When semi-retiree Mike O'Connor isn't writing software he's cycling, hiking, backpacking, swimming ... anything outside. The 65-year-old Mason, Ohio, resident says he's been an outdoors guy since he was a kid growing up in Norwood.
He credits a trip to the Red River Gorge in the 1970s for getting him hooked on hiking and leading him to section-hike the 2200-mile Appalachian Trail. He did it over 12 years—mostly by himself—finishing in 2013 when he was 58 years old.
"When you're looking over a beautiful mountain range, you can see forever. The quiet beauty and serenity are almost a religious experience," says Mike.
It inspired him to set his next goal: hiking the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail when he retired. He planned to thru-hike the trail which meant taking six months to cover it from Mexico to Canada. Over the next few years, he kept up his active lifestyle with his eye on the prize.
But along the way, he began dealing with back problems—ruptured (also called herniated or bulging) discs. Spines contain shock-absorbing discs made up of a jelly-like center with a hard outer covering. A sudden injury or wear and tear over time can push the center substance out through a tear in the covering and push on a nerve, causing back, leg or foot pain, tingling, numbness or weakness.
Like most people with disc problems, Mike's treatment didn't require surgery and he could keep up his hiking habit.
Until a moment that changed everything.
A dream-shattering back injury
In August 2017, Mike was working under his deck at home. "I moved wrong and blew out a disc. This one was a showstopper." He could barely walk and constantly fought pain and numbness from his right hip to his ankle.
He saw John Roberts, MD, a spine surgeon with The Christ Hospital Physicians, who had treated his previous back problems. A corticosteroid epidural injection gave Mike relief before. This time he wasn't so lucky. After three months of continued pain, surgery to remove the damaged disc was his best shot for relief and getting back to training. He had a trail to hike. A long one.
Mike had outpatient surgery in October 2017. After a month of recovering from surgery, he started rehabilitation: physical therapy three times a week then transitioning to exercises at home and walking at least three miles every day.
"Dr. Roberts was honest with me," says Mike. "He told me I had to get my core back in shape if I wanted to hike and it would be up to me to do the hard work."
The hike was the motivator that kept him putting in the hard work. A year after his surgery, Mike applied for his permit to hit the trail. (All hikers must have a permit to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. The U.S. Forest Service limits the number of permits per day to help spread people out through the season and reduce the impact on the trail.)
Mike was approved and issued a permit; he would set out on April 10, 2019. But was his back ready for six months and 2650 miles of wilderness hiking and living?
That January, Mike strapped on his pack—the first time since his injury and 15 months after surgery. "I hiked 10 miles on the bike trail," says Mike. "I knew then I could do it. It was a great feeling."
Putting his training and his back to the test
Mike set out, taking about a month to get his "trail legs," which then powered him through an average of 15-20 miles per day. "It had been six years since my last long hike, so being older made it harder," says Mike. "But I was in better shape."
But in June, Mother Nature got in his way. Twenty feet of snow buried the mountains, making it too dangerous to continue. Mike was forced to go home until August when the snow melted. But his return to the trail was short-lived. A knee injury sent him home, but he found out torn tendons in both ankles will sideline him the entire 2020 hiking season.
But Mike's seen how hard work pays off—his back is stronger than ever—and he fully intends to finish the 1350 miles waiting for him. After that, he plans to take on the parts of Continental Divide Trail in Colorado.
"Had it not been for Dr. Roberts and the people at Christ who fixed my back, I never would have made it this far," says Mike.
Is back pain keeping you from doing what you love? The spine specialists with The Christ Hospital Physicians can help you get on with life, with less pain. Find the physician that's right for you by calling 513-792-7445
or schedule an appointment online.