THIS ONE TIME AT CROSSFIT, I FELL AND BROKE MY NECK
IMAGE: Bonnie Sein after her injury
By Bonnie Sein
This my friends, is a true story. I never thought I’d be the type of person to end up in the emergency room due to a gym related incident. I’d never broken a bone before and for the most part considered myself quite capable of looking after my body and remaining injury and death free.
I found CrossFit in July of 2011, it was now February the next year and I was eating paleo, making snatch jokes and posting pictures on facebook of my torn bloody hands for all to see. It had officially taken over my life. I had set my sights on being able to do pull ups as my relationship with the resistance band had become uneasy due to the unpredictability of the band and the inevitable violent ordeal of having it fly up and whip my face on an almost daily basis.
We had finished class and I hopped up on the bar to attempt to kip. I was doing it. It was my shining moment on the once dreaded pull up bar. Gloriously swinging myself chin over bar, feeling weightless and slightly unstoppable… and then I slipped. I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but I was pushing myself away from the bar (a little too aggressively apparently) and I just lost my grip. You know that feeling when you know something bad is about to happen but you can’t do anything to stop it? That was how I felt when I was flinging myself from the 8 foot high bar into the air. Soaring majestically, the idea of being able to land on my feet was long gone considering I was practically horizontal. All I could do was let out a girlie high-pitched squeal and hope for the best.
It didn’t really hurt that much. I had winded myself and thought that was about it. I didn’t realise what I’d really done until the next day when I went to get x-rays after two doctors had told me that I probably hadn’t done anything but should get checked ‘just to be safe’.
Well, I had two compression fractures. One was in my C7 and the other in my T3. They found the first fracture at my local hospital, where I ended up texting my parents and boyfriend at the time saying, “Hey, don’t freak out but I’ve broken my neck and I’m being transferred by an ambulance to the Alfred hospital. See you in the emergency room.”
The second fracture was found at the Alfred, where I had to undergo extensive x-rays, a CAT scan and an MRI scan to see how bad the damage was. As soon as I arrived to the emergency room the doctor told me that I’d have to wear a neck brace for 3 months.
IMAGE: Bonnie Sein in CrossFit mode
I spent the night in the hospital wearing a temporary neck brace while it was decided what kind of brace I’d have to wear for the next three months. It all depended on my MRI scan. If I had any ligament or nerve damage, I’d be put in the Halo neck brace.
Yes, it looks the way it sounds. A metal ring bolted around the top of your head, which is connected with prongs to your shoulders. Oh dear God.
After a very long night lying in a hospital bed, not being able to move, being referred to as a “log” when I needed to be rolled, and having to pee in a bedpan (twice), I felt myself slightly regretting the decision to go to the gym the night before.
My MRI scan came back unexpectedly perfect however. The doctors were shocked. To come away with only clean fractures meant there was no need for surgery, and no need for the Halo neck brace. Cue ridiculously huge sigh of relief. I was fitted out with a Miami JTO, which was less intrusive than the Halo and way better than the ghetto temporary neck brace I was rocking in the emergency room. It worked in two parts. One part was fitted around my neck, and the other part was fitted around my chest. I was fairly optimistic up to this point. I was making jokes and smiling for most of it, because at the end of the day you can’t change what has happened and dwelling on it only makes things worse.
However, once they put the neck brace on me and left me in my room to get used to it, it sunk in. Big time. 3 months of wearing this. I was devastated.
IMAGE: Bonnie in Hospital
The idea that I’d have to wear a neck brace 24/7, not be able to do any physical activity and on top of that have to be seen in public wearing a neck brace. Yeah, that kinda sucked. So I did what everyone does in situations of frustration and confusion...I googled it.
‘How to live with a neck brace on’. I found one site with a lady giving advice like: “Cut your hair short, or even give it the GI Jane buzz-cut look”, “say goodbye to makeup” and “wear… slip on shoes, and pull-on pants.”
Safe to say I was not impressed. I then proceeded to binge eat very non-paleo foods and look longingly at my ab mat, skipping rope and kettle bell, which had strategically been pushed into the corner of the living room. It didn’t take me long to get used to the neck brace. I welcomed the fact that I was an uncanny resemblance to a storm trooper. If someone told me, “Hey look at that!” I would have to completely rotate my entire body towards whatever it was that they wanted me to look at. Let’s just say stealth was not my strong suit.
