There were a few main things that lead to me wanting to be a Chiropractor. One was that I always knew I did not want to have a job that required sitting at a desk all day. Another was that I always liked the personal satisfaction that comes from knowing that I helped someone, so I wanted to have a career that would allow me to make a difference. For example, I was the kid on the basketball team that was more excited to make a good pass that lead to my buddy making the basket rather than being the one that made the basket. What I will explain in the following paragraphs is the sequence of events that had the greatest impact on me becoming who I am today. For those who choose to read it, this is my story.
While growing up I was always an active kid and as such participated in different sports pretty much year round. Through it all I suffered my fair share of injuries and visited many different Doctors and Therapists for my various ailments and injuries. Some of the Doctors I saw were very helpful, some were not, and some contradicted what the previous ones advocated for, which confused me. I had some great physical therapists, massage therapists, and Chiropractors. I also had some less helpful and caring providers as well. One of the big things I learned was that no two healthcare professionals were exactly the same and most were actually very different even though their title might be the same. I also discovered that all of these people worked in professions that could make a difference in the lives of others and I liked that.
The cascade of injuries that influenced me so greatly that it lead me to where I am today and shaped me into who I am today began the summer after my freshman year of high school. I was participating in a basketball camp the first week of summer vacation and I hurt my back at practice. There was no trauma, my low back was feeling tight and I was trying to stretch it by bending forward and backward. At one point I felt a small pop, but it didn’t hurt at the time so I thought nothing of it. As the practice went on my back went from feeling stiff to becoming more and more painful to the point that I told my coach and he had me sit out the rest of the practice. By the time my mom picked me up the pain was severe! We got home and I could not sit down at the dinner table because when I would sit the pain would become unbearable. I remember standing in the kitchen crying, with my parents on each side of me worrying and not knowing what to do. My mom took me to a Chiropractor the next day and he examined me and took xrays, but nothing out of the ordinary came up. He worked on my spinal alignment and did some muscle stimulation and after the course of a couple weeks of treatment I was feeling like my normal self again. I finished care with the Chiropractor and was left with a book of exercises to do to strengthen my back. I dedicated the rest of the summer to doing all of the exercises in the book everyday. It would take two hours every morning to get through them all. I was feeling really good by the time football practice started in August. Now I was into my sophomore year and we were in the first week of practice. The first day we could have full contact in practice we were doing the drill where two guys lay on their backs with the tops of their helmets touching each other then the coach blows the whistle and both guys get up as quickly as possible and the guy with the ball tries to run through the other guy who tries to tackle the ball carrier. The very first time I lined up to do the drill I had to tackle a guy that was bigger and stronger than me and the second my shoulder pad hit his body I felt the compressive force go right down my back and it immediately reaggravated the exact same pain I had in basketball camp. I told my coach I hurt my back and he sent me to see the school trainer. The trainer was employed by an Orthopedic office, so when you got hurt and she couldn’t manage it herself she would refer you to the Orthopedic she worked for. The Orthopedic back specialist took xrays which came back negative for any significant findings. He then had me go to physical therapy. I went to physical therapy for as long as was recommended and felt it helped a lot. I was back to feeling like myself again. I played basketball and ran track to finish out sophomore year and did not have any issues with my back. Then came the fall of junior year and I knew that my football career was through because of my back, but figured I would go out for soccer because it would be easier on my back. I worked really hard and had gotten into the starting lineup after about half the season. Then during a game there was a high bouncing ball in front of me and I took a really high round house type kick at it which created a high amount of lower back rotation around the hip of the planted foot and I felt the same pop that I felt that day at basketball camp. The second my kicking foot landed on the ground I had severe low back pain just like I had with basketball and football.
I went back to the trainer who referred me back to the Orthopedic. He once again had me go to physical therapy. I slowly improved, but never really felt 100%. At this point I had a job at Target and was living a normal life, but my back still didn’t feel right. I had a follow up appointment with the Orthopedic Doctor and when he had no explanation for why I was a 16 year old with this chronic low back pain he ordered a bone scan of my back. The bone scan came back positive for a fractured vertebrae that was not visible on the xrays. Then I had an MRI to specify where it was and how bad it was. Following the imaging the Doctor told me I had a stress fracture in my lower back and my options were that I could do nothing and continue to have the back act up like it has the past couple years or he could do a fusion and it would fix the back so it would not act up again. He said as far as back surgeries go it was a rather simple and uncomplicated procedure where they would remove bone marrow from my pelvis and then pack it around the fracture site. The marrow would then turn into bone creating a bypass around the fracture relieving the stress and the problem. He said I would be fitted for a hard shell back brace that I would have to wear for recovery and that I would probably miss two weeks of school after surgery. My parents and I took some time to discuss the pros and cons and decided that the surgery would be best.
I remember waking up in the hospital bed after surgery and having pain like I had never experienced before. All of my fingers and toes worked and I was not paralyzed in any way, but every movement hurt so badly! I had to spend the the first day in the hospital bed without moving at all. That meant going to the bathroom in a pan and needing a nurse to help. The next day they wanted me to get up from the bed and walk a little with a walker. It was so hard to put one foot in front of the other because every step forward would pull on the back surgery site and it sent pain shooting everywhere. The bathroom in the hospital room was about ten feet from the bed and I hated to have to go because that meant that I would need to walk that far and then actually once I got there it seemed nearly impossible to position myself to use the toilet. I went from being a strong teenage boy to a helpless kid that needed help with everything. At this point in the hospital I was on a constant cocktail of Demerol and Vicodin for the pain and all the meds would seem to do was put me to sleep, which was ok by me at the time because if I could sleep then I was not hurting. I had friends and family come visit me in the hospital, but at the time I was so miserable that I really didn’t want any of them there (even though later on I realized how much I appreciated the support). After three days I was able to go home.
