Back On The Hill Overcoming Injury Briono Kulkea

Getting Back on the Slope

Overcoming Injury: Skiing = Life.

Blame my Celtic heritage, but I think of spring skiing in the same way I look at a traditional “Irish Wake.” It’s a time of mourning, when the calendar’s inexorable march brings my favorite season to a close. Conversely, it’s a great opportunity to celebrate everything that we skiers are grateful for.

Thanks to the unpredictable nature of New England weather, even a true spring outing can have a genuine winter feel. Last April, my wife and I (together with our daughter Brynne) met up with some friends at Sunday River in Maine. The plan was to enjoy some nice weather and some nice, easy turns, my first since having spine surgery the previous November. Mother Nature had other ideas.

The snow flurries started in earnest during our drive from Boston’s North Shore, and by the time we got to the Jordan Hotel, it was dumping. By the next morning, we had at least eight inches of sugary powder, and I remember saying to Lauri: “Welcome to spring in New England.” We had mid-winter conditions, which derailed any plans I had for skiing.

So while Lauri and Brynne hit the hill, I sat in the condo and moped. I don’t like to admit it, but I was feeling sorry for myself. I wasn’t ready for heavy snow. My spine injury had robbed my legs of much of their strength and coordination, and while I was getting better, the improvements had been glacial. I wondered if my ski days were numbered. I felt an undeniable sense of loss. My thoughts wandered to my younger brother Mike.

Years ago, Mike was living just outside Snowmass, Colorado, and his burly pick-up truck had a fun bumper sticker: “Skiing = Life.” I’m sure he had many like-minded local folks nodding in agreement. But this past year, I’ve come to see the saying in an entirely new light.

Thirteen months prior to my Sunday River outing, in the late winter of 2016, my arthritic left hip was failing fast, the inescapable result of a very active life, including more than 40 years on the slopes and hockey rinks (one of the reasons my wife says “Over-50 hockey” is an oxymoron). My older brother Sean, an orthopedic surgeon and former doctor for the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team, says our joints were never meant to last forever. Eventually, we have to pay up for all that wear and tear.

That winter, I got in at least a dozen days of skiing, including a trip to some of the epic slopes of Utah – Park City, Solitude, Brighton, Snowbird, and Alta. It was my “last hurrah,” according to Lauri, before having that broken-down left hip replaced in late March. The idea was to give myself enough time to recover and prepare for summer hockey camps, and definitely be all the way back for ski season the following winter.

The hip replacement, performed by Dr. Daniel Ward at New England Baptist Hospital in Boston, went off without a hitch. I was walking the afternoon following surgery, and went home the next day. I was trekking around the block within days, and on my bike within weeks. I was practically giddy.

That summer, though, things went sideways. My lower back started tightening up, which my hip surgeon attributed to my pelvis “settling.” Then I started losing feeling in my feet. Which, if you’re on the ice, wearing a pair of hockey skates, can be terrifying.

I immediately went to my physical therapist, Val MacDonald, who was indispensable in my rehab from hip replacement. She recommended a back specialist. That doctor was so concerned that she instantly ordered an MRI. The next day, I was in a neurosurgeon’s office, listening to a simple, sobering diagnosis. I had spinal stenosis – bony, arthritic growth – and a pair of herniated discs along my lower spine. Even I, as a layman, could see the evidence on the MRIs. The nice, spacious spinal column of my upper back disappeared as the films moved to my lower spine. And that crowded column was pressing on my spinal cord and the nerves that branch off from it, robbing me of feeling in my feet.

“You can keep looking at the tea leaves,” the neurosurgeon cautioned me, “but this will probably require surgery.”

It was a punch to the gut. Weary of hospitals, I asked several other surgeons what my options were. I tried a course of prednisone, a couple of cortisone injections, and even several chiropractic sessions. The goal was to knock down the inflammation, hoping that would relieve pressure on my spinal nerves. But even my chiropractor, a cycling friend, confided: “I might be able to help if this is an alignment issue. But if it’s stenosis, only surgery can remove that.”

