The time of my life

© Tony Butt 2015 - Please be decent enough to contact me before plagiarizing my stuff

Man sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. Then he is so anxious about the future that he doesn't enjoy the present: the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived. - Dalai Lama

A couple of traumatic events in my teens and early twenties helped to shape my philosophy on life. First was the sudden death of my father. An unhealthy lifestyle of stress, smoking and lack of exercise finished him off at 57. Ironically, he had spent the previous few decades working hard towards his retirement while, at the same time, not having time to keep fit and healthy. Then, I was told I had an incurable, chronic disease.  I would probably end up seriously debilitated by the time I reached middle-age, although the long-term symptoms could be slowed if I kept myself fit and healthy. It turned out that it was a mistake and I didn’t have that disease after all, but the original diagnosis had a useful psychological effect on me at the time.

Those events made it blindingly obvious that you should avoid getting stuck into a lifestyle where you are forfeiting your health for material gains. In the end you will reach a point where the comfort brought to you by those material gains fails to compensate for the misery brought to you by your lack of health. In extreme cases, like that of my father, if you sacrifice the present for some hypothetical future gain, you can end up sacrificing your entire future and that of your loved ones.

Since then I’ve pretty much stuck to that plan – keeping healthy, living for the moment and avoiding fears about money and status. I’ve been able to think of myself as having a useful resilience to the pressures of the rat-race, a kind of Golden Armour. But being surrounded by the rat-race while, at the same time, not being part of it can cause that Golden Armour to wear thin. And for a few brief moments the thought has crossed my mind whether I ought to get a ‘proper job’ and become a ‘serious adult’. A couple of years ago, however, a bit of thinking triggered off by another traumatic event reassured me that there was nothing wrong continuing to live the way I was living.

If you have some sort of activity that you enjoy doing so much that it takes up the majority of your time and energy, you could say that your life has a purpose, a meaning. If you surf, climb or do some other ‘close-to-Nature’ activity, you’ll probably know what I’m talking about. It keeps us focused and adds a special meaning to our lives.

In 2012, after surfing for around 80 per cent of my entire life – I was told I had to give up surfing due to a serious neck injury.  For a while I felt like I had been dropped into a void, where that special meaning in my life was just about to be taken away.

In the following paragraphs I’ll try to describe what I went through. First, I’ll describe the injury itself, the psychological trauma and the lead-up to some surgery I had to have; then a few thoughts I had around the time of the operation, and finally how I managed to make an almost-total recovery and have been back surfing big waves since 2013.


How it happened

Around December 2000, I had a nasty wipeout where I skimmed upside-down on my back down the face of a large wave without penetrating the water surface, and then got sucked over the falls.

You can see the wipeout here

I came up feeling a severe pain in my neck, between my shoulder blades and down one arm, but I just ignored it and kept surfing. A couple of days later the pain got so bad that I had to stay out of the water for over a month. But in the end I got over it, and forgot about it.

A few times since then I had the odd bout of neck pain, but it always got better after a few days.  However, in January 2012 I had a particularly bad episode. Again, I had a severe pain between my shoulder blades and down my right arm. I lost all the strength in that arm and, for a while, couldn’t operate my fingers.  At first I tried to ignore the pain. But after a couple of days it became so bad that my wife drove me to the hospital at 04:00 one morning. They gave me an X-ray, which showed nothing, gave me some drugs and told me to go home.

At this stage I didn’t have a clue about spinal injuries. I thought it was probably just a severe muscular spasm, so I went to see my local physical therapist. He treated me twice a week with some light manipulations and massages, and gave me some exercises to do at home. 

After two months of this, things improved. I was back in the water surfing small waves. But I still had neck pain and had not recovered much of the strength in my right arm. So I had an MRI scan at a private clinic. The result was a severely ruptured spinal disc which was pinching the nerves that control my arms, and the disc was sticking out into my spinal cord. The physical therapist told me I should give up surfing. I decided he was an idiot.

