What Have I Been Up To? Spinal Surgery!

Hello loyal readers! This is a (long) update on what I’ve been up to. When last we spoke my neck was feeling better. Unfortunately it didn’t last.

The story – Original injury through quarantine

In 2013 I was throwing some suitcases into the back of a car from a side door (a terrible idea, if you’re curious) and I felt a pain shoot down my arm. I was getting on a plane to go on a combination speaking tour/vacation with Julianne to the Austin area so I figured it was a pulled muscle and didn’t think much about it. I got on the plane in a little bit of pain. I got off the plane with excruciating pain down my arm. I assumed I had hurt my shoulder/arm and so I got a sling and made it through the vacation. but things continued to devolve until I wasn’t able to move my right arm, which was terrifying. I got home, got an MRI and learned that, in fact, I had herniated a couple of discs in my neck. The doctor told me that surgery was the only option, I asked if it wasn’t possible to try something less invasive and he said that I could try physical therapy but nobody was consistent enough with the exercises and the icing. He didn’t know me. After a few months of physical therapy and so much icing of my neck that I came close to giving myself frostbite, I was out of pain.

This was actually the impetus to do my first marathon since part of my recovery instructions was that I couldn’t do anything high impact or dance related.

Quarantine to now

After my initial recovery period I definitely had some flare-ups but I was always able to control them with physical therapy and at home work/icing. I had started to have another flare up when COVID happened and we went into quarantine. I did what I could from home but it continuously got worse. I tried a steroid shot and while the experience was terrible, it helped a bit with the pain in my shoulders and arms.

Then one fateful day I decided that I wanted to deep clean my house, neck pain be damned. I figured I would do it and then just pop some Advil and ice my neck. I spent the day reaching, pushing, pulling, scrubbing, and cleaning. A few hours later I noticed something odd – when I bent my head forward, I had an electric pulse/tingling down my leg. That didn’t seem good. In fact, it seemed downright bad.

Trying not to panic, I called my spinal doctor’s office and got the on call doctor who told me that it wasn’t a surgical emergency for that night, but I should definitely be seen ASAP. I got another MRI and sure enough instead of just being herniated and pissing off the nerves in my arms (radiculopathy) now two of my discs were pressing into my spine (myelopathy). I also learned that my spinal canal is narrow due to a congenital condition called short pedicle syndrome, which helps explain why so many members of my family on my Mom’s side have spine issues

Image description – a MRI of a spine showing spinal compression at two levels with the label “This is what is technically known as the “Yikes! area”

At this point, surgery was required. This was in January 2021 and vaccines were being rolled out. We had been in full quarantine except for absolutely necessary medical and vet appointments since March 2020 and I didn’t want to put our lives at risk by going into the hospital, so I asked if I could possibly wait until we were vaccinated. The answer was yes, but only if I would comply with some serious movement restrictions. I had stopped triathlon training when we went into quarantine (the local trails were just too crowded to feel safe) but I was consistently working out at home, now that would come to an end as well.

On April 29 I had my surgery – a two-level spinal fusion (C4-C6) I’m grateful (and lucky, and privileged) that I did not face any fatphobia around the surgery, everyone was clear that the injury had nothing to do with my size, several expressed that they were impressed that I was able to control the symptoms as long as I did. I received respectful care from everyone involved in the surgery.

Image description: a fat white woman in a hospital gown, mask, cap and glasses.

It was my first time getting general anesthesia and when I woke up the first thing I thought was – I have to start walking so that I can get the anesthesia out of my system and go home! After about 45 minutes I convinced a nurse to let me walk to the bathroom and then I talked her into letting me do a couple laps of the recovery room before going back to the bed. At that point I learned that two of my nurses were also marathoners and so they were super cool about me wanting to start walking as soon as I could.

I was discharged the same day as my surgery and my discharge notes included “walk as much as you can” They also included that it was important that I not fall down. Because the sidewalks around our house are super sketchy and I wasn’t allowed to look down, that meant walking inside. Because our place is super small, that meant that the longest “path” to walk was 14 feet one-way, so each lap was 28 feet. The day after surgery I did a mile (10 laps at a time). The fourth day after surgery I did 5k (50 laps at a time) Altogether, the first month after surgery I did 10,906 laps for a total of 57.8 miles. At that point I was allowed to walk outside a bit, though I was also still doing indoor laps. My first outside walk was a little over half a mile, my second was a little over a mile. It was slow (even by my standards!) and it was also amazing to be outside again and not have to turn every 14 feet (I learned pretty quickly that I had to turn to the left at one end of the hallway and the right at the other or I would get dizzy!) (As always, this is about my personal journey which includes a mixture of oppression and privilege, movement/fitness is not an obligation, barometer of worthiness, or entirely within our control and participating in fitness-y things does not make someone better than people who don’t participate.)

Behold The Chastain Trail
Image Description a Short Hallway with a white door, wood floors, and white cabinets at the end

My friend brilliant friend Jeanette DePatie visited every week for the first month of my recovery and she named my little walking “path” the Chastain Trail and then went all out with these spectacular signs I put up a trail register so if you come to our place you can through-hike the Chastain Trail and sign the register!

I started physical therapy two weeks after surgery and that has been going great. I just had my 8 week check-up and my surgeon is very happy with my progress and cleared me for most activities (though absolutely no overhead lifting!)

I’m not sure what the future holds for me and triathlon – I’m having some conversations over the next few days to talk about that and I’ll keep you posted. For now I’m thrilled that the pain and numbness are gone, that my neck is getting better everyday, and that I have incredible support from Julianne, my friends and family, and from a team of healthcare professionals.

So that’s where I am. In the words of Josiah Bartlet…what’s next?

July Online Workshop: Getting Jiggly With It! Movement In A Fat Body

July 28th 5:30pm Pacific Time
Plus a video in case you can’t make it live (or want to watch again!
Pay-what-you-can option

In this workshop we’ll explore tips, tricks, and information to help us move our bodies for our own reasons and on our own terms. (This workshop can also be helpful to fitness pros who want to create a fat-positive practice!)

Click here for full details and registration

You can also:

Follow me on Instagram
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Follow me on Twitter
Follow me on Facebook 

Check out my blog at DancesWithFat (which focuses on Size Acceptance and Fat Rights)

Check out the Fit Fatties Facebook Group (for people of all sizes who want to talk about fitness from a weight-neutral perspective)

Visit my professional speaking and writing site

About Ragen Chastain

Hi, I’m Ragen Chastain. Speaker, Writer, Dancer, Choreographer, Marathoner, Soon to be Iron-distance triathlete, Activist, Fat Person.
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2 Responses to What Have I Been Up To? Spinal Surgery!

  1. nosnikrapzil says:

    Glad you are doing so well Ragen, I too have nerve damage in my neck, from an accident. Not suitable for surgery, because the nerve was badly crushed. But I do as much as I can, and the gym is open again over here.


  2. Linda Strout says:

    I am so happy to learn you are doing well! I had been wondering about it since your revelation of the Chastain trail. If you personally can’t do a triathlon, perhaps you can make an Animal Crossing character and do it there. Pet the puppies for me!


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