Years ago, my younger brother Mike was sporting a fun bumper sticker that said, simply: “Skiing = Life.” At the time, Mike was living just outside Snowmass, Colorado, so I’m sure he had many like-minded folks nodding in agreement when they saw the “Ski = Life” mantra plastered on the back of his burly pick-up. But this past year, I’ve come to see the saying in an entirely new light.
In the late winter of 2016, my left hip was failing, the inescapable result of a very active life, including more than 40 years on the slopes and in hockey rinks (on the ice, not watching). My older brother Sean, a former team doctor for the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team, likes to say that our joints were never meant to last forever. Eventually, the bill comes due for all that wear and tear.
That winter, I got in at least a dozen days on the slopes — my “last hurrah,” according to my bride — before having that left hip replaced in late March. The idea was to give myself enough time to be ready for summer hockey camps, and definitely be all the way back for the following winter and ski season. But a funny thing happened that summer: I started losing feeling in my feet.
My physical therapist, who was essential in my rehab from hip replacement, recommended a back specialist. That doctor was so concerned that she instantly ordered an MRI. The next day, I was in a neurosurgeon’s office. The diagnosis was simple, direct and sobering. I had spinal stenosis — bony, arthritic growth — and a pair of herniated discs along my lower spine. Even I, as an Average Joe, could see the proof on the MRIs. The nice, spacious spinal column of my upper back disappeared as the films moved to my lower spine. And that crowded column was pressing on my spinal cord and the nerves that branch off from it.
Weary of surgery, I asked several surgeons what my options were. I tried a course of prednisone, a couple of cortisone injections, and even several chiropractic sessions. The goal was to knock down the inflammation, with the hope of relieving pressure on my spinal nerves. But even my chiropractor, a cycling friend, confided: “I might be able to help if this is an alignment issue. But if it’s stenosis, you’ll need surgery to have that removed.”
The adjustments and injections helped, but only briefly. By October, I wasn’t worried about ski season. I was far more concerned about walking outside, dealing with ice, snow and slush. I knew I had to make a decision.
During one of several consultations, a spine specialist at New England Baptist finally told me: “I can’t guarantee that you’ll get better with surgery. But I can guarantee that you won’t get better without it. But only you can decide what you want to do.” After the surgeon left, I lost it. I looked at my wife, Lauri, and just started bawling.
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All my life, I identified most closely with my physical persona. I wasn’t a great athlete, but I was decent, and many of my most memorable moments came when I was active, exploring my physical capabilities. And now all that was being taken from me.
“It’s OK,” said Lauri. “We’ll get through this.”
Dr. Russell Brummett of Concord Orthopaedics in New Hampshire opened my back on Nov. 9, 2016, the day after the election (Translation? I didn’t get much sleep). The surgery was, in short, a high-tech Roto-Rooter of my lower spine, as Dr. Brummett cleared out the arthritic growth that had invaded three vertebrae. The pain relief, thankfully, was almost immediate. But the effects of the nerve damage persisted.
“Recovery can take anywhere from six to 18 months,” Brummett told me. “You’re going to have to be patient.”
The following April, Lauri and I, along with my daughter Brynne, headed to Bethel, Maine, to take my first post-operative turns at Sunday River. I couldn’t help but get my hopes up, but the reality was that I wasn’t ready. Not even close. My left side was still very weak, and even the short slide from condo to chairlift felt shaky. I lasted two runs, went back inside, exhausted, and promptly fell asleep for two hours.
I woke up before Brynne and Lauri got back, and spent the next hour wondering if I had skied my last run. It was something I’d think about often over the next eight months.
In December, Lauri and I visited Okemo in Vermont, one of my favorite Northeast resorts. After my abbreviated session at Sunday River the previous spring, I was a bundle of nerves, but optimistic. I’d done a fair amount of cycling, and felt my strength was good, but I had no idea what my balance and, more importantly, my proprioception would be. I was still unsteady, but I felt better. Considerably better.
No, I wasn’t completely comfortable. My left leg, and left foot, still weren’t cooperating completely. I took one spill when I crossed my tips, because my left ski was lagging behind. But I felt like I was heading in the right direction. Riding on the chairlift with Lauri, I couldn’t contain myself.
“I’m just so damned happy to be out here with you,” I told my wife.
Then, this past January, Lauri and I drove north for a few days with Brynne and our eldest, Maddi, in the Mount Washington Valley, skiing at Mount Cranmore and Attitash/Bear Peak. Our first day out was bitter cold, but the girls were game. This is one of the reasons I love skiing. It challenges you, and in facing those challenges, you often find out what you’re made of. Just before we headed out into the bright, beautiful day, I huddled with my wife and two daughters, pulling them all close.
“I love you guys,” I told the three most important people in my life.
We had a great day. I had to take a few extra breaks, as my endurance was still no match for my Millennials. But I was out there, on the hill, feeling my edges underneath me and the cold, crisp mountain air filling my lungs. I could not stop smiling.
Mike’s bumper sticker was right. Skiing = Life. In that moment, at the Mount Cranmore lodge, hugging my girls, I could not have felt more content, and I could not have felt more alive. I was back skiing. Which meant I was back, period.