But it was really bugging me. What if he was right? The neck pain itself paled into insignificance compared with the devastating psychological blow I had just been given. So, as soon as possible I consulted as many neurosurgeons and orthopaedic surgeons as I could.  I tried to choose surgeons who had dealt with surfers, boxers or rugby players with similar injuries.  They all told me that there was no reason I couldn’t go back to surfing big waves. But first I would have to have an operation.

It would be a fairly straightforward Anterior Cervical Discectomy and Fusion. This means they basically cut a hole in the front of your throat, reach in and take out the old disc; then just let the two vertebrae grow back together. You end up with a solid, fused bone instead of a disc.

In the beginning I really struggled to find anything useful in the way of information, so I wrote down my own experiences and published them on a blog to help other people who might have had similar injuries.  It didn’t necessarily have to be a neck injury: it could be another type of spinal injury or perhaps a shoulder, knee or something more bizarre.

Here are a few key points that I learned:

§  Get as much info as possible, as quickly as possible. If it is neck or lower back pain get an MRI scan. I paid 250 euros, which sounds a lot, but in hindsight I would have been happy to pay ten times that. With the right information early on you can make a decision as quickly as possible without waiting for things to deteriorate.

§  Try to understand as quickly as possible the mechanics of it. With traumatic injuries involving bones, tendons, ligaments, muscles and even nerves, it can be pretty simple, like a car engine. Once you start to understand how it works, you will start to understand what needs to be done to fix it.

§  If you suspect you are going to need an operation, find a surgeon who has operated on surfers, rugby players or similar people who have successfully gone back to what they were doing before. Stay clear of anybody who tells you that ‘quality of life’ is simply being pain-free.  If anybody in the medical profession asks you what you do for a living (they think it’s more of a priority if your job is at risk), tell them you are a pro surfer.

§  Try not to de-value yourself. The debilitating nature of the injury and the negative attitude of some people might take away your self-confidence. Others will probably be unable to see things from your point of view. Try to find case-studies similar to yours that have worked out well, and don’t listen to anybody with anything negative to say.

§  Once you get into your rehabilitation program, follow it strictly and don’t be impatient. Maybe choose a simple yardstick (e.g. I can bend my arm to such-and-such a point without it hurting) to measure your progress at regular intervals, and even write it down if it helps. In this way you can see more clearly that you are actually improving.


In the hospital

In August 2012 I had my operation.  While I was in the hospital I had a chance to do a bit more thinking about my situation.  I looked around me and tried to guess what was wrong with some of the other patients in there. At first I felt a bit guilty, because my problem seemed quite trivial compared with some of the other poor souls in there. After all, I was only having an operation because I wanted to carry on surfing big waves, not because I couldn’t breathe or my heart was about to stop pumping.

But then I began to think again. Many of the patients were in that hospital for things such as cancer, heart disease, liver or lung disease – problems directly related with the stress and poor health associated with a modern materialistic lifestyle.  Spinal injuries caused by years of bad posture or heavy lifting, or even by road-traffic accidents can also be attributed to living in the rat-race.  In my case, I was in there because I had had an accident doing an activity that not only keeps our bodies working properly; it also fulfils some deep, genetically-programmed need to interact with Nature.  It keeps us fit, keeps us happy and, ironically, is precisely what we need if we are to avoid stress and poor-health related illnesses.

I took advantage of the rare opportunity of being surrounded by medical expertise and asked a few questions. I didn’t realize but most males of my age group (early 50s) are at the stage where the shit is just about to hit the fan. Most of them have crafted a nice comfortable lifestyle with plenty of money and possessions, but are looking at imminent serious problems with cholesterol, blood-pressure, blood sugar and other similar things. Luckily I didn’t have to worry about that: my vital statistics were measured by several different people, all of whom told me I was ‘as fit as someone half my age’. I told them, No, I am the correct fitness for my age, but all the other people in here are as unfit as someone twice their age.

