BACK IN THE GAME
THE PAIN THAT FLOORED ME AND THE SURGERY THAT SAVED ME
With BASKETBALL HALL OF FAMER and XLIF速 patient
COACH JOHN WOODEN WASN’T JUST AN AMAZING COACH, HE MOLDED MEN AND WAS A TREMENDOUS INFLUENCE IN MY LIFE LONG AFTER MY DAYS AT UCLA.” PHOTO COURTESY OF BILL WALTON
BACK IN THE GAME
“I HAD IT ALL. I was on top of the world.” By Bill Walton
Today... You were able to sit on the edge of the bed. I played for the UCLA basketball team that won 88 straight games.
“My wife, Lori, was an invaluable help during my recovery, leaving encouraging Post-it ® notes all over the house.”
life is even worth living—you and I have known it all.
I played in the NBA for 14 seasons and was voted the Most Valuable Player in the league. I was part of two NBA championship teams. I’m 6 feet, 11 inches tall. So, you probably think we don’t have much in common.
My story and journey goes from being on the top of the world to lying on the floor, unable to move. To standing on a bridge and planning to jump, and then, coming back from the brink and enjoying life like never before.
Please think again, we do.
I grew early and often. When I graduated from Helix High near San Diego, I was just under seven feet tall. After high school, I had the honor and privilege to play for UCLA and its legendary coach, John Wooden. Coach Wooden is one of the most remarkable people I have ever met in my life. I still live my life today with many of his words resonating deep within. He taught me the importance of faith, of discipline, and of perseverance. Initially, I applied them to basketball. Later, when my
We are both members of the same club. A club that neither of us wanted to join—men and women with chronic back and leg pain caused by a spinal disorder. You and I have both experienced pain so intense that it is impossible for others to imagine. The fear, the despair, the depression, the questioning of whether
life became overwhelmed with chronic pain, Coach Wooden’s life lessons became even more important to me and ultimately helped me push through the toughest times I have ever had to face. During one game in my senior year at UCLA, I was high above the basket making a play on the ball, when while still in the air, I was “low-bridged” and flipped over by a Washington State player, causing me to land flat on my back on a super hard, Tartan floor. I still remember the sickening sound and stabbing feeling. I broke two bones in my spine that night, and things were never the same again.
ON TO THE NBA After UCLA, I joined the Portland Trailblazers. In 1977, we won the NBA championship, coming back from a 2-0 deficit to beat the Philadelphia 76ers and the incomparable Julius “Dr. J” Erving. I received the ultimate honor, being named the Most Valuable Player of The Finals. I was so excited, I ripped off my jersey and threw it into the surging crowd as fans poured onto the court. Coach Wooden would not have approved of the wild celebration, but my life couldn’t have been any better.
LORI AND I DISCOVERED THE TRUE MEANING OF “IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH” WHEN MY BACK PAIN ENDED MY LIFE AS I KNEW IT AND REDUCED ME TO RELYING ON HER FOR EVERYTHING FROM GETTING DRESSED TO GETTING FED. WITHOUT HER COMMITMENT AND UNWAVERING UPBEAT ATTITUDE I WOULDN’T HAVE MADE IT. IT WAS DISCOVERING HER DAILY POST-IT NOTES SPREAD AROUND THE HOUSE THAT HELPED INSPIRE AND DRIVE ME TO KEEP GOING AND TO SEE THE REAL, SLOW BUT STEADY, IMPROVEMENT I WAS MAKING.”
Over the course of 14 NBA seasons, I also played for the San Diego Clippers and the Boston Celtics. In 1986, I was part of the Celtics team that won the NBA championship. Over the years, the athletic injuries piled up: the sore back, broken bones, ankle problems, broken wrists, knee injuries, broken noses and shattered teeth. During my 14-year NBA career, I missed more games (680) than I played (488). But I was lucky. It was an incredible experience to play with—and against— the likes of Kareem AbdulJabbar, Larry Bird, Maurice Lucas, Kevin McHale, Dr. J, Rick Barry, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon.
Today... You were able to eat sitting up.
PHOTO COURTESY OF BILL WALTON
PLAYING BASKETBALL IN PORTLAND IN THE 1970’S WAS A MAGICAL EXPERIENCE. WE BECAME THE YOUNGEST TEAM TO EVER WIN THE NBA CHAMPIONSHIP. MY BACK WAS ALREADY TROUBLESOME AND PROBLEMATIC FROM MY DAYS AT UCLA, BUT I WAS STILL ABLE TO WIN THE LEAGUE MVP AND THE NBA FINALS MVP.” PHOTO COURTESY OF BILL WALTON
Today... You were able to get to the bathroom without help.
By 1990, while my heart was still willing, my body could no longer perform at the exceptionally high level required of a professional athlete. I could no longer run. I was forced to stop playing the game that was my life.