The adjustments and injections provide some relief, but only briefly. By October, I wasn’t worried about ski season. I was far more concerned about simply being outside, dealing with ice and snow. I had to make a decision. During one of several consultations, a spine specialist at the New England Baptist told me, point blank:

“I can’t guarantee that you’ll get better with surgery. But I can guarantee that you won’t get better without it.”

After the surgeon left, I lost it. I looked at Lauri, and just started sobbing. All my life, I identified most closely with my physical persona. I wasn’t a great athlete, but I was decent. And many of my most memorable moments came when I was active, exploring my physical capabilities. In fact, my ability to move, to engage the elements, was perhaps the single biggest reason why I loved winter. Now all that was potentially being taken away.

“It’s OK,” said Lauri, putting her arms around me. “We’ll get through this.”

In early November, Dr. Russell Brummett of Concord Orthopaedics in New Hampshire opened up my back, performing a high-tech Roto-Rooter of my lower spine known as a laminectomy. He removed the arthritic growth that had invaded three vertebrae. The pain reprieve, thankfully, was almost immediate. But the effects of the nerve damage persisted.

“Recovery can take anywhere from six to 18 months,” Brummett told me. “It’s not like a broken bone. Nerves can be finicky little buggers. They’ll decide when they’re going to get better. You’ll have to be patient.”

The following spring, when Brynne, Lauri, and I headed to Maine for my first post-op turns, I was hopelessly optimistic. But the reality was that I wasn’t ready. Not even close. My left side was still very weak. After I passed on the first day, allowing the grooming crews to smooth out the trails, I went out on Sunday. But even the short slide from condo to chairlift felt shaky. I lasted two runs, went back inside, exhausted, and promptly fell asleep for two hours.

I woke up before Brynne and Lauri got back, and spent the next hour wondering if I had skied my last run. It was something I’d think about often over the next eight months.

This past December, Lauri and I visited Okemo in Vermont, one of my favorite Northeast resorts. After my abbreviated session at Sunday River, I was a bundle of nerves, but still hopeful. I’d done a fair amount of cycling in the preceding months, and felt my strength was good. But I had no idea what my balance and, more importantly, my proprioception would be. I was still unsteady, but I felt better. Considerably better.

No, I wasn’t completely comfortable. My left leg, and left foot, still weren’t cooperating completely with the rest of my body. I took one spill when I crossed my tips, because my left ski was lagging behind. But I felt like I was heading in the right direction. Riding on the chairlift with Lauri, I couldn’t contain myself.

“I’m just so damned happy to be out here with you,” I told my wife.

Then, this past January, Lauri and I drove north for a few days with Brynne and our eldest, Maddi, in New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Valley, skiing at Mount Cranmore and Attitash/Bear Peak. Our first day out was bitter cold, but the girls were game. This is one of the reasons I love skiing. It challenges you, and in facing those challenges, you often find out what you’re made of. Just before we headed out into the bright, beautiful day, I huddled with my wife and two daughters, pulling them close.

“I love you guys,” I told the three most important people in my life.

We had a great day. I had to take a few extra breaks, as my endurance was still no match for my girls. But I was out on the hill, feeling my boards carving turns underneath me and the cold, crisp mountain air filling my lungs. I couldn’t stop smiling. And I thought again of my brother Mike.

His bumper sticker was right on the money. Skiing = Life. In that moment, at the Mount Cranmore lodge, hugging my girls, I could not have felt more content, and I could not have felt more alive. I was back skiing. Which meant I was back, period. And I can’t wait for the spring season. The wake will have to wait.

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Postscript: Big congrats to Kulkea-sponsored athlete Nick Goepper, who snagged silver in the men’s slopestyle competition at the recently concluded Winter Olympic Games in South Korea. It’s impossible not to root for this young man, and native of Lawrenceburg, Indiana now living in Park City, Utah. After one of his preliminary runs, Goepper flashed a dazzling smile to the camera and quipped, “Perfect North forever,” a wonderful shout-out to the small hill near the Ohio state line where he first learned to ski. Perfect, indeed.

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