Monday, July 21, 2014

The Reality of My Reoccurring Nightmare

I went to the hospital to get what I call a "check up x-ray" of my back. This is something I've been putting off for years, though I knew it should be done more frequently. The last time I took a picture of my lumbar spine was in 2009, so five years without any imaging is probably not the best idea. Anyhow, I finally went in to get it done today. 

Going in, I knew what the prognosis was going to be: severe compression fracture of my L2, suggested spinal fusion surgery, no more fun activities that include bending or twisting of my back or any lifting of heavy objects, and lots of core strengthening as rehab. I guessed that there would be some arthritis or bone spurs that had developed by now, and I was curious to see how much, along with the condition of the adjacent discs and vertebrae. 

Well, I got what I asked for. Exactly. Except this doc said that it wasn't just a compression fracture, it was a burst fracture, which is even worse than a regular compression fracture. Compression fractures, as I mentioned in a prior post about Neymar's injury, are kind of like squished marshmallows. The cause of a burst fracture is basically like that of a compression fracture, but with more force so that the vertebral body (the marshmallow part) has some shatter element to it (think pressing down into a piece of taffy with your finger, vs smacking it with a hammer....using your finger, it just kinda squishes in, whereas the hammer might break off several pieces of taffy, clean cut). It also increases the surface area of the flat part, which means that that there is more of a chance of it affecting my spinal cord in a negative way. 

The doc then mentioned that if I had gotten surgery at the time of the accident, my vertebra would have actually grown back into it's original shape (or something similar, I'm guessing). A couple pins to temporarily fuse it in place, and a year later, remove the pins. Bam. A new back. 

Exactly what I have been wishing for since 2009. 

And then he took it all away from me. All of the hope. Because my injury is an old one, I wouldn't be able to recover the way I would have if I had taken immediate action. All that's left for me to do now is to either maintain what I have by core strengthening, or attempt surgery to permanently fuse my L1 and L2. I entertained the idea of surgery, but then I came back to my senses and remembered the doc saying that at this point, he wouldn't recommend surgery unless I was experiencing some terrible pain. 

When I got home, I broke down and cried. Just the idea that I could have actually had a normal spine again crushed me. These past 5 years would have been pain-free (minus the year of rehab). I wouldn't have to be so careful with everything I do. I wouldn't have to rehab myself just to be a normal human being. 

The thing is, since 2009, I had already made peace with the fact that my situation was an eternal one. There's no getting better, just maintaining the same, or getting worse. Why it was so tough for me to accept this coming from a doctor this time, I really don't know. Maybe it was the temporary dangle of hope in front of my face before he asked the date of my injury. 

Actually, I think that was it. 

After talking to my significant other (it was moreso just venting and crying), he reminded me that "what if's" are pointless and useless. He reminded me that the path I've taken since the accident has made me into someone who wouldn't have existed otherwise. Live to Play would not exist. The people I've helped along the way might still be in pain. My friendships would be different. My sports and activities would be different. My address would be different. Everything would be different. 

He's so great :)

The thing is, we have to learn how to live with the cards we've been dealt. Yes, it would have been great to have a healthy(ier?) spine, but who knows if it would have actually gone the way it was planned (we should know by now that rarely anything goes exactly as planned)? I've used this crux as a driving force to improve my direction in life, adding to my passion of helping people, but now with an actual fire. I took a path I was too afraid to continue when I failed at first (yep, Anatomy class in university....had to drop the class twice because I knew within the first 2 weeks I wouldn't have the slightest chance in passing). I have learned so much more than I would have, think more freely, and actually use my brain when making educated decisions, rather than basing it what the institution would have bred me to believe. I have expanded my knowledge in ways I wouldn't even have blinked at, and have made many similarly-thinking friends on the way. I have challenged my body in ways I would never have imagined (even though some are just basic things), and accomplished exactly what I intended when all the docs told me I couldn't. 

Well, I can. I have, and I will. 

Docs told me I couldn't run without pain, so I ran a few half marathons. Docs told me I wouldn't be able to participate in martial arts anymore, so I competed a few more times, took up a whole new martial art, and competed in that one several times. Oh, and mixed the two in an MMA tournament. Docs told me I shouldn't jump, so I ran a 10-mile obstacle course race. Docs told me I shouldn't lift heavy things, and, well, we all know what happened with that ;) This doc "taught" me an exercise I "should" do every morning to maintain the muscles that support my spinal column: 

Ironically, this is an exercise that I would NOT recommend to beginners, or people who just walked into a doc's office as a first exercise. It's way too easy to round your back and not use the right muscles to perform this movement. Also, most people would also end up with a neck strain along with their sore back. Woot. 

