Climbing Back from Paralysis


Nobody really knows why it happened. It was a million to one shot.

As I hit the finish line for the Escape from the Rock Alcatraz swim, my family and friends were there to greet me among the crowd of hundreds. My objective was simply completing the race, but I was very happy with the 54-minute finish time.

The next day my shoulders were very tight, and, as was my habit, I went to the chiropractor I’d been seeing for ten years. He had helped me over the years to recover quickly from old football injuries, and I trusted him.

After he made his last adjustment, I got up from the table and felt a deep tingling from the back of my right shoulder, all the way down my arm to my hand.

Something was wrong.

I told him, and he adjusted me again. It felt better but the next day it hurt worse and I went to see him one more time.

I know. Hadn’t I learned my lesson the first day?

Nothing like this had ever happened in the ten years I’d seen him. One more adjustment only made the throbbing worse. By the next morning, I could not move my right pinkie and the finger next to it.

I called my G.P. who got me into his office right away. He was really concerned and sent me to see the top spinal specialist at Stanford. Meanwhile, I started taking Vicodin to alleviate the pain. It did nothing for me.

Two days later I saw the spine specialist and he ordered an immediate MRI. Afterwards, with the results in hand, he told me that my ulnar nerve, which runs from the base of your skull through the right shoulder, to my elbow and to my right hand, was damaged. Which sounded exactly right to me since those areas made up the complete arc of my pain.

As a marketer in Silicon Valley, this was particularly difficult because I lived on the computer and could no longer touch type — a real problem in addition to the increasing pain that was not being helped by the Vicodin. The next day the spinal doc lined me up with what turned out to be a great sports physical therapist.

He also mentioned that he had plenty of men who have back problems who also opt for a steroid shot (epidural) to alleviate back troubles. Because I was in so much pain, I signed up for both.

A few days later, I went in for the epidermal. They wheeled me in my surgical gown face down on a gurney. My head fixed into place so it could not move. I could hear the nurses in the background. A few needle pricks in the back of my upper back, and I was being wheeled back out what felt like ten minutes later.

I lay in the recovery room grateful I had taken every measure I could afford. However, after ten minutes, then twenty minutes the pain had not gone away.

When my wife arrived to pick me up, I told her I still hurt. I stood, started buttoning up my shirt and said, “Let’s just go and it will get — “ With that I fell back onto the bed, my legs swinging up into the air. My wife ran over. “What’s a matter?” she screamed.

“I can’t feel anything in my legs.” She gasped in fright. I touched my chest. My arms worked, but I couldn’t wiggle my toes and I could feel the paralysis seeping all the way up into my lower chest.

She ran out for the nurse and three came running in. They lifted my legs onto the table.

For some strange reason, it seemed to me later, I was completely cool. This was some minor glitch. They screwed this up, I thought. They would fix it. Meanwhile, I watched the nurse run a metal tool up the bottom of my foot.

I could feel nothing.

Within minutes, doctors were in to see me and repeat the procedures. This time they even did a sphincter check to see if I could squeeze my buttocks. Nothing.

After a few hours of tests — an MRI and CAT scan — they told me they knew what the problem was but that they could fix it. The blood vessels broken by the steroid shot had coagulated and were strangling my spinal cord; the blood was struggling to get beyond the choke point.

By midnight I was in the operating room for emergency back surgery.

They taped my eyes closed and bolted me down with clamps in the sides of my heads so that I could not possibly move. I found this out long after the anesthesia had kicked and long after the surgery.

They cut a six-inch incision straight down my spinal column, below the neck and above my shoulder blades, all the way into my spinal cord.

They removed a bone in my spinal column, to access the blood clot wrapped around my spinal cord and then they vacuumed out blood and began sowing me up.

It turned out that two and a half hours had passed.

When I woke up, I was very, very groggy. My wife was looking down at me. “How are you?”

“Don’t know.” She sucked in air, glancing at the side of my head. “What’s the matter?”


I found out later that she noticed the sheets behind my head were covered in blood. It turned out there was a drain coming out of my wound to help it heal. It was a bloody mess.

My wife told the nurse that I was awake.

Within a few minutes, a doctor came in. This was truth time. He pulled the covers back from my feet.

“Try to wiggle your toes.”

I did all I could to move my toes and after what seemed too long, a couple of toes moved. Hell yeah!


“Am I okay?”

“You’re going to be. But a doctor will be by in the morning to see if we can get you to stand on your own legs at the side of the bed.”

I found out later that the circumstances could have been much worse if I hadn’t already been in the hospital when I had the procedure done.

I spent a week in the hospital learning to walk again with the help of my wife and a walker. After a week in the hospital, they sent me home, but required me to lay on a special back wedge on my sofa, where, as you probably guessed, I quickly flipped open my laptop to discover what had I missed at work.

Of course, everyone at work knew my situation and didn’t expect to hear anything from me for a long time. However, so much of my identity was wrapped up in being productive and providing for my family that, I felt like the work would keep me sane while I mended.

However, there was much more to do to actually heal the injury. In all, I had six months of physical therapy, and while my back was stronger, it was not back to 100 percent. I still have a slight tremor in my hands, a small price to pay for recovering from this incident.

After being an active athlete for several years, the time off had been driving me crazy. I missed my workouts and the endorphin rush afterwards. In addition, I had put on weight. Without exercise, I had sunk into a mild depression.

My wife suggested I slowly explore yoga again. I had done it intermittently before but had never taken to it. I live in Palo Alto and there are at least two studios within three blocks of my house. There was no excuse.

At first I started with a Vinyasa class which turned out to be very challenging. But by the end of that first class, I enjoyed a free-floating sense of bliss as my class sunk into Shavassana, the final relaxation pose. From that first workout I was hooked.

Over the next few weeks, my low feelings dissipated. My hand had even more dexterity. My back felt better and stronger.

However, stretching myself increased my sense of bliss, leaving me with a greater state of calm and clarity. After awhile I got into the harder, hotter forms of yoga. I had that great feeling of a total body workout that preparing for the Alcatraz swim had given me.

My back grew stronger. The numbness in my hands completely disappeared, and I could type again.

A doc told me that I had had a 40 percent chance of never walking again. A Stanford friend in the pain practice told me that my case had changed the way they prescribe epidurals in Northern California.

Thanks to the surgeons, my complete recovery and the calmness and endorphin rushing through my body after yoga, I try like hell, and I mean like hell to not sweat the small stuff and appreciate the full gratitude that I am healthier than ever…and not confined to a wheelchair.



Wolf Nordlinger, AI Storyteller (Chris)

Ph.D. Fulbright Scholar:AI Storyteller, Publ'ed WashPost, Fortune,etc. State Dep't(Burkina Faso),Eurospace (reside in Paris),Cisco.Splunk.Palo Alto Networks.