Most people who have spent a few decades doing something that brings them close to Nature or something that perhaps mimics part of our ancient lifestyles as hunter-gatherers, are always bright-eyed, full of energy and simply more ‘alive’ than other people. Shouldn’t we all aspire to being like that, rather than being half dead with a lot of money?


Back on the Program

The first two weeks after the operation I was told to take it easy, particularly since I still had about 20 stitches in the front of my neck. I was encouraged not to wear a neck brace, since this would impede the gradual re-strengthening of the small muscular groups inside my neck and shoulders. So I went for a few walks and caught up with some work.

After the stitches were out I was able to start on my rehabilitation. I was given a week-by-week program, starting with some light swimming, moving up to paddling my board in flat water, to surfing small waves after about six weeks. All combined with proper rest and a progressively increasing routine of stretching and core-strength exercises. I was told that, after three months, the vertebrae would be properly fused together and there would be no longer any danger of doing any real damage. From three to six months and beyond, the main emphasis would be on getting the strength back in the muscle groups and ‘teaching’ the damaged nerves to respond properly to my brain impulses.

The rehabilitation went well, but I needed to take it at the right speed. I found that if I got impatient and pushed things too hard, it would put my progress back. It was a kind of automatic limitation. Slowly and almost imperceptibly, the pain went away and my paddling strength returned.

After about six months I was surfing small waves on a regular basis, with a few sessions in medium to larger surf.  I tried to surf every other day, or at least avoided more than about four straight days of surf or non-surf. This meant perhaps missing a day of good surf in order to rest, or surfing in poor conditions to avoid too many days out of the water.

I would set specific goals and stick to them; for example the first biggish day I just paddled to the line-up, caught one wave and paddled back again.  Then each subsequent session in bigger surf I would try to increment my wave-count by one.

On the small days I would either set a time limit, such as an hour and a half, or a wave-count limit such as ten waves without falling off.  After a while I started surfing beachbreak surf with no leash, and upped my time limit to three hours. 

My schedule of surfing, resting and stretching became more systematic and disciplined than it had ever been and, in fact, the simple routine of it all started to become really enjoyable.  Since my operation I started combining my surfing with a proper stretching and core-strength routine that I should have started over 20 years before.

In June 2013 I returned to winter in Cape Town, South Africa, after missing a season the previous year due to my neck operation. I have been ‘migrating’ to the Cape Peninsula for many years – a bit like the birds, that migrate from summer to summer, but in reverse.  Cape Town has a number of high-quality big-wave spots including the legendary Outer Kom, Crayfish Factory, Sunset Reef and, of course, Dungeons.

So what did it feel like surfing those waves after recovering from a neck injury which was supposed to have stopped me surfing forever?  Well, not much different really.  It wasn’t a sudden jump from nothing to large surf – I worked up to it in small, manageable increments over the previous ten months. You could say that the ten months leading up to those sessions were a bit like my whole surfing life re-run in a fraction of the time.  Naturally, there is always going to be a distinct jump; a threshold in size where a whole different series of factors comes into play: the scale of the line-up is much bigger and you need a different strategy just to catch a wave and not get caught inside.  This took me a while to get used to after not surfing big waves for almost two years.  But that is simply a consequence of the big-wave lay-off; not a consequence of the injury itself.

At the time of writing, November 2015, I’m still enjoying a near-perfect recovery and am still surfing big waves. I say near-perfect, not perfect, because I’m more careful than I used to be, and I try not to forget that I’ve had a neck operation. For example, instead of being out there for six solid hours, I’m happy with three. I’m more prudent with my choice of waves: I usually don’t take off unless I’m pretty sure I’m going to make it. Instead of blindly pushing the limits to more and more radical circumstances, I’ve started to revisit slightly less-drastic situations and tackle them with more control.  But most importantly, I’m still having the time of my life.