Amy Litman is a High Fitness Instructor and Pilates and Bounce (Trampoline) Instructor at The Beyond Studios. She lives in Clovis, Ca with her husband and two sons. Amy took control of her spinal health in 2011 and remains an active part of the Central Valley fitness community.
Spinal Surgery Patient to Fitness Instructor
by Amy Litman
“Ma’am, I’m not supposed to tell you this, but you need to call your doctor right away.”
Those were the words from the MRI technician after they looked at the images of my lumbar spine. My L4 and L5 were completely obliterated. Based on my MRI results, I should have had urinary incontinence and been close to losing my ability to walk.
My friends would say I was crooked like a question mark because I couldn’t stand up straight
I went from gym rat, bootcamp obsessed, outdoor runner to a scheduled spinal fusion in the blink of an eye.
I was in a small car accident but my spine had degeneration so it couldn’t handle the impact and it crushed the discs in the low part of my back.
My friends would say I was crooked like a question mark because I couldn’t stand up straight. From the back I looked like a candy cane. Two local neurosurgeons suggested I have immediate spinal fusion (a process where they fuse the vertebrae together preventing any movement). I was told that every year following the fusion, there would be a 2% increase of needing a subsequent fusion in another area of my spine.
I was 28 years old. Those odds were not looking good. A gut feeling told me to get a 3rd opinion so I spontaneously cancelled my surgery and emailed the head of the spinal department at UCSF.
I wrote my story. I was a young, fit woman who was about to undergo spinal fusion. He immediately emailed me back and fit me in on Halloween. He had plans of an early day to take his kids trick or treating, but added me as his last patient of the evening.
My husband David and I drove to San Francisco to meet the head neurosurgeon, Dr. Christopher Ames. He had no ego or motives, he was there to help a girl struggling with the idea of losing her ability to do all of the activities she loved.
I vividly remember him saying, “If you were my wife, there’s no way I’d let you get a fusion.”
Ahhhh yes! I knew my gut was right. He suggested I have a laminectomy and discectomy, a less invasive surgery, from one of the doctors in Fresno. He explained, the majority of patients who have fusions are older, or sedentary and overweight; although there are always exceptions.
I felt relief knowing this was the right decision for me, even though it still meant a long road of recovery and maybe giving up a few of my hardcore pavement runs.
8 weeks post surgery, I was looking good. I missed the feeling of pushing myself in a great workout, but instead I walked in my neighborhood. I wanted to jog but was grateful to move my body pain free.
16 weeks post surgery I was pregnant with my first son. Terrified how my back was going to handle pregnancy, I was careful how I moved and continued to walk. After having a baby, there were dark moments of frustration and fear that I was going to be stiff the rest of my life. Heavy doubts clouded my confidence and my outlook on the surgery was gray.
I accepted how my body changed and started to incorporate low impact exercises. Nothing like I was used to doing; light weights, slow, incline treadmill work, etc. I was careful. Bending over the sink to brush my teeth required deliberate movement.
I rebuilt my core muscles and found myself feeling strong again.
My self confidence and trust in my body came back with exhilaration when I was invited to a HIGH Fitness class 4 years post-surgery. I modified most of the moves but it gave me faith that my body would not let me down. I was there, and I felt freedom in the movement I had nearly forgotten.
Exercise and functional movement give our mind, body and soul transferable skills that help us prevail during difficult times
After 5 months of taking classes, I found the courage to get certified. I knew I had a passion for motivating others and loved the feeling HIGH Fitness gave me and everyone around me. I wanted to be an example for others but still smart about how I treated my spine.
I learned how to land gently on my toes without much impact on my body. I would go down into a burpee using my fingertips rather than my entire palm because it was less pressure and I could pop up fast enough to stay on the beat. Tiny tweaks, but it made all the difference.
I still have minor aches and pains and I’ve had to nearly give up my beloved high heels (not entirely), but mostly my surgery was success.
I am teaching HIGH Fitness classes twice a week, and I am a Pilates and Bounce (trampoline) Instructor at The Beyond Studios. On days when my back feels tight, I modify. I do not push it. I have my husband take the kids out of the carseat, I choose tennis shoes over stilettos and I focus on my pelvic alignment.
I have learned that exercise and functional movement give our mind, body and soul transferable skills that help us prevail during difficult times.
During my last follow up with my surgeon he asked how I was feeling. He said the two most important things I can do to preserve my spinal health are to keep my weight down and to maintain a strong core with something like Pilates.
Although I may never be able to squat heavy weight, run outside on the hard pavement or twist with a graceful stretch like my colleagues, I still move my body in a way that feeds my love for exercise. Through challenges and hardships we all have to start back somewhere. The best thing you can do for your spine is move. “A body in motion stays in motion.”
- If you’re second guessing a surgery that has been suggested, or your gut is pointing you in another direction, follow that intuition. Seek the support and clarity you need from healthcare providers until you are at peace with the advice.
2. Keep a soldier’s mentality: Fight the insurance company, because it will be a battle.
3. Defy the odds – jump squatting nearly pain free will be possible again.
4. Don’t overlook the stationary arm bike at the gym or a leisure walk around your neighborhood. Those simple exercises will be your lifeline when you are wearing a back brace.
5. Above all, show yourself love and grace on the days your body won’t do what your mind wants; for you are strong.
Above all, show yourself love and grace on the days your body won’t do what your mind wants; for you are strong.