I then started chasing down my newest and most challenging next career—as a television broadcaster and commentator. I enjoyed the work, the people, and being a part of the game—even if I was only on the sideline rather than on the court. I was no longer butting heads with the figurative giants, but the constant travel and the 200 nights a year in different hotels in a world built for pre-school children took a tremendous toll on my already brokendown body.
HELPLESS One day in early 2007, I was getting off yet another endless flight in San Diego, and I literally couldn’t move any more. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t sit, stand, lie down, sleep, roll over, or get up or down, much less even think. My joyous life was quickly reduced to nothing. I couldn’t work, couldn’t speak, couldn’t announce basketball games anymore, couldn’t go out of the house, couldn’t care for myself, couldn’t get off the floor, couldn’t do anything.
I AM A LUCKY AND PROUD DAD WITH FOUR GREAT SONS WHO CARE FOR EACH OTHER AND SHARE THE LOVE OF LIFE AND BASKETBALL.” PHOTO COURTESY OF BILL WALTON
I tried everything to stop the unrelenting, debilitating, excruciating pain: acupuncture, chiropractic adjustments, alternative medicine, meditation, massage, yoga, physical therapy, core strengthening, medication, injections…EVERYTHING. Nothing worked. I was a hopeless and pathetic ball of flesh: I had to eat my meals lying on the floor, face down. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t get dressed. I couldn’t reach for anything. And it was getting worse.
“My life was so
SO PATHETIC, I thought about ending it.”
Chronic pain is a major cause of suicide. Although I had a great family and wonderful friends, my life was so limited, so painful, so endlessly empty, I thought about ending it. It was all very clear. I found myself thinking about bridges. I was looking for the highest ones, with the longest of falls and the hardest of bottoms.
Today... You went from your wheelcha ir to your walker.
Consumed by the pain and spending most of my time on the floor, I was physically incapable of effectively researching my surgical options. Fortunately, my friend Jim Gray, a colleague from my broadcast days, came to the rescue and did extensive research. It was Jim’s research that led me, eventually, to Dr. Steven Garfin.
I knew surgery was an option but I fought that decision for as long as I could. I certainly wasn’t a stranger to the knife or the operating room—I had already had 35 orthopedic surgeries. Most of those operations had been on my feet, ankles, knees, and hands. But I did not want anybody cutting on my spine. That’s the core, the center. The spinal column is what holds everything together. That is life itself. Also, I had heard lots of horror stories about patients whose back surgeries didn’t work and that they were in as much—if not more—pain after the surgery as before.
Dr. Garfin is the longtime Chairman of the Department of Orthopedics at the University of California, San Diego. He is an expert trained in XLIF® (eXtreme Lateral Interbody Fusion), a minimally disruptive spine surgery technique where the surgeon accesses the patient’s back from the side, not the front or back.
But in the end, there was no other option. I had no choice.
At the end of my rope, I gave Dr. Garfin the go-ahead, begging him to fix me, to allow me to play in the game of life, and to ride my bike one more time.
Dr. Garfin explained to me that this new technology and technique strives to minimize the injury to nerves, muscles, and blood vessels, enabling the patient to heal quicker.
I LOVED WORKING WITH BRENT MUSBURGER BROADCASTING NBA GAMES ON ESPN AND ABC, BUT THE CONSTANT CROSS-COUNTRY TRAVEL CERTAINLY TOOK ITS TOLL ON MY BACK.” PHOTO COURTESY OF BILL WALTON
LUKE AND I EACH HAVE WON TWO NBA CHAMPIONSHIPS BUT, AS A DAD, WATCHING HIM WIN WAS THE BEST.” PHOTO COURTESY OF BILL WALTON
THE ROAD TO RECOVERY In early 2009, Dr. Garfin operated on me—repositioning several vertebrae that were impinging on nerves and fusing lumbar vertebrae by using the minimally disruptive XLIF® procedure. The surgery, although long due to the complexity of my unique situation, went well and about a week later, I went home. I am guilty of many things in life. Lack of patience is near the top of the list. I just wanted to get my life back, and get moving again—forward.
PHOTO COURTESY OF JULIA SABA
During my recovery, there were endlessly long stretches when I didn’t feel like I was making any progress at all. But my wife, Lori, knew otherwise. That’s when I started finding little Post-it notes in unexpected locations around our house that she had left for me. Little yellow notes with simple—but incredibly powerful—messages written on them. Things like: Today you were able to sit on the edge of the bed. Today you were able to dress yourself. Today you were able to eat sitting up. Today you went from your wheelchair to your walker. Today you went from your walker to your cane. Today you were able to stop taking the pain medication. Today you were able to bend down and pet the dogs. Today you were able to put on your own shoes and socks. Today you rode your bike around the block. For months, Lori’s notes turned up all over the place: on a drinking cup, inside a book I was reading, on the TV remote, and on the collar of our dog. I found myself looking forward to the next note because they made me smile and they made me think, “I really am making progress.”