Ok, so now I feel better. Sometimes hearing news you already knew can suck, even if you were expecting it. Hearing it out loud, and then even just having a smidge of hope presented, can sometimes seem devastating. But bring yourself back to reality. Look at your cards, do your research, know that there are always other options. In situations like this, take your best option, believe in it 100%, and never look back. Obstacles are bound to happen, but keep your eyes on the prize. The path to success is never a straight line.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Fighting Off Bad Guys

I commonly get asked questions about how to defend oneself during an attack. Having been in martial arts for most of my life, I have come to expect these types of questions here and there. With the uprising of public attacks (in Taiwan, the newly reported 2014's second safest country to live in, within the last 6 weeks, there has been a stabbing on the subway resulting in 4 deaths and 22 injuries, and a shooting resulting in one guy getting sent to the ER with multiple gunshot and blunt force assault wounds), I have been getting more and more questions about self defense. 

"How do I defend against a knife attack?"

"What do I do if someone is drunk and tries to attack me?"

"What if someone has a gun? What do I do then?"

"What if someone sneaks up in the alleyway and grabs me unexpectedly?"

What if, what if, what if.....

Today, I got to spend a bit of time explaining to the single person who has asked me the most questions about self defense on a daily basis (this guy persistently asks almost every time I see him, and won't really take "no" for an answer) my thoughts on self defense for noobs (or, as he called it, "blank paper"). By the way, this only applies to the general population who has not taken any long-term instruction in martial arts. And, again, it is only my opinion, as is everything else in this blog (because it's my blog). So take it for what it's worth.

You cannot learn self defense overnight. 
You cannot practice self defense by yourself. 
Just because you take a weekend self defense course doesn't mean you can take on the world. 
Just because you know a couple of self defense moves, doesn't mean you will actually use them effectively in an attack situation. 
You cannot "learn" (read: memorize) a defense for every conceivable attack situation. There will alway be variables.
Just because someone knows martial arts doesn't mean they can defend themselves in an attack situation.
Just because someone doesn't know martial arts doesn't mean they can defend themselves in an attack situation.
Just because you can find a weapon nearby doesn't mean you should pick it up in a situation where you are being attacked.
Defending yourself is not like it is in the movies.
Martial arts defenses are not how they are depicted in the movies.

I believe that in order to defend yourself in as effective manner as it is humanly possible to prepare for, one needs to have a clear mind and quick reaction/thinking at the time when most people would panic. Like most things in life, it is about learning some basic skills, practicing them in simulated situations with real partners and actually learning how to take a hit, and practicing those things until it's second nature because they're basic. Then you learn the concept of how everything works. And then you can apply those concepts to almost any attack situation.

Think about when you learned how to drive. The driver's ed guy didn't teach you what to do if a dog runs into the street in front of you at 20, 25, 30, 35, and 40 feet from the left, did he? What about the right? What if it's a cat? What if it's a kid? What if it's a bird? He also didn't teach you what to do if  you're making a left turn and some asshole decides to run a red. Or if he ran a stale yellow. Or if he was just driving super slow at the end of a green. Or if there were two cars instead of one. Or if it was a semi-truck. Do you get my drift? He taught you some basics things on how to operate a vehicle safely, some general guidelines, and then the rest you learned through practicing....a shit-ton. Every time you drive, you practice. You might now know how to parallel park on a 17 degree gradient hill in San Francisco, but the driver's ed guy didn't teach you that. You just know now because you parallel parked in a few other situations, as well as parked on a hill before, and it just makes sense that this is how you should combine the two on a rainy, windy SF day. 

Practicing by yourself is also not an effective approach to learning how to defend yourself in an attack situation. Sure, you might have that heavy sand bag propped up, ready for you to retaliate against its imaginary attacks, but you'll never have the timing right. Sure, you could repeatedly smack yourself on the head with a bamboo stick to "get used to the pain," but you'll never know what it looks like when someone else is out for your blood. Think about a deer in headlights. The deer knows how to cross the road. It's simple. It's done it a bunch of times. But now...there're shiny lights coming towards it. Fuck. 

Having a partner simulate attack situations is the best way to train what you've learned from whatever self-defense/fighting/martial arts course you've decided to take without actually getting yourself in attack situations. It prepares you for a human being coming at you in real time, so you have to 1) not panic, 2) figure out what defense move will work best for you in that situation, 3) get the timing right, and 4) use the appropriate amount of force and speed to stop you from getting stabbed in the eye with a plastic picnic knife. You cannot effectively train those components of self defense by yourself, or over a weekend course.

