“The three guys who saved my life.” It sounds dramatic when you put it that way, but that’s how it feels. For background: in early 2012, I weighed at least 258 pounds, and probably more. I don’t know how much for certain, because I hadn’t been on a scale in over 6 months—after losing 90 lbs. in 2005, I was in denial about the fact that I’d gained it all back. To make matters worse, I’d injured my back the previous summer, and it had never been exactly the same. The immediate pain had subsided enough that I put it out of my mind. I was working very long hours in front of a computer, and when I wasn’t working, I was playing World of Warcraft. In the summer, I got some exercise working on our property, but by the tail end of winter, my life was almost entirely sedentary.
In February of 2012, at the end of a long drive from Seattle to Santa Barbara, I got out of the car and immediately knew something was wrong. My back hurt in an entirely new way—a strong, burning pain that felt like someone had slid a knife between my vertebrae. I wouldn’t know exactly what had happened for some time after that, but in essence, my lack of activity, arthritis, and the weight I was carrying had caused my spine to collapse.
Over the next few months, I kept hoping the pain would get better. It didn’t. Sitting in my work chair for more than an hour became excruciating. I couldn’t lift anything over about fifteen pounds. By early June, it was so bad that I could no longer get into bed without needing fifteen minutes or so to manage the process, and I was close to tears most of the time. I couldn’t stay asleep for more than 15 minutes, and just turning over in bed was difficult and painful. Why didn’t I seek help? Because I was afraid of the medical bills. I had only basic, catastrophic insurance with a $25,000 deductible. I knew that my lack of exercise was the real problem, and couldn’t bring myself to clean out our savings when we had been working so hard for it. The irony was too much to take—I’d spent so many hours helping to save that money toward a house for my in-laws, and the price was my spine.
My husband finally confronted me with the reality of the situation: this was not going to get better unless I did something about it. No one else could fix it for me. He refused to listen to my guilt and self-pity. I was furious! I’d finally admitted to him that I was in a lot of pain all the time, and that getting help would cost too much, but instead of sympathy, what I got was tough love.
My husband was the first guy to save my life. Over the next two days or so, I felt so miserably sorry for myself, it now makes me laugh. I thought he didn’t care. I kept testing to see if maybe he’d become more sympathetic, but he refused to give an inch. “Go see someone,” he insisted. “Get it done. Take care of it.” That was the first step. I had to recognize that this was something I could do something about. Yes, it sucked that it was going to cost money, but I had a choice, and it was up to me to make it.
Having made that shift in my thinking, I was suddenly able to see things more clearly. I visited the spine clinic website and read about treatments. I knew surgery at my relatively young age wasn’t the best idea. More crucial was how out of shape I was, and how much weight I was carrying. I knew it would be very difficult to change that while I was in so much pain, but I also had some experience with back trouble and knew that activity and weight loss would make things better in the long run. When I visited the spine clinic a couple of weeks later, I spoke frankly with the doctor about my lack of medical coverage and my physical condition, and asked her if she thought it made sense to spend what money I had on a gym membership instead of MRIs and surgery. She agreed. After a couple of physical therapy sessions, I had learned a good set of easy pilates moves to help me get to the point where I could exercise.
My husband once again proved why he’s a great life partner; he supported me wholeheartedly when I shared my decision, and said he would join the gym with me and adopt healthier eating habits. We went that very day and signed up at Anytime Fitness, three blocks from our apartment.
Anytime Fitness is where we met the second guy who saved my life: personal trainer Alex Barriga. There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not grateful that our membership included a free personal training session, and that ours was with Alex. From the first time he worked with me, he was careful, patient, and fun to work with. As soon as I spent an hour with him, I knew this was the way to find success in regaining my health. I’d never before invested money in my own health that way, but there was no doubt in my mind it would be money well spent, and a much better investment for my overall health and well-being than spine surgery.
Both my husband and I began regular training with Alex immediately, 3-4 days a week. My husband’s progress was swift and impressive; within a few months, he was in the best shape of his adult life. For me, progress was slower. Alex had to adapt most of the exercises we did to my physical limitations. He never rushed, never got impatient with me, and listened to my limits. He also adapted to my level of focus over the months that we worked together—he wasn’t a drill sergeant, but if I felt the need to push, he would push me harder. I expressed to him early on that what I really needed was for exercise to stay fun, and he was fantastic at that, too. Most importantly, he was utterly reliable, a great communicator, very kind, and made sure I never injured myself. On many occasions, I remember him saying, “Careful,” just when I would start to get tired and let my form start to slip.
My progress in those first months was so good that when it came time to renew, I didn’t hesitate. After six months, I had lost forty pounds and gained quite a bit of muscle and mobility. My pain was about half of what it had been. Considering how limited I was in what I could do in the beginning and still seeing results like that, I was more than ready to see what else we could accomplish.
We traveled for four months over the winter of 2012-2013. During that time, my husband and I continued balancing good eating habits and exercising whenever we could. I lost a few more pounds, though mostly maintained. Around the time we returned to Seattle and resumed training again, a new health problem arose. I was having more and more pelvic pain and discomfort, and my periods were getting worse each month, with days of excruciating cramps. In May, I went to an OB/GYN and found out what I already suspected—I had what we guessed was a large fibroid tumor on my uterus. It had grown so much that it was causing my belly to protrude, and was pressing heavily on my pelvic bone. By that time, its size was such (think bowling ball) that it also caused me to get out of breath when doing abdominal exercises. The doctor referred me to the third guy I credit with saving my life: Dr. Alan Rothblatt.
A surgeon with many years experience, Dr. Rothblatt concurred with my reluctant conclusion that I would not be able to tolerate the tumor for much longer, and would have to get a hysterectomy. Further, he recommended taking Lupron Depot injections for four months prior to the surgery to try and shrink the tumor; this would allow him to attempt a laparoscopic procedure rather than a more invasive surgery. I was very nervous about this because of the side effects. Dr. Rothblatt reassured me, and I accepted his recommendation based on his experience.
Many patients gain weight when on Lupron, and I knew this wasn’t an option, because my spine couldn’t take it. Further, I knew it would make a big difference in my outcome if I got in the best health possible before the surgery. I again turned to Alex to help me.
With Alex’s help and guidance, I lost another 45 lbs. over the next six months, and reached the healthy BMI range. My blood pressure was perfect and I was stronger than I had been since I was 16. My spine pain was, by now, a nuisance more than anything. I felt like a new person already.
But the best reward was yet to come; because of his skill as a surgeon, but also thanks to my physical condition and health, Dr. Rothblatt was able to complete my hysterectomy laparoscopically after four and a half hours in surgery. This is the letter I wrote to him three days later:
Dr. Rothblatt, I just wanted to tell you that I am doing extremely well in recovery, and that I am so grateful for the excellent treatment I received from you and your team. I know this surgery wasn’t easy, and I really appreciate your skill and dedication to making sure it was both as thorough and as non-invasive as possible. I have already written a glowing review at healthgrades.com, and will not hesitate to recommend you and Dr. Wolff to any of my friends who ask. I feel so fortunate that I ended up in your care, and that I followed your recommendations. I feel as though my outcome is already far better than my highest expectations, and I anticipate feeling even better in the coming weeks. I also appreciate the time you spent reassuring me, and convincing me to follow your course of treatment. I know you must have helped many women in the past, and I am glad for those you will help in the future. Thank you so much.
A month later, I’m feeling great, down 90 lbs. or more, and antsy to get back to training. I feel like I have my life and my body back. Thank you, David, Alex, and Dr. Rothblatt—you guys are my heroes, and I’m lucky to have you in my life.