”. Who the hell is that was my first thought. “Andrew, it’s the nurse. You are out of surgery now”. The whole operation, from what I know, took a few hours. There were no complications.
I was taken for a scan to check the surgeons work. All I remember was being cold and sleepy. Then I was taken to my ward.
Once I was comfortable on the ward, I managed to FaceTime a few friends and my family. I couldn’t talk much (I actually didn’t know I had a drain tube coming out my throat!). However, I didn’t sleep at all that night. I sat up until 6am, there was no chance of sleeping with the nurses in every hour, and the amount of medication I was on.
The next morning the Neurosurgeon visited me. “The operation was very successful”. I was relieved and grateful. The pain had gone, but I still couldn’t feel my hands. He had already told me there was no guarantee this will ever return. 6 weeks later and I still don’t have that feeling back.
The medical staff informed me that would keep me in for another night. If I was well enough, I could go home after two days in hospital. I live on my own which concerned them, but one of my colleagues was coming to check on me daily to change my dressing and observe. This was pleasing enough for the hospital staff and I was discharged the next day.
For the next week or so I was so heavily medicated that I really had no idea what day it was. I just wanted to sleep and recover. Even six weeks on, there is still some fatigue (afternoons seem worse) and my sleep was literally ruined for four weeks or so.
A couple of weeks ago, and after my first check up, I began my rehab programme. Slow and steady is the key. Gradually build myself back up. I lost 2kgs, mainly of muscle mass, during my time in pain. I can’t lift, and my left scapula is severely winged due to the lack of innervation on that side. I have to be very careful with sharp, sudden movements to my head.
I managed to get back to my job eventually, although for such a physically demanding job, I’m very much restricted (making it difficult to demo anything at all!). I’m lucky to have such great colleagues and players at my club. Everyone has been so supportive & willing to help out, both personally and professionally.
Despite being six weeks post surgery I’m still not out the woods. The doctors warned that while they have alleviated the immediate (and pain causing) issue, there is a chance that the bone fusion won’t occur. There is also the prospect of further surgery if things don’t hold up in there.
The doctors told me I am reasonably lucky that we managed to spot the condition early. The majority of patients they see are so far gone their loss of motor control means they cannot control their bladder and bowels. The doctor was complimentary that I recognised something was wrong. It wasn’t just me though, my colleagues had realised something wasn’t right, the clumsiness, the forgetfulness, the blood pressure – things didn’t add up, and they were onto it immediately. Trying to demonstrate a skipping motion during a warm up I fell to the floor. This was before the condition was diagnosed, but made sense. I couldn’t control a simple movement like that.
Of course, everything has come at a cost. The appointments and surgery has left me with a six figure medical bill. Even with insurance (thankfully!), I still need to find a five figure sum to pay the bills. Insurance covered the majority, but I am still liable for some of the costs, and thats after the excess had been paid. Somehow, I’ll figure a way to settle the medical bill. My collector’s item Jordan 4s and some of my signed shirts may need to be traded, but they are material things, I cant trade my health.
Throughout this experience though I have learn’t many lessons. Life is so precious. There are people in far worse positions in this world than me. Some have poor health and no roof over their heads. The pandemic has cost people their livelihoods, while I am blessed to work with incredible staff and players and continued to work throughout the pandemic.
I guess as they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. However, the last few months have taught me so much. I haven’t seen my family since Dec 2019, but I have good people around who have gone above and beyond to help and comfort me.
I am still human though. There are good days and bad days, I can’t deny that. Some days are comfortable, some are uncomfortable. It can be a easy to ignore these feelings and emotions, its all part of a process. The body is still healing, the mind is trying to make sense of it all. I try not to get overwhelmed or frustrated. I’ve always been a hands on person. Some might think I’m just a data guy, and thats an easy assumption, but I love problem-solving, finding solutions, getting creative with drill design and getting the best out of players physically whilst having fun ( a few players may disagree haha!)
I’m still recovering, although I have spent lots of time being deeply reflective and with introspection. I can’t control a lot of things and it’s pointless trying, but what I can control is how I face the challenges in this moment, and that will inevitably arise. Without challenge there is no progress, in life or sport.
Despite these challenges, I am still here to tell the tale and still doing my best to keep smiling.
99 Healthy is not 100% Injured. There is always something you can do, something you can do to get better, to improve in one area or another. Whether it’s physically, mentally, academically, it may not seem it at the time, but injury provides opportunity.
Nothing lasts forever.
There are still so many people I need to thank from everyone at OL Reign, Statsports, USSF, and all my friends and family back in the UK & Ireland. Your support has been invaluable, I won’t forget it x