My parents were able to borrow a hospital bed with a back that would raise up and down, so we put the bed in the living room and that is where I spent most of my time for the next week. Other than hobbling down the hall to the bathroom I spent the days in the hospital bed in my living room. After a week I was able to start sleeping in my bed again. The Doctor wanted me to start walking around more and more each day. From my bedroom there was a bathroom directly across the hallway and then the hallway was about 20 ft long and opened up to the living room and front entrance to the house. Each day I would struggle to walk with my walker (small wheels in front and tennis balls in back) to the next picture on the wall marking that I had gone a little farther than the day before. It was all I could do. Eventually I was able to start making it to the living room and to the front step of the house and onto the sidewalk. From the door there was a small step down to the front patio then a normal size stair step down to the sidewalk. Each step down jolted my back because I had to use different muscles to leverage my body down the step, but I was determined and I worked through it. At about this time my incision was still healing up and my mom had to change the dressings every day. She told me she didn’t like the way it was looking, so we called the Doctor and he had me come in so he could see it. He said it had gotten infected and now I needed to be on oral antibiotics because there was a chance the infection could go deep into my back and not just be on the surface. The infection went away, but it left me with a very wide and irregular looking scar down my back rather than the nice clean narrow scar that you see most people with after surgery.
It was fall now and the weather was nice and the leaves were changing colors. I was happy that I was able to finally get out of the house and do some walking outside. Each day I made it a little farther down the sidewalk and then down the driveway and eventually it lead to walking up and down the road. All the while I had a tutor coming to my house to do my school work with me. The Doctor said I would probably miss two weeks of school after surgery, but I ended up missing the entire first quarter of my senior year. By now enough time had passed where the bone that was packed around the fracture site to make the fusion should have hardened up so the Doctor wanted me to begin physical therapy.
Physical therapy was great. I liked my therapists and and it was fun. Over the next couple months I went from being dependent on my walker for everything I did to not needing my walker and not having to wear my back brace all the time. It was also during this time that I started going back to school and began going to football games and doing things with my friends again. It was all really tough, but I was determined to get better.
Now it was a few months out and I was getting stronger. I was off the prescription pain meds and only taking over the counter pain relievers as needed, but I still had this nagging right sided lower back pain. At my next follow up with the Doctor he took xrays to check on the bone healing and he said everything looked great. I told him about the right sided pain I was having and he felt around and told me that it had nothing to do with where the actual surgery was done, but was coming from the joint in my pelvis where they harvested the bone marrow for the fusion. He said they had to take a hammer and chisel and pound open the pelvic bone so they could extract the marrow from the inside of it and that my current pain was coming from the site where they harvested the bone. He said it is not uncommon for there to be pain at the bone harvest site longer than the actual fusion site. He said he would give me a cortisone shot to that area to help with the existing pain. He also told me that my back muscles were so strong that they needed six people (three on each side of me) with special instruments to stand on each side of me and keep them spread apart during the surgery. That meant little to me, but he said he had never needed that much help keeping a back spread open before. I asked why they didn’t explain how they harvested the bone before I did the surgery and he laughed and said because if I knew I might not have done the surgery. The cortisone shot helped for about two months, but then the same pain was back. I went back for another cortisone shot expecting the same if not more relief, but the second one didn’t help for more than a couple days. We talked to the Doctor about this and he said I could not have another one because the side effects with cortisone are too great and they don’t allow you to have anymore in that time frame. From there I had to just really focus on my physical therapy and taking care of myself. I “graduated” from physical therapy and continued with my exercises at home and at a gym.
Things got better over time and by the next fall I started my freshman year of college. It was at college that I began playing sports again. It felt great to play intramural basketball and flag football. Nobody there knew what I had been through and how much it meant to me to be able to do that stuff again, but that didn’t matter, I didn’t want anybody to feel sorry for my or to give me special treatment. The struggle that I had been through had gone on long enough that it was around that time that the voice in my head was becoming more and more clear that I wanted to dedicate my life and what I do to helping people not have to go through what I went through. After my freshman year I knew I wanted to be a Chiropractor so that I could help people naturally, without medications and surgery. I changed my major to biology, so that I would be heading down the medical track, graduated from undergrad and went on to Chiropractic College. Now I have been practicing since 2005.
On an interesting note I was sitting in “Spine and Pelvis” class my first week of Chiropractic school and we talked about the exact fracture that I had in my back. The Doctor teacher told us that 80% of the population with that fracture get better with conservative care and never need surgery. It felt like he was talking to me personally and I knew I had made the right decision, I just wish I had known that before I opted for surgery. However, I wonder if had I known that and done things differently if I would have taken the path that I did. Through it all I learned that Chiropractic helped me, physical therapy helped me, massage helped me and being a Chiropractor would allow me to utilize all those principles and more in my practice to help others the way they helped me. Back to that “Spine and Pelvis” class it was at that same lecture that the instructor explained to us that when people have spinal fusions it leads to early degeneration of the spinal segments above and below the fusion site because they have to compensate and do more than they are designed to do to pick up the slack for the lack of mobility through the fusion. I don’t regret having the fusion (it’s not healthy to live with regrets) because for what my family and I knew at the time it seemed like the best decision, I just wish I knew what I know now! Thank you for listening to my story.
Mikael Johnson, D.C.
Muscle Release Therapy