When God Restores Weakness with Renewed Purpose: Living with Spondylolisthesis

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Time is often conveniently and unofficially measured by milestones. If we want to be technical, we can sometimes quantify those milestones.

  • Seventy: My grandparents just kicked off the start of their 70th year of marriage together, the official milestone only a year away.
  • Ten: the number of years I have been a School Counselor. Also the wedding anniversary we just celebrated on a hot air balloon ride!
  • Seven: My body has been pregnant, miscarrying, or nursing for over seven years with no break. The end of this streak will be an emotional one, simultaneously bittersweet and freeing. It will be marked not only by the passage of time but by all the memories and moments in between. 
  • Six: The number of years we have been cloth diapering! (And parenting!)

Oftentimes, we mark time with “before and after” a major event, a critical turning point in our stories. Schooling, births, accidents, losses, jobs, moves. Befores and afters. Achievements. Milestones. 

Today would otherwise pass by, a normal day, unacknowledged for what it is to anyone but me. But July 16, 2018 delivers its own silent milestone. Today marks the day I have lived exactly half my life with a cadaver bone in my body. Someone’s priceless donation holds my spine in place, downgrading my Grade 4 spondylolisthesis diagnosis to a Grade 2 so that I could live a stronger life. Seventeen years ago. 6,209 days ago. July 16, 2001 separated all things “pre-op” from “post-op.” The day I had to quit 13 years of ballet, give up a minor role in my recital, and quit my Cross Country team for good.

That morning, just after being prayed over by my pastor, I received both an allograft and an autograft. An allograft is formed from donated bone, and an autograft is harvested from the patient–in my case, grafted from my hip through the same large incision, a once-seering-red scar now the silvery pink prime meridian of my back. As a teenager undergoing a surgery typically performed on an octogenarian, the bone in my hip was still thick enough to scoop from the iliac crest and form around the new fusion, which would later facilitate and support new growth.

My own bone was repurposed, engineered by God for its first 17 years as an unassuming but important piece of my hip, yet all the while He knew it would later help anchor the weakest crux in my body.

Unbeknownst to my 17-year-old self, this new anchor would grow and strengthen my spine to support some of the most life-giving work my body would ever do. Dancing with my husband at our wedding. Carrying and birthing babies. Running marathons. Nursing babies. Sitting with students at school during their most vulnerable emotional breakdowns. And all my life yet to come.

It would also allow me freedom. I can continue things I used to love and have new adventures with my family. My “after” includes long-distance running and even a semester of ballet in college. It’s a handstand on the Four Corners, a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon. Hiking Glacier National Park and walking the streets of Dublin, Ireland. Exploring Arches National Park and climbing the steps to the top of the Griffin roller coaster at Busch Gardens. And just this week, climbing into the wicker gondola of a hot air balloon just before its launch and climbing back out after a safe landing.

As Christians, we are each a “before and after” story. Christ rescued us from the sins of our former lives, building us and refining our gifts to serve His kingdom purposes. Our gifts were dormant, but it took the element of renewed purpose to draw them out. He gives us freedom from our past sins, even as we continue to fall short.

The “Ortho Info” website describes an allograft for a spinal fusion as acting “as a bridge that allows the natural bone to grow through its surface.” God breathed new life into that cadaverous bone, designating it to strengthen all the other working parts of my body, each serving a specific and unique purpose but working in tandem. It fostered new growth and restoration while continuing to strengthen and refine itself with newfound life and purpose.

“For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (NIV, Romans 12:4-5)

Before we can minister to others, we have to care for our own spiritual well-being. That restoration comes through time in the Word and time spent in prayer with God, through fellowship with others, through acts of worship. It is necessary and restorative in times of both weakness and strength, in times of both confidence and of insecurity.

I don’t know whose life my cadaver bone supported before mine. I don’t even know whether it was in a girl or boy, man or woman, or how long it lived. I don’t know the circumstances that ended its first purpose, or what led the person to commit to part with it. I don’t know where it traveled or what adventures it’s been on. But I met it with gratefulness and a sense of renewal that it would restore a failing part of me.

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Invisible to the naked eye, I can feel it. I can still see its eerie glow on my x-rays, my own bones dull in comparison, a strong new stake fusing my lumbar to my sacrum. That very spot on a good day is a dull ache, on a bad day creates a pain radiating down my left leg and stiffening my entire body. Lately, it has been the latter.

Spondylolisthesis is an invisible, painful disability I carry every day, accompanied by its cousins, scoliosis and painful sciatica. But just because it’s invisible to others doesn’t mean I need to ignore it. My routine maintenance fell to the back-burner right after I had my third baby a year ago. Driving 56 miles to and from the doctor with three little ones in tow on a regular basis just wasn’t a priority, although it should have been. Careful maintenance had usually kept the pain at bay. Specific, low-impact exercises during pregnancy stretched my piriformis enough to take pressure off my sciatic nerve, but since then, the pain is back with debilitating vengeance.

Healing this time will require frequent trips to the doctor, slow and careful stretching, and frequent ice. It will necessitate pulling out my orthotics to use not only for running, but all the time. I have flat feet, which push my pelvis forward, putting all the weight I carry on my lower back. Orthotics correct that misalignment by creating an artificial arch.

I also shudder, remembering the dreadful white plastic body brace I wore in high school. Anytime I had to bend or sit, I had to unlock a hinge that connected the brace around my torso to the brace down my leg. When the brace finally got to come off for good, I instinctively walked for months with one arm behind my back, protecting the vulnerable scarred area. My muscles would spasm against any slightest touch. I went to physical therapy after school every day to build back up the muscles of my left leg, encased in plastic so long, to match those of my right leg, which had to overcompensate. The massages at PT left me in tears. It was work, and I pushed through. Because of the brace, I learned to breathe differently and sit perfectly straight, which are ingrained habits even 17 years later. 

Our faith needs routine maintenance to remain a constant dialog with our Creator. We can’t take our faith for granted, because when we do, it becomes strained and weak. We become thirsty and forget to reach for a drink from our Healer. But when we get off-course, we can ask for help. We can bow in prayer, asking God to lead us back to Him. We can pull our Bibles off the shelf and allow His Word to lead us, and He will restore us again. He will support us at our weakest points and breathe new life into what feels bereft.

In what areas do you need His leadership now? Take a moment to pray over it. Allow God to point out your weak points, and listen for what He might be asking you to repurpose or restore so that you can continue to build His Kingdom.
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If you would like to know more about my journey in spite of spondylolisthesis, you can read herehereand here.