Climbing Back from Paralysis

Dr. C. Wolf Nordlinger
9 min readApr 28, 2016

Nobody really knows why it happened. It was a ten 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.

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. Yes, 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 Stanford G.P. who got me into his office right away. He was more than concerned and sent me to see the top spinal specialist at the Stanford.

Meanwhile, he got me on Vicodin right away. It did nothing for me.

Two days later I saw the top doc at the Stanford Spinal Clinic. He got me into an MRI at Stanford Hospital immediately.

The next morning with the results in hand, he told me that my ulnar nerve, which runs from the base of my skull through the right shoulder to my elbow to my right hand, was damaged. It sounded accurate since that was the complete arc of my pain.

I was seized by the reality that my livelihood and the three people who depended on my earnings were suddenly at risk if I couldn’t type.

Stirring further anxiety was the resounding pain that the Vicodin did nothing to quell. The steadily mounting throb in my pinkie and ring finger. Oh yeah, in addition, bot1h were numb. Frozen. As in not fucking working.

The next day Dr. Almaden lined me up with what turned out to be the best physical therapist in the world.

Laurie Quinn’s as modest as she is fabulous in her professional prowess and sparkling personality. She was on the Stanford National Champion Volleyball Team and has her private practice in Menlo Park.

The doc 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 the PT and the shot.

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 with a sort of vise 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 was 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 the matter?” she screamed, my body barely on the bed, legs hanging off.

“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 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. Was it shock or my eternal optimism. This was some minor glitch. They screwed this up, I thought. They would fix it. After all, they were doctors and I put all my faith in the medical professionals. Meanwhile, I watched the nurse run a metal tool up the bottom of my foot. Nothing.

My wife was pale with fear.

Within minutes, doctors were in to see me and repeat the paralysis check. This time they even did a sphincter check to see if I could squeeze my buttocks.

Nothing.

I was put in an ambulance to go from the Stanford Spine Clinic back to the ER at Stanford Hospital 20 minutes away. 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. If that didn’t sound like they fucked up and were now going to spin this in the best way possible?

The blood vessels had broken by the steroid shot but had not coagulated. Now they were in a knot strangling my spinal cord, and 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 head so that I could not possibly move. I found this out 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 through five layers of muscle down to my actual spinal cord.

They removed a bone in my spinal column, to access the blood clot wrapped around my spinal cord. It had been six hours since it had paralyzed me below the clot. Now they vacuumed out the blood and began sewing me up.

It turned out I was in surgery for two and a half hours. Later I also found out there was a 40 percent chance I would never walk again.

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

“Don’t know.” Suddenly she sucked in air, glancing at the side of my head.

“What’s the matter?”

“Nothing.” She hid her concern poorly.

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. A bloody mess crowned my head.

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. After what seemed too long, a couple of toes moved. Hell yeah!

“Great.”

“Am I okay?”

He didn’t answer the question. It was now 4am. “A doctor will be by in the morning to see if we can get you to stand on your legs” Hell no. Not exactly the news I was expecting. .

Later I discovered that circumstances could have been much worse if I hadn’t already been in a top medical center when I had the procedure done.

That morning after a brief sleep a doctor came by to tell me that he was sure I could stand by the side of the bed. I could tell through his bedside manner that this was more serious than he wanted to let on.

But a nurse and he cushioned their hands to help me struggle to get my legs over the side of the bed.

Truth time.

I placed my feet on the linoleum with them pushing my back below the huge bandaged incision and the still bloody drain protruding from my C5 wound. With a big inhale I pushed myself up. The legs seemed to lock as I got up. Shaking I put weight on them. Wobbling a bit I was able to stand on my own. I exhaled and beaming with a broad smile was settled back into the bed where I would spend the next weeks learning to walk on my own again.

My wife and my walker were a godsend as I paced the fluorescent-lit hallways full of visitors and ailing patients. Finally, I was sent home. I 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 the work would keep me sane while I mended. I got back to the Cisco pace as what I felt was a lifesaver.

However, there was much more to do to 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 had a slight tremor in my hands, a small price to pay for recovering. Six months of hand therapy at Palo Alto Medical Foundation got me back to form although I can still tell that the human body is a miracle, and I just got used to working around with what is most likely a mild paralysis I was just gotting used to. What I missed were my workouts and the endorphin rush that nicely graced the rest of my day. 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 my usual Vinyasa which at first was 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 a while I got into the harder, hotter forms of yoga. I had that great feeling of a total body workout that had prepared me for the Alcatraz swim.

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

I’m not litigious so did not sue the chiropractor or Stanford as my attorney friends suggested I explore. A Stanford friend in the pain practice told me that my case had changed the way they prescribe epidurals in Northern California.

After my recovery, the endorphins rushing through my body after yoga gave me a great calm and a returning athletic spirit I celebrated with an immense feeling of gratitude. I had so much to be blessed with that Thanksgiving. No more so than I wasn’t spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair. Gathered around the table with my wife and sons, turkey never tasted so damn good.

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Dr. C. Wolf Nordlinger

PhD, Fulbright Scholar. Writer (Wash. Post,Fortune) Natural Foods. AI-Cybersecuruty Nexus. U.S. State Dep't. Cisco,Splunk,Palo Alto Networks.