The back-breaking road to recovery

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Marshall Brace
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing Commanders Action Group
As someone who has been physically fit his entire life, I never thought I would fall into the category of somebody who had to "overcome a fitness challenge."

However, a few months after completing my first marathon, all that changed while I was on vacation in Beijing, China, in June 2008.

I was enjoying the day on the Great Wall of China with my wife, Megan, when I leaned on the wall to pose for a picture. The unkempt wall crumbled, and I fell 30 feet into the Chinese jungle.

A few hours later in a Chinese emergency room, we learned that I had fractured two vertebrae, compressed a third to half its original size and had a small puncture in my left lung. The next morning I underwent emergency spinal surgery and had two rods and four screws installed into my spine to stabilize the compressed vertebrae and prevent paralysis.

Ten days later, I was released from the hospital in China and returned to my duty station, at Kadena, Japan, to start my recovery.

To say my recovery was rough would be an understatement. I had to relearn how to walk, sit up, climb stairs and rely on my pregnant wife to push me around in a wheelchair. I attended physical therapy and did my daily exercises religiously.

Four months later, after confirming that my bones were no longer broken, I was allowed to start a 30-minute routine of walk/running. Although it was great to be jogging again, even if it was only for a few minutes, I couldn't wait to feel strong enough to go for a real run. I had set my mind on running another marathon and was anxious to train again.

In May 2009, almost one year after breaking my back, I begged medical to remove my profile so I could complete my annual physical training test. The clinic was surprised by my unusual request, but they complied. It was important to me to get off of a profile in less than a year so I wouldn't be eligible for a medical evaluation board. Work had been very supportive as I am a crew chief; they had placed me in a workcenter that was conducive with my recovery. The Air Force is important to me and its core values are something I strive to live by. Thus, I felt it was my duty to prove that I was still 'fit to fight.'

I successfully passed my PT test. I maxed out the waist circumference and pushups, though I wasn't able to do sit-ups. I completed the run in less than 12 minutes. My wife and baby daughter surprised me with a "Superman" cake to celebrate my success on my "Great Fall Anniversary."

Although my doctors were beyond excited with my progress, I was still in a lot of pain due to the hardware I received in China. I knew that while the screws and rods were in my spine, I could never get back to being the athlete I was before my injury. Although I was not enthusiastic to start the recovery process all over again, I found an orthopedic surgeon who would remove the hardware and had my second spinal surgery performed in October 2009.

With the hardware removed, I finally began to feel like myself again. I set my sights on completing another marathon and set obtainable, short-term goals to help mark my progress along the way.

In April 2010, I ran my first 5K since breaking my back. Then in June, two years after the initial injury, I passed all components, including sit-ups and scored an excellent on my PT test. I finished strong at the USAF Half Marathon in September, with a time of 1 hour 45 minutes and felt like I was ready to take on a full marathon.

In October 2010, one year after my second back surgery, I crossed the finish line of the Wichita Marathon in 3:50. It was a personal best -- 30 minutes faster than my first.

Success doesn't always come easy. I had setbacks and frustrations with my progress and pain, but then I would remember how lucky I was to be alive and walking. The doctors told me that most people who fall 30 feet either die instantly or are permanently paralyzed. They said I owed my survival to my healthy physical condition because my strong back muscles held my broken bones in place after my fall.

It is my belief you can achieve anything you set your mind to. Stay positive and remember, you make time for the things that are important to you. If you make fitness a priority, set achievable goals and stay dedicated to yourself -- nothing is unobtainable.