“At that moment
I WAS GOING to make it.” Today... You were able to dress yourself.
Seven months after my surgery, I experienced my epiphany, a moment I will remember for the rest of my life. I was doing some gentle weight lifting in my gym when I realized that my agonizing pain was gone. For the first time in seemingly forever, I knew that I was going to get better, that I was going to make it, and that I had made the right decision. I knew the surgery had worked and that, for the first time in years, I would once again be able to enjoy the activities I loved. I would be able to ride my bike and move in the swimming pool. Without fear. Without pain. Lori was my main caretaker, and I am forever grateful for her gentle patience and kindness. My friends did what they could and family members would check-in regularly to give me words of encouragement—and to make sure that I was staying optimistic and positive. My progress accelerated. I was able to get back on my beloved bicycle—where, tragically, I suffered a serious setback. While I was cautiously cruising our quiet neighborhood on my bike, a neighborhood teenager crashed into me on his skateboard. I went down hard, fracturing my pelvis and sacrum. But incredibly, my spinal fusion held. Sadly, the new setback and fractures took about four more months to heal.
FAST-FORWARD Today, I am healthier than I have been since high school, and I am busier and happier than I have ever been. I had no idea what life was like without back pain. It’s a miracle.
WHEN I WAS FINALLY ABLE TO RIDE MY BIKE FREELY AGAIN I KNEW I HAD MADE IT ALL THE WAY BACK. AFTER BEING IN SO MUCH PAIN FOR SO MANY YEARS, TO BE ABLE TO RIDE A BIKE, TO FEEL THE WIND RUSHING THROUGH MY HAIR AND THE SUN ON MY FACE, THE SWEAT COVER MY BODY, IT GIVES ME MORE JOY THAN WORDS CAN EVER TELL. I LOVE MY BIKE!!!!! I LOVE LIFE!!!!!” PHOTO COURTESY OF BILL WALTON
Now that I have my life back, thanks to the sacrifices of others, I have a duty, obligation and responsibility to “pay it forward,” to do what others did for me, to do everything that I can to help those suffering the way that I did. So I’ve become a Patient Ambassador for The Better Way Back® program—a
Today... You rode your bike aroun d the block.
remarkable support and education organization that provides free support, information, resources—and above all, hope—to those suffering from severe chronic back pain. As a Patient Ambassador, I connect—by phone, email, and in person—with people around the world who are in despair, who have given up and are on the bridge themselves. These people have severe chronic pain, like I used to, that makes them question their very existence and whether they even want to continue to live. I spend hours every day trying to give people a reason to keep going, to believe that their lives are worth living. Dealing with desperate patients every day is tough. But it’s not nearly as hard as what they’re going through—and the satisfaction I get when they emerge from their personal depths and depression is the greatest feeling in the world. I also fly (without pain) regularly to different parts of our great country to meet with physicians and hospital staff and make sure they know about recent advancements in the treatment of chronic back pain, including minimally disruptive spine surgery. And I constantly meet with local media organizations to help draw attention to the challenges facing patients and the resources that are available to them. On the final day of my trips, The Better Way Back® always hosts a free patient seminar. Local physicians make presentations and they spread the good news of the latest medical advancements, and then I tell my story—from being on the floor unable to move to riding my bike 100 miles a day. At the end of the seminar, I talk one-on-one with patients. It is incredibly emotional. The hugs are strong. The tears always flow. Many patients come up and tell me that I am the first person they’ve encountered who could accurately describe the intensity of their pain and the depth of their despair. I am proud and happy to report that attendees almost always leave the seminar with a new feeling of optimism that there are solutions to their challenges.
As a Patient Ambassador, I also have the opportunity to meet with medical policymakers. In 2012, I went to Washington, D.C. and met with many senators and congressmen. I encouraged them to support efforts to make innovative medical procedures available to patients in need and to speed-up research and innovation in the treatment of chronic back pain. I also asked them to resist narrow-minded efforts to limit patient access to treatment. Our healthcare policies and initiatives should reflect our values. Shouldn’t we be taxing cigarettes, alcohol, and sugary soft drinks more—and innovative medical products that save lives less? In addition to communicating directly with countless patients and advocating for pain sufferers, I also try to keep hope alive by the way I live my life. Like many people who have had a near-death experience, I know that every day is a blessing.
Today... You were able to put on your own shoes an d socks.
