The Back Injury, Part 1: Chiropractic

I was at what I thought was the peak of my game. I had just danced the role of Desdemona in the great maestro Ciro’s Chicago premiere of his flamenco ballet, Otelo. A week later, backstage after a community show, I was goofing around, spinning while holding hands with a circle of little girls. There is a signature flamenco spin called a vuelta que brada in which you basically do a backbend in the spin. It’s pretty nifty once you’ve mastered it, which takes quite awhile. In fact, it was Ciro himself who coached me in Madrid on perfecting my vuelta que brada because he choreographed a series of them in one of the duets in the ballet.

With Ciro at Amor de Dios
Recovering after Ciro’s vuelta que brada coaching which involved spinning while holding onto that barre behind us.

I stupidly thought I could pull off a vuelta que brada while holding hands with these little girls. But first graders are a lot shorter than I bargained for.

The stab in my lower back was sharp, searing. OK, I can stretch this out, I thought, I’ve got to go stretch this out. After a couple of days of stretching — and resting and trying to find comfortable positions and hot baths in arnica oil and ice packs — I had to face and accept my greatest fear: I had herniated a disc in my spine.

Dammit. I knew from my orthopedics rotation in med school what this meant. Surgery meant losing all the flexibility I had built and needed as a dancer, possibly continue to be in pain for the rest of my life anyway, and definitely give up my professional dance career. Refusing surgery meant — at least according to the orthopods at the turn of the millenium — a probable lifetime of pain after trying a few steroid shots, hobbling around to compensate for the pain, and definitely giving up my professional dance career.

Or did it? Several dancer friends swore by chiropractic. But they had never squashed a disc the way I did. Some dancer friends went to acupuncturists, and a few regularly took Chinese herbs. But they had never squashed a disc the way I did. One dancer friend had a Reiki master work on her. But she had never squashed a disc the way I did. I didn’t have a lot of choices — it was either surgery or no surgery — but should I consider these alternatives? I was trained at a prestigious medical school in the 1980s, and according to my top notch training, chiropractic was “dangerous quackery,” and acupuncture and Chinese medicine were, well, in China (where it all belonged, my mentors might have added). And Reiki? What was that? But my dancer friends had done well with their various and sundry injuries, and they were still performing. But a back injury. But surgery. But never dancing again.

I refused surgery.

Thus began my search for alternative practitioners before Complementary and Alternative Medicine — a field in which I now work — even existed.

I found an excellent chiropractor in Evanston, IL, where I was living at the time. What made him particularly effective for me was that he was a professional clarinetist himself, so he understood exactly where I was coming from. Performers need to perform. He was completely focused on getting me back to performance level.

For the first time in my life, I was a compliant patient. I was beyond compliant. I was Superpatient. I did every exercise everyday. I kept every appointment. I started to heal, the pain was subsiding, and I could function.

Then I did something nuts.

I arranged to rebuild myself completely by studying over the next year with the strongest female flamenco dancer I knew.

In Amsterdam, where she lived.

Cropped Amsterdam window
The view from my house sitting gig that allowed me to continue to heal for a whole year.

Vida Peral. I will write a series of posts on just Vida and life lessons learned from her as one of my greatest mentors and friends. For now, she did rebuild me that year, as a dancer, as a woman, as a human. Through her meticulous teaching of her own exquisitely perfect technique (“A photographer should be able to catch you looking perfect in any moment,” was her mantra), my new and improved spine became my foundation for a spectacularly new and improved flamenco posture.

I worked with the chiropractor of the Dutch cycling team during that year in Amsterdam. What an incredible healing and strengthening experience. My favorite thing that he did was hold a wine cork on a series of points along my sacro-iliac joint and tap on the cork with a mallet. This particular adjustment actually addressed an older, childbirth-related injury (yet another blog post) — and it provided such profound relief.

si-joint
“Rear view”

He also allowed me to cry between adjustments if I needed to do that, which I did. There was a lot of emotion tied to this injury. Shout out to healthcare practitioners, especially body workers: give your patients the space to safely release their emotions as they heal. 

When I returned to the States and performed Ciro’s soloist piece, Intermedio from the opera, Goyescas, as a guest for Teresa Y Los Preferidos Spanish Dance Company, the entire company was stunned: everyone gushed that I had transformed into a completely different dancer. I was a different dancer. I was physically so much stronger. My technique was so much cleaner which made my expression so much clearer.

Most importantly, I had passed through some very dark days when I thought my lifelong dream was over. As a desperate patient, I had to stumble blindly most of the time, as if fingering my way through a cave with no light source, to find chiropractors and later acupuncturists who were not only good enough to help me heal, but also keen enough to boost me beyond my pre-injury level.

This clunky, piecemeal patient experience — that very fortunately had a triumphant outcome — drives me in my day job as a department chair at a health sciences university that offers graduate degrees in Chiropractic, Physician Assistant, and Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine. This is my pay it forward.

Advice to all healthcare practitioners, from the patient point of view (I happen to be a particularly well-informed patient):

  • Work as a team to help patients find exactly what — and who — they need.
  • Acknowledge each person as the mental-physical-emotional-spiritual being that s/he is, and
  • Give them the space, time, education, and support they need to heal.

Advice to all patients (Remember, I speak from both sides of the exam table):

  • It’s OK to search for just the right team of practitioners; unfortunately, that sometimes means paying out of pocket.
  • Please comply with exercises, diet recommendations, meds if applicable.
  • Find the silver lining, make the lemonade, take the spoonful of sugar; however you want to express the sentiment — grab the good part of every situation, however tiny it is in the midst of something horrible and scary, and run with it. It will grow into something beautiful as long as you keep running with your chin up.

Just don’t hold hands while spinning with a gaggle of first graders.

A midlife oasis from the vantage point of this Quinquagen.

OXOX

coco

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