Spine Athlete ::: Gary's story

Cervical radiculopathy and herniated discs

Diagnosis: Cervical radiculopathy and herniated disc (1998 & 2000); intractable neck and arm pain, with disc herniation (2001)

Treatment: Anterior Cervical Discectomy and Fusion (ACDF) at C5-C6, November 1998; ACDF at C4-C5, June 2000; ACDF at C6-C7, November 2001

Neurosurgeon: William Tobler, MD

Initial injury: I really have no idea how I first injured my neck. It just happened. About a year prior to my injury I had been exercising a modest amount, running a mile or two a few days a week.

Turning point: Dr. Tobler's treatment was very conservative, and we tried lots of different therapies and alternatives over the course of an entire year. But I continued to have pain in my arm and numbness in my fingers, and I decided I didn't want to live like that. That's when we scheduled my initial surgery.

Second injury: While visiting a model home, I slipped on an unsecured area rug and hit my head on the floor. I wasn't knocked out, but the fall injured my neck in the area of the initial fusion.

Turning point: Once again, I experienced pain in my arm and numbness in my fingers, and once again Dr. Tobler prescribed conservative therapy. When conservative treatment failed to help, I chose to undergo fusion above and below my initial C5-C6 fusion.

Being a spine athlete: After the third operation, Dr. Tobler said my running days might be over. I cut back my running, but I didn't quit eating, and my weight climbed to 255 pounds. While shopping in a bookstore, a book caught my eye: That Others May Live, by Jack Brehm, a former Air Force para-rescuer who led the efforts chronicled in The Perfect Storm. He was the guy in charge of that real-life rescue. After reading his book, I called him up. I had worked with those para-rescue guys in the Air Force. They're a little crazy… well, a lot crazy. Brave. Or crazy. We hit it off on the phone, and whatever he said inspired me to start running. A while later I saw there was an Air Force marathon at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, and I called him and said, "You should run in the marathon." He said, "Why don't we both run in the marathon?" So I started training and he encouraged me. I got my weight down into the 190s. He came out and we both ran. 

Jack, who does Ironman triathlons, was at the finish line in 3 hours. He waited there at the side, chatting with my wife, and we crossed the finish line together in 4 hours, 30 minutes. Is that class or what? I've done seven marathons since then, so who's luckier than me? My second marathon was the Flying Pig in Cincinnati. I had my medal framed and sent to Dr. Tobler. What do you give a guy for saving your life?

If I could go back and undo my spine injuries, I wouldn't do it. I'm a better person because of them. Not too many people have run eight marathons and two half-marathons. Jack Brehm and I also did the U.S. Army's marathon, the Bataan Memorial Death March, at the White Sands Missile Range, a tribute to soldiers who died in that death march. We did the military heavy division in the desert, in uniform, combat boots, carrying a 35-pound pack. And in September 2010, Jack and I and four others climbed 19,000-foot Mt. Kilimanjaro, one of the Seven Summits. During seven days of hiking, I had some altitude sickness, but no neck problems, no knee problems, no blisters, nothing.

I took the Mayfield flag to the top of Kilimanjaro. I know I wouldn't have been there if not for Dr. Tobler. The neck surgeries made me healthier and gave me more appreciation for life, for what you can do as opposed to what you can't do. The whole experience made me go out and do more than I did before. It made me appreciate life.

If you are a current or former Mayfield Spine Athlete yourself, and if you'd like to share your story, please contact us.

Spine Athlete Story Disclaimer -"Gary's Story" is about one patient's health-care experience. Please bear in mind that because every patient is unique, individual patients may respond to treatment in different ways. Results are influenced by many factors and may vary from patient to patient.

Gary fighting fires

In November 2016 Gary worked as a volunteer firefighter battling wildfires for 10 days in North Carolina.

click for larger image

Gary, in lower right-hand corner, and Jack Brehm, in red beret, with guides and other members of their team at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.

"I took the Mayfield flag to the top of Kilimanjaro. I know I wouldn't have been there if not for Dr. Tobler."

" The whole experience made me go out and do more than I did before. It made me appreciate life."