World Spine Day 2016 - Straighten Up and Move

“The Opportunity Behind Adversity” World Spine Day-inspired patient story

Helena Chanko writes about her experiences of a sudden spinal injury and her motivational road to recovery:

The Opportunity Behind Adversity
By Helena Chanko


6 months ago, running, dancing and singing was my world. It was the perfect package of exercise, passion and creativity. It was my therapy after battling feelings of childhood abandonment, family suicide and heartbreak. It was also my secret to keeping slender despite my daily habit of chocolate. On March 22nd, just 12 days after my 39th birthday I was unable to lift out of bed. I recall focusing so hard on my muscles, trying to lift and turn so I could carry myself up, but I was stuck. The pain was excruciating. I felt helpless and quite frankly, very frightened.

Having endured sciatica in my 20’s and several muscle spasms in my back, chest and neck in the past, I thought this too, shall pass. Two days after laying in bed with very little movement, my brother drove me to the doctor. An xray revealed signs of arthritis. I was given a heavy dose of Ibuprofen (for inflammation), Percocet for the pain and muscle relaxers. Within a week, my doctor instructed I should begin to feel better.

After my doctor visit, I woke up in the middle of the night with pain that no words can describe. In the midst of the most horrifying ache in both legs, I recall thinking, “this is it…I’m in the midst of getting paralyzed.” It was by far the most pain I have ever felt. I remember rolling around in bed, curling up, screaming and crying.

The next morning, I woke up with numbness and complete loss of sensation on the base of both my feet, toes, left leg calf, hamstring, and right leg calf. In addition to the loss of sensation, my right leg was unable to carry my weight. My tailbone was throbbing and I was bent over, unable to straighten out. I could only stand for 20-30 seconds before feeling strong pain again that would force me to lay flat. There was burning, aching, tingling, numbness pretty much any and all symptoms listed under sciatica.

Other than the sciatica, I had begun feeling pain in my groin area. Visiting the ladies room was not a pleasant experience. There was definite pain, needlelike sensations and tingling down my legs to my toes every time I tried using the bathroom.

An Angel in Disguise

Seven weeks later, after many detailed emails to my doctor, tears, and much frustration, I decided to go to a  chiropractor, Dr. Mick. After sharing my symptoms with Dr. Mick, it took very little time for him to recognise that I was likely suffering from a massive disc hernia. In addition, Dr. Mick mentioned what was to me, a foreign medical term “Cauda Equina” Syndrome or disorder that causes loss of function in the nerve roots.

Cauda Equina is quite rare but a serious neurological disorder that often requires fast surgical intervention to prevent lasting damage to urinary and bowel functions and possible permanent paralysis in both legs. Little did I know, I was on a fast spiral down this very dangerous path. Dr. Mick ordered me to get an MRI immediately. Needless to say, I left his office in fear, finally realizing that this was no joke. I’ve always had a high threshold for pain, but I learned that at some point, I have to stop playing tough.

That day I must have called all MRI facilities in San Diego, trying to schedule an MRI immediately. The soonest available appointment was 7 days out. I made an appointment, slept on it, and the next day, I woke up and simply had enough. I called and cancelled the MRI, crawled myself into my car and drove myself to the ER. When I look
back, I don’t know how I did it, but I did.

They checked all my vitals as per normal procedures and got me in for an MRI within an hour. I’ll spare you the details of how I got through that MRI. I recall the doctor immediately calling a neurologist that night, informing him of the results from the MRI.

There was clear evidence of a massive disc herniation between L5 and S1, but there was also evident signs of Cauda Equina Disorder/Syndrome (the bundle of nerves that control a large part of everything that goes on below the waist, including sexual organs, legs, feet and toes).

Staring Contest with Reality

Three doctors came out to explain to me my current state and condition. They communicated that surgery was not a choice, but a must or I would face possible paralysis in both legs, urinary and bowel functions. They told me that they would be able to get me into surgery in 2 days.

I recall asking the doctor, “Can I go home, and come back?” The doctor looked at me with a very calm but bleak face and responded, “This is serious”. I will never forget that moment because after 7 weeks of naive, and dare I say, nonsensical logic, I finally realized that this was beyond sciatica. I was on my way to being paralyzed and I had sat there, waiting for it to happen. I was not allowed to move (other than restroom privileges) until I went in for surgery.