A TYPICAL BILL WALTON DAY Every morning, when my feet hit the floor, I am straight on my way to the swimming pool at my local YMCA. I stay in the warm water as long as my schedule allows. (If you do decide to have surgery, I can’t overemphasize the benefits of warm water during your recovery.) After the pool, I work out with both free weights and machines to help maintain the muscle strength that’s so important to a healthy back. After a good hot shower, I spend several hours communicating directly with patients looking for options or recovering from surgery.
After spending time with Lori, I get on my magnificent 30-speed road bike and head out—chasing it all down. Riding my bike makes my back feel even better. The longer I ride, the better I feel.
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS
I can ride my bike all day. I prefer a “century”—cycling slang for a 100-mile ride—every day.
The pain is overwhelming. You feel guilty for putting your friends and family through this—even though it’s not your fault. You wonder: “Will I ever get better? Will the pain ever go away?”
It was just a few years ago that I couldn’t even stand up. Now, thanks to Dr. Garfin, Lori, and The Better Way Back®, I can ride…and ride…and ride. Over the mountains and through the woods. North, south, east, or west…it’s all good! I feel better than I have in decades. I have been able to start broadcasting basketball games on television again. The travel to and from games that used to bring me to my knees is now no longer a problem. I also serve on several business boards and I am active in a variety of businesses and civic organizations. I listen to music constantly and enjoy good times with my family and quiet nights with Lori. I am also honored to support a number of charities including the Challenged Athletes Foundation® that provides support, mentoring, and equipment, enabling athletes with challenges to get back in the game of life through sports. There are few things more moving that watching the pride of a former athlete realize that they’re still in the game, no matter the difficulties of a changing landscape. Often, my charitable support includes fundraising bike rides. With passion and purpose, we ride for a reason. Yet while other riders are racing as fast as they can, I’m at the back of the pack, chatting with the other riders, drifting and dreaming, loving the sun and breeze on my face, and always with the biggest grin you’ve ever seen, thinking, “I am riding my bike today!”
I am here to tell you that there is hope, that there is a Better Way Back. You have excellent options that did not exist ten years ago. You are not alone. There are many people who care deeply about you. Some of them just don’t know how to express how much they care for and love you. They feel frustrated that they can’t do anything to make your pain go away. Never give up. Don’t let the natural fear of surgery prevent you from taking action. Don’t wait too long to consider surgery. You are proud and tough, but don’t try to go it alone. And always remember: there is hope. And someday, in the not too distant future, I would like nothing better than to go on a bike ride with you. I know your grin will be as broad and wide as mine.
Here we go!!! Here’s to a full and pain free life. Good everything forever. Please let us know how we can help you. Bill Walton Lucky XLIF® Patient since february 9, 2009
Today... You were able to ben d down an d pet the dogs.
IS THAT REALLY ME…SMILING AND HOLDING UP A BIKE? IT WASN’T THAT LONG AGO THAT I COULDN’T EVEN HAVE IMAGINED THIS…AND NOW I GET TO DO IT ANY DAY I WANT. I AM TRULY A LUCKY MAN!”
Bill, Thank you for n ot giving up! Love, Lori ASK BILL Bill Walton fought and won his 36-year battle against chronic back pain. Today, he is available to answer your questions, share his story, or simply provide support. To ask Bill a question about his journey to recovery, please visit:
ABOUT THE BETTER WAY BACK® At the Better Way Back, we understand what it is like to suffer from chronic back or leg pain. We’re a community that wants to help individuals overcome the fear and uncertainty when spine surgery is being prescribed. We know what it is like to have your life slowly taken from you and how debilitating back pain can not only affect your ability to do things, but also rob you of hope. Fortunately, today there are new surgical options that were not available just a few years ago. In the hands of highly trained surgeons, patients are now not only getting rid of their pain but they are leaving the hospital sooner and returning to the things they love much quicker. The Better Way Back was set up to connect patients considering surgery with those who have gone through it and who are willing to share their experiences. Bill Walton is one of those grateful patients whose life was given back to him and he wants to make sure everyone knows about the surgical options that are now available. Please visit The Better Way Back at www.TheBetterWayBack.org or call 1.800.745.7099.
The Better Way Back was developed and is funded by NuVasive®, Inc. Bill Walton is a paid spokesman of NuVasive, Inc. The material and information provided in this workbook are for your general education only. As with any medical condition and treatment, individual experiences will vary. The information presented in this workbook is for informational purposes only and does not replace the relationship that you have with your healthcare professional. We are not medical practitioners and do not practice medicine or provide medical services or advice as a part of this workbook. You should always consult your healthcare professional for diagnosis and treatment.
©2013. NuVasive, Inc. All rights reserved. , , NuVasive, SOLAS, The Better Way Back, and XLIF are registered trademarks of NuVasive, Inc. Post-It is a registered trademark of 3M.