My biggest battles were mostly mental, rather than physical to be honest. It took me two weeks to muster up the courage to go out in public by myself. The idea of being embarrassed to be seen in public isn’t the best feeling. I remember it so clearly because it was like I was psyching myself up before a WOD. I put my headphones on, turned my music up really loud, just sucked it up and did it. I got used to being stared at. It happened so often and so frequently that it became something I didn’t even notice after a while. The constant conversations I had to have with strangers about how it happened was the worst thing. Especially because I’ve always spoken so highly of CrossFit, and so I felt like I was giving it a bad rap trying to tell people how awesome it was with this big neck brace on. I was the epitome of awkward.
But sometimes you’ve just got to embrace the crap and make it work. Since I couldn’t do CrossFit, I did pilates instead. I had a weak core, my glutes weren’t firing properly and my quads needed a lot of work. Although pilates can be boring as anything, the gains I made in my training helped exponentially when I got back into CrossFit.
I also spent a lot of my time writing. I started up my blog right after the accident to avoid going crazy and to also help anyone else dealing with similar injuries. Writing became my saviour. Even if I had the worst day ever, I could sit down, write about it, let it go, and move on.
I had a lot of time to perfect my paleo recipes too. I would bake batches and batches of different paleo cookies, brownies, cakes and muffins. I even tried a bacon pudding (actually wasn’t that bad). I was like a domestic goddess. A super awkward looking, couldn’t really do anything but cook and eat, domestic goddess.
IMAGE: Cooking batches of food
After three months of wearing the neck brace, sleeping in it, showering in it, working in it, sweating in it (yeah, not the best sensation), the time had come to get it taken off. I had my final x-rays to check how my bones had healed and was told that I’d need to keep it on for another month.
I felt like I was back to square one. The last three months seemed like the longest of my life, and all of a sudden it was another month of wearing the neck brace. The support from my family and friends was amazing. Although I felt like all I wanted to do were shots of tequila after my not so awesome news (a skill that I acquired during my time of wearing the brace), in reality, it was just one more month.
The days went by quickly and I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. The day I got my neck brace off was pretty goddamn sweet. I had imagined in my mind that I’d have terrible muscle atrophy and somehow resemble a noodle once I was no longer in the brace. Of course that was not the case, I was free to move around, turn my head from left to right with ease, and that was it. No rehab. No tips from the doctors. Just thanks and bye.
There is so much more room for activities when you’re not wearing a neck brace. It’s a fact. A badass fact.
Everything was put into perspective for me when the neck brace was off. Being able to shower on a daily basis, turn my head from side to side, wear whatever clothes I wanted, sleep properly, lie on my stomach, not get stared at in public. It was endless.
The one thing that didn’t come so easy was getting back into training. I had to talk to four different specialists on the subject of my rehabilitation. I was told I could do everything apart from overhead movements, that I should only do running and rowing and that I shouldn’t do anything at all. It was frustrating because I wanted an expert opinion but everyone seemed to think differently about my injury, which made me not want to listen to anyone at all.
I ended up meeting with a physio who specialised in spinal injuries and reassured me that the best thing to do would be easing into my training and to be sensible. Seemed legit. So I went back into the gym and busted out some back squats and power cleans in celebration. It felt awesome.
Don’t get me wrong, it was a constant battle in my head every single time I was in the gym. I had lost so much strength, it was like starting from the beginning again. I had to keep reminding myself over and over that I wasn’t what I was before. It took me months to finally feel comfortable on the pull up bar. I would want to burst into tears in anxiety and frustration.
To have something as insignificant as a pull up bar make you feel breathless with fear, it was a sensation that I had to overcome every day. Slowly but surely, I became more comfortable and more familiar with being on the bar. I wasn’t going to let a piece of metal dictate what I could and couldn’t do in the gym.
Then, on the one-year anniversary of the incident, I got out my first few kipping pull ups. It was one of my greatest moments of all time. It’s so easy for us to take for granted what we have.
I could’ve been paralysed. I could’ve had chronic neck pain for the rest of my life. I attribute the majority of my painless and easy recovery to the fact that CrossFit had made me strong. Not just physically, but mentally as well. I have never pushed myself so much, felt so vulnerable, so weak, so strong, so exhausted and so full of life, than I have since finding CrossFit.
Even if it was CrossFit that got me into that mess, it was CrossFit that got me out of it as well. Life is short and our time is limited. Sometimes it just takes a neck brace to make us realise how sweet things really are.
Bonnie Sein is a 23 year-old blogger, fitness lover, podcast listener and computer gamer. Follow her on Instagram @bonniesein or check out her blog (bonniesein.com) to see what else she gets up to aside from breaking her neck.