Changing your Mindset
Waiting for surgery was painful. I would barely sleep and I’d wake up in the middle of night, fighting negative thoughts and anxiety. Despite these feelings however, I knew that this was THE moment. MY moment. The window of opportunity, where I could either let myself break down or get up, change my mindset and allow this adversity to not only bring me back but bring me out stronger and more powerful than ever.

The next morning, April 30th the day before my surgery, I got myself out of the hospital bed, and went up to the white board and began writing. My hands were shaking. My legs wanted to quit and I could feel the numbness and tingling increase as I stood there with the dryerase sharpie at hand. I was determined.

I’m a spiritual person and wrote down things that I knew would uplift and give me strength to turn this adversity into an opportunity.

My Inspiration Board
My Inspiration Board
Presurgery and the moment I choose to persevere.
Presurgery and the moment I choose to persevere.
Major muscle loss and nerve damage was evident, particularly in my right leg. I lost 60% of strength in this leg. Not very pretty :)
Major muscle loss and nerve damage was evident, particularly in my right leg. I lost 60% of
strength in this leg. Not very pretty 🙂

I find it ironic how our world has come so far in various areas like technology, but sadly, our language has not evolved as favorably. Our language affects our thinking. How we view our world and our capabilities our power. I promised myself to not allow myself to fall into any self pity, and instead be grateful for how blessed I was. I choose to reshape an awful experience into a wonderful experience and opportunity for growth.
I’m not here to pretend that it’s it’s a breeze. I’m not here to tell you that you can make this switch of mindset overnight. I am, however, here to tell you that you can train your mind out of negativity. You can make it habit to replace negative thoughts with positive, hopeful and powerful thoughts. Motivate your thoughts by counting your blessings, by being grateful for where you are and what you do have today.

To clarify, I am not saying “positive affirmations” will help you out of your adversity. Unfortunately, our pain, our fears and emotions run deeper than that. It surely doesn’t hurt, but what worked for me had more to do with facing my fear. Embrace what you’ve been given, the good and the bad, and use it to thrust you forward. Use it to find
your power.

One of the greatest evils against ourselves is to either look back or look too far ahead into our future wishing
things were different.

Clearly, you want to set future goals, but despite where you stand today, use the PRESENT to change your future instead of wishing for it. I say this respectfully: snap out of it my friends. Get over yourselves. Are you holding onto the pain/suffering you had to endure because of something that happened to you or something someone did to you? Angry about your past? Did a family member, a friend, a lover do you wrong?

Forgive and allow yourself to move on with a peaceful spirit. Do not glorify the situation by surrounding it with your attention. You went through what you went through to shape your NOW! Allow it to reshape your character, because the spirit that walks around crushed, does not have hope.

Adversity doesn’t mean you’ll come out with no scars, no suffering, or no pain. It means coming out and landing on higher grounds. I realise that in comparison, my experience and situation does not even come close to that of
what some other people have gone through in life. Regardless, coming this close to losing my legs and other vital below-the-waist functions itis a big deal to me, because it’s given me my power.

I’m choosing to share my story (regardless of how big or small it may be viewed) to give heart to those with a crushed spirit, caused by a physical or mental life adversities. I want to bring out potential. I want to inspire others to find their power.

If as a human, I have the choice to bolder the spirit of another fellow human, give hope and help them find beauty and strength, then I feel like I’m finally using my power well. When you find the power to influence, inspire and uplift others in life, then and only then can we begin to create new realities, new outlooks and a new way of existing and coexisting.

Do not let words like “disability” and “disorder” put a lid on you. The only true disability is a crushed spirit.
I will do everything in my power to be an inspiration, a sign of hope to recover a crushed spirit.

5 months later
5 months later (photograph by Heather Wight, Instagram: @heatherwightphotography)


Determination and positive affirmation
Determination and positive affirmation (photograph by Heather Wight, Instagram: @heatherwightphotography )

Have I inspired you? If so, follow me on Instagram where I share my story, lifestyle and road to recovery to a life of strength, peace and wellness.

Instagram Account: @helenachanko