The only exception to any of if you've had previous experience in a combat sport (mostly martial arts) and have actually competed several times. I say this, because if you've gotten to the level of having competed several times in a combat sport, then you've already had a minimum of several months to a few years of sufficient and consistent training of that martial art (unless your coach is a mean, mean person who enjoys watching his students get crushed in public). You have already learned the basics of a martial art, which is really enough to defend most people against the majority of attackers. Having been in competitions means you've trained even more vigorously than normal students, upping your ability and mental toughness. It means you've already been in the situation where someone is trying to win, and you're in the way. You've already had to defend yourself. Several times. You've had accidental knocks to the head, getting your wind knocked out of you, bumps, bruises, bleeding, etc, and you're not phased by them anymore. You know what it's like to be super tired and not be able to catch your breath but still have to fight someone because you can't lose. Not this time. You've had to use your basic techniques in situations the instructor didn't teach you....because that's all you had to work with, and you learned how to make it work. You've learned how to be creative with what little you knew, too, because you've at least started to grasp the concept of this whole "defending" yourself thing. You've conditioned yourself to think that an attacker is just another person, and he will no longer be an attacker if you can control him. No biggie. When do I get my post-competition pizza/ice cream dinner?

However, this does not mean that anyone with martial arts experience (even competitively) can defend themselves effectively. People are still humans, and they will fuck up because it's in their nature. They could have a brain fart and that brain fart could be the determining factor on whether or not they get stabbed. They could still panic in the face of danger, because, well, it's actual, REAL, life-threatening danger, not just a fun competition that you know you'll walk out of alive. Or, I mean, if someone decides to surprise attack you with a gun to your head....I mean....that's a pretty tough one to get out of, even for most experienced martial artists. 

Now, the chief complaint I got from the guy I was explaining this to today was that becoming efficient at a martial arts to the point of competing takes a lot of time out of one's schedule. Well no shit. There's got to be a better way for the general population of "blank papers" to have a better than 0% of stopping themselves from getting beaten to a bloody pulp, right? Well, of course there is. And again, I'd like to state that this is all my opinion, so if you ever get in a situation and try any of this and it doesn't work, don't blame me. Actually, just try not to get attacked. That's probably best.

1) Run away (See? This is another reason why sprinting is good for you!). It's too much of a hassle for a random attacker to chase after you, unless you made him really angry. Then you should probably make sure you run faster than he does. If you're being robbed, best thing to do is to throw your wallet/purse in one direction, and then run in the other direction. And always run towards where there are people/lights. Bad guys don't like witnesses.

2) If you're stuck in a situation where you can't run and you have to defend yourself, either stay suuuuper far away (out of range for limbs/weapons to reach you), or get suuuuuper close (think super tight bear hug with as much of your body stuck to their body as possible). If you are in the middle range where their strikes can actually reach you, you're probably pretty screwed unless your inner Kung Fu Panda spirit comes through for you. If you're super close, like, trying to merge two bodies into one close, you take away their attack range. Next time your significant other gives you a super tight hug with their head on your shoulder, try to head butt them and see how effective that is. I can tell you right now, it won't be very effective. Weapons all have a range of effective use. Take away that range, and they won't have an effective use. Also, you could simply do the grade-school thing where you put one foot behind theirs and trip them so they fall backwards. And then sit on them while you make them list 10 candy bars. There's a reason why that worked. Because you took away their range. They can't attack you if you're sitting on them and controlling their arms. 

There's no way this dog can hurt me now!!

3) If you haven't been properly trained in the usage of weaponry, don't pick up random objects and try to use them as a weapon. You will probably get that "weapon" taken away from you pretty quickly and then all of the sudden find it being used against you. Damn. 

Hey, look what I found! I couldn't possibly hurt myself with this!

4) Make as much of a screamy noise as possible. Get the attention of standbyers. Scream something like "FIRE!" or "OMG, IT'S ROBERT DOWNEY JR.!!" Again, the attacker probably doesn't want any witnesses. 

5) Get good at dodgeball. If someone's gonna throw something at you, be it a fist or a knife or a shoe, just remember that you don't deserve to get hit, and you also have the option of NOT getting hit. So just move out of its way. 

Ok. So, super long post about how to defend yourself in every situation possible. How about this: Just....try not to get easily attacked. Walk around with confidence, head held high, no headphones in, and best in numbers higher than 1. Attackers want the easiest attack possible. They're like the lioness hunting the gazelles. They know they'll only get the weakest one. Don't be the weakest one. Do your sprints. Lift heavy things. Be confident in whatever you do. Have friends. Enjoy your surroundings. There. That's my advice. Now go.....not get attacked and live your life.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

How to not be Stupid with a Broken Back and Beat the Odds of Health Professionals

I don't watch sports. I play them, I just don't watch them (too boring to watch people chase a ball around a field for a few hours...more fun to watch goats do the same thing for a few minutes, in my opinion). Recently, I was notified through various social media accounts that some guy name Neymar who plays for the Brazilian soccer (futbol) team at the World Cup just suffered a fractured vertebra in his lower back (Fox Sports reported that it was his "third vertebra," which basically means the author doesn't know jack shit about the spinal anatomy, but then again, it IS Fox....) and is likely out for the rest of the World Cup. Some people are optimistic in saying that he might be able to play in the next game if he takes good care of himself in the next couple days, but if you think about it, any educated and sane person would most likely choose to be able to continue being able to play soccer in the near future, rather than have an attempt at another match where he's already the main prey and risk being confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. 

