“All That Matters.”

Keep moving forward, no matter how much adversity you face. Through the storm, keep moving forward! Through the discomfort, keep moving forward! Through the self-doubt, keep moving forward! Connect with that deep longing brewing underneath the surface of your thoughts, and allow a greater sense of hope to pull you to the finish line.

Michael D’Aulerio

It was 5 years ago, today, on December 4th 2017, that my husband and I were resting comfortably in our living room at home, watching the Pittsburgh Steelers take on the Cincinnati Bengals, when our home team’s linebacker, Ryan Shazier, went in for a tackle, took a hard hit and, immediately, fell to the ground. He, instinctively, reached for his low back as his legs went completely slack. He flopped over on the ground, arms raised up high, crying out for help. My heart rate spiked as I jumped off the couch, “Honey, his legs!”, I screamed, “He’s not moving his legs!”

My husband and I, with many years of combined emergency medical and sports injury experience shared between us, both recognized the severity of the injury we’d just witnessed. We stood there, frozen, eyes locked on the television screen, as the medical team got to work, stabilizing the young athlete, before transporting him by medical helicopter to UPMC Presbyterian hospital, one of Pittsburgh’s best level one trauma centers.

In the days that followed, all of Steeler Nation held their breath and said their prayers, hoping this young man would somehow be alright. Our hearts sank as we heard the news that Ryan Shazier was, indeed, paralyzed. He underwent spinal surgery performed by the best neurosurgeons in Pittsburgh and, soon after, got right to work in daily spinal rehab. He had a long road ahead of him, but his family, friends, and teammates rallied around him, and the entire city of Pittsburgh, as well as fans from around the world, sent words of encouragement and offered support.

Eight months later, something incredible happened. It was a moment that I will never forget. On August 19th 2018, my husband and I were in the stands at the “Pittsburgh Steelers Family Fest” when Ryan Shazier, despite his obvious gait dysfunction, walked out onto Heinz Field without any assistance! We stood with the crowd, in awe and respect, and roared with support and thunderous applause. It was hard to hold back tears. This moment was just so beautiful!

8/19/2018 @ Heinz Field,
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Ryan continued to make astounding progress, recovering from this devastating spinal cord injury, but still, three years after the impact, he ultimately was forced to announce his retirement from NFL football. His body was most certainly improving, but it would never be the same again.

My heart ached for this man. What a difficult decision this must have been. What a soul-shaking realization to have come to terms with – that your body can no longer perform the way it used to and that continuing to pursue your passion is simply no longer an option.

This is the realization I, too, experienced, a year after my own spinal injury. I had been trapped within my own denial, wrapping my spine up in a tightly secured corset, continuing to run marathons and half marathons, lifting weights in the gym, and pushing myself through an enormous amount of pain until I simply couldn’t do it anymore. The numbness and tingling running down my legs and the contractures forming in my feet had become a daily battle that I was continually trying to push through. As I began to lose control over a few very important bodily functions, I was forced to finally admit that something was still very, very wrong. I was forced to admit that I needed help.

I began my search for the best Neurosurgeon in Pittsburgh and on May 13th 2022, nearly 3 months after my initial application and interview, I arrived at UPMC for my thoracic and lumbar spine MRI. The written report confirmed what we already knew – that the fractures in my spine had, in fact, not healed, and were actually deteriorating further. Viewing the films, alongside my full spine Xrays, with my very own eyes, and seeing the actual trauma to my vertebrae and disc spaces was my “lightning strike” moment. It was right then and there that I realized, without a shadow of a doubt, that all of the pain that I had been pushing through was not building me up or making me stronger – it was actually breaking me down and deteriorating my body further. Time stood still, and so did I. From that moment forward, I stopped running. I stopped going to the gym. I stopped bending and lifting. I stopped carrying groceries. I stopped doing pretty much everything. I was more aware of my body than I have ever been – every movement, every strain, every sensation, every pain. I became very conscious of how every little thing felt and how none of it felt very good at all. Even just walking made me feel like I was walking on broken glass.

I was terrified at the thought of spinal surgery, but I had exhausted every other avenue that I hoped would be a more natural solution – like chiropractic care, PRP therapy, and stem cell treatments.

I continued my research on the proposed surgery, as well as, the Neurosurgical team themselves. I read everything I could about the risks and the recovery. I watched a video of the full procedure being performed live on another patient. I reached out to friends of mine who are Doctors, accumulating a list of questions I needed answered before I decided wether or not I was willing to consent to this procedure. I’m pretty certain that I overwhelmed Dr. Gerszten when we finally met, face to face. I knew our time together was limited, so I hit him with my questions in rapid fire succession. Not once did he flinch. When I was fully satisfied and finally speechless, we scheduled the surgery and began the pre-op testing process in order to clear me in time. Before we parted ways, I thanked him for his time, his patience, and told him that if this particular team of neurosurgeons can get Ryan Shazier walking, then I am confident that they can help fix my issues and get me running again.

On August 2nd, as I opened my eyes in the recovery room after having the surgery, Dr. Gerszten was the first face that I saw. He was standing beside my bed, his hand on my shoulder, and he was smiling. “It went beautifully!”, he said. “You’ll be good to go run another 55,000 miles if you so choose!”

“When?”, I asked, still groggy from the anesthesia.

He couldn’t help but to laugh. “Well, obviously, not right now.” he replied, “But that marathon in May is not out of the question just yet.”

It has now been 4 months since my spinal surgery and I have made some incredible progress. I recently “graduated” from daily disc regeneration treatments, I have resumed modified workouts in the gym with Nick, and my physical therapist has introduced a few short running intervals back into our weekly routine.

I still have a long way to go, and I am still hyper aware of my body’s signals – but I am now learning how to decipher exactly what they mean. There is a big difference between “good sore” and “bad sore”; the kind of soreness from exercised, muscle fatigue and the kind of soreness from constantly stressed nerves and cramping muscles that are supporting the weight of fractured bones.

We just increased my running from 6 intervals last week to 10 intervals this week, for a total combined time of 35 minutes. I’m not running very fast or very far, and I welcome the walk breaks when they arrive. I can no longer run twice in a day or even on back to back days, but I am confident that I will be ready and able to go the distance come May.

Word has gotten out that I am registered for the Pittsburgh Marathon and my friends have begun to rally around me now, as well. It’s going to be a 26.2 mile celebration run, that’s for sure. I may not be breaking any records or winning any races, but I am finally running again, and that’s all that matters to me!


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