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Returning to running after major surgery

Bernie Hurn, 48, suffered damaged vertebrae, collapsed discs and torn ligaments in his lower spine after a nagging injury quickly deteriorated. Botched surgeries resulted in spinal nerve damage and the excruciating pain left him sitting in meetings with a hot water bottle behind his back. This is his inspirational story……

From 2007, Bernie started developing back problems, managing them with cycling and running. By 2014, however, the injuries became a real problem.

“An old injury got the better of me and a diagnosis of damaged vertebrae, collapsed discs and torn ligaments in my lower spine meant I had to adapt to living with long term chronic pain.

“Unable to lift most things, even play with my daughters, work was interspersed with MRI scans, spinal injections and sitting awkwardly in meetings with a hot water bottle behind my back."

In an unsuccessful attempt to reduce the pain the surgeons had even severed nerves in Bernie’s spine, leaving him with permanently numb areas on his back and legs.

“If this paints a relatively bleak picture - I have to admit, it was very difficult to remain positive when I could hardly walk any further than 20 metres at a time. Especially when the clinical view increasingly was that it may not improve.”

In April 2015, however, Bernie met with another orthopaedic consultant, who suggested a ‘flexible fusion’ procedure of the lower spin, which meant fitting sets of plates, spacers, screws and rods.

“The procedure carried significant risks, and I underestimated the road to recovery. It was as though my legs were not mine, but a random pair that had been grafted onto my body.

“Nearly three months of physiotherapy and the rather painful process of re-learning to walk properly again started. Every day I had to do rehab exercises, followed by a couple of minutes on a treadmill.

“But every step hurt; a lot! Eventually I decided to try to run a few strides – but I had been told by the consultant I would not run again and was somewhat determined to prove him wrong.

“I can truly say those first few strides were the most painful I had taken in my life. The gym staff had to come and lift me off the treadmill.

“I couldn’t speak because of the pain and simply sat there for what felt like ages, thinking the consultant was right after all."

Bernie Hurn

— The sense of accomplishment, the sense of freedom, achievement is indescribable. If nothing else, it has shown me very clearly – that anything is possible.

Despite the unbearable pain, Bernie was determined to stay positive and keep making improvements, little by little.

“I went back the next day and the next and walked further and faster. The stumble became a jog, and I started to walk / jog and became the happiest person every in the gym when I managed my first mile.

“I still suffer from pain when I over exert my back but not to the extent that I had before, during which I could not stand up straight, walk any distance and shuffled along holding on to furniture and walls.

“It has taken a year and a half, and today you can (hopefully) hardly notice I walk with a limp, but more importantly I got to run in an event. I was privileged enough to run the Simplyhealth Great Winter Run 5k in Edinburgh this January. It was 5 kilometres but it may as well have been a marathon, because for me it was a huge personal triumph.

“I not only got to walk again, but I got to run 5k - pain free, alongside others, even for part of it, ahead of a few others when I had been told ‘not again’.

“The sense of accomplishment, the sense of freedom, achievement is indescribable. If nothing else, it has shown me very clearly – that anything is possible."

Bernie is keen to kick on from his first run by signing up for additional runs, and he’s looking to make the most of his employer’s initiative to get more people moving.

Whilst his recovery has been a slow one, Bernie stresses the importance of maintaining a positive mindset throughout the rehabilitation process.

“Do not let others tell you, ‘you cannot’, and let those who want to see you succeed help you. It will be worth it and if I can do it, you can, anyone can.”

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