A quick lesson on spinal injuries, a fractured vertebra = "broken back." Vertebrae are spikey marshmallow-shaped bones, so it's hard to have an actual separating break in the marshmallow part of the bone, so they're technically fractures. There are also various types of spinal fractures, each of which have varying levels and types of pain and rehabilitation. 

A broken bone takes about 6-8 weeks to heal. Before that, it has the opportunity to get worse, if not handled properly. After that, there's all sorts of fun things to deal with, like scar tissue, newly overcompensations of muscles, and other soft tissue stuff. With a broken vertebra, these "fun things" will likely stay with you for the rest of your life. But the main thing is, if it's treated correctly, and the homework is consistently done, then the option of playtime will continue to exist. But first.....6-8 weeks of letting that bone superglue itself back together is vital. Sorry, Neymar, if you're smart, you're not going to finish this year's World Cup. But if you do things right, you can play again next year. If may never walk again. I'd choose the first option.

One of the permanent injuries I have to deal with on a daily basis is a severe wedge compression fracture in my 2nd lumbar vertebra (the one above the one Neymar is reported to have broken). My marshmallow basically looks like the unevenly squished one that got jammed under a can of Spaghetti-O's. This was from a 4-wheeling accident in the Californian desert back in '08. 

Long story short, after about 2 years of various rehab programs (ending in the style we now use at Live to Play), I was able to do all the fun things the docs told me I wouldn't be able to do anymore, like run a few half marathons (I was never a runner before), compete in taekwondo again, start up a new martial art (brazilian jiu jitsu) and compete in a few of those tournaments, help my parents move, and lift heavy weights. I had exceeded the best-case scenario that was presented to me. 

The thing is....I still get back pain. I get it more often when I have bad posture and don't do my workouts, but that's a good thing. It reminds me that I have to keep doing my homework. I have to keep lifting and sit up straight so my muscles are strong enough to compensate for the fact that I have a spine that makes me look like a stegosaurus when I bend over. It reminds me when I've eaten too much because the pressure on my spine from my food baby causes me to be uncomfortable in every position possible. It tells me when I have too much fat and too little muscle when I gain weight because the muscle I do have isn't strong enough to support the weight above my injury. I have to do this for the rest of my life if I want to function like a normal human being, and especially if I want to do anything fun. I know this for a fact. But it's either that, or have weak supporting muscles, highly increasing my chances of paralysis (docs thought I'd for sure end up with permanent nerve damage and partial paralysis, based on my initial x-rays). 

The last 2 years, I admit I've been very on and off about my homework. I've kind of done it when it's been convenient and when I haven't been tired (read: lazy). I spent the last 2 years starting and building my business from scratch, and also used it as an excuse to be lazy. Because of that, my attendance in the fun things in life (largely hiking, jiu jitsu, and taekwondo) have been extremely spotty. If I don't do my homework consistently for at least 2-3 weeks straight, my back lets me know it after one session of something fun by making me extremely uncomfortable for 2-3 weeks. It also doesn't help when there are overzealous training partners that don't know how delicate your situation can be. A catch-22 of my rehab is that it makes me strong overall. Not just arm-wrestle strong, but nuts 'n bolts strong. That's what it's designed to do. But then you get known as "the girl that's stronger than boys" at the gym, and all the guys think they can spar hard with you because, well, strength. They don't realize that my weakest link is pretty damn weak when they try to fold me in half or twist me like they're trying to wring out a wet towel. That's when I learn who I can and can't train with during my first few weeks of getting back on the mat. 

I've learned that getting back into the swing of fun things will take a slower start than it used to. I've learned how to have a lot more patience and willpower to stop myself from doing too much. I've learned that ego in these kinds of situations does nothing but sideline me for another stint of time. I've learned that competing isn't everything. I've learned that sports and competition aren't what make me, but just things I enjoy doing doing, so I should treat them that way, instead of an identity. I am not a professional competitor, but I like to compete. It's ok if I miss a competition or athletic event here or there, because I didn't do my homework. It's not the end of the world. There will always be another one, but I only have one body. I choose a healthy, functional, pain-free body over an overzealous competitive spirit.