Before I became a chiropractor, I was an aviator in the United States Air Force–an Air Battle Manager, to be specific. We flew very long missions on the E-3 Sentry (AWACS) several times a week.
Image Big Brother by Motograf via Flickr
Flying at a mission console on a chair with cushions designed to float in the water and brace against impact for longer hours than most people work in a regular day shift meant the biomechanics of sitting, flying, and performing a mission took their toll on the spine. It didn’t affect only me, but on a number of other military professionals with whom I had the privilege to serve.
Couple the chronic seated posture at a non-ergonomic computer desk (essentially) with a serious hit-and-run car accident (that pulled my car seat off the rails), and I was in pretty rough shape in my early twenties.
Lieutenant Dolly Garnecki with Crew technicians. Photo by AF Public Affairs
Since the mission priority of the United States Air Force is not to keep individual members in prime health, but to keep them combat ready, they’ll do what they can to “band-aid” fix a problem without targeting the cause. NSAIDS such as Motrin (that we referred to as Vitamin M) were dispensed at the local flight medicine clinic like a Pez dispenser at every visit. If you had a cold, Motrin. Neck pain? Motrin. Ruptured disc in your spine? Motrin and maybe some Flexerill to knock you out for a couple days so you could be mission ready by the following week.
See the pattern?
A flight surgeon told me at age 24 that I had the spine of a 60 year-old, and that it wasn’t getting any better, but it would only get worse. At best, I’d be considered disabled in the next 10 years.
First, I was completely crushed. Despairing about loss of a life I ever hoped to re-claim, wondering if I’d be able to physically endure pregnancy, and completely discouraged that I’d ever be able to fly my mission and hold any sort of job shy of a greeter at a big box store.
Then, my dear friend Toby introduced me to her local chiropractor in Norman, Oklahoma. My experience overall with chiropractic had been okay, but it definitely was hit or miss with the right doctor. However, Dr. Bill Sparks changed my life.
His approach to chiropractic care wasn’t a random adjustment whenever I felt like it, but he had a specific treatment plan for me to follow that included more frequent visits at first, and then it tapered to fewer as I improved.
He helped me regain neck function and mobility. Plus, I was able to get back into the things I loved: competing in triathlons, running, martial arts, sleeping in my bed (as opposed to ice packs on the floor), and doing my flying job for the Air Force.
Unfortunately, the rigors of the mission during the Iraq War affected my spine for the worse. There was no chiropractor stationed with us in the desert, and physical therapy and time in the gym was NOT the same as a chiropractic adjustment.
Eventually, I decided sticking with a career in the military wasn’t worth my loss of health, and I decided not to accept an attractive bonus to re-new my contract in order to pursue a career change in chiropractic school.
I’ve never looked back since that defining moment when a Lieutenant Colonel literally asked me how much bonus money they could offer me to stay on, and I said $100k signing bonus wasn’t enough.
Long-term stability in my spin didn’t happen over night. In fact, I still dealt with some set-backs my first year in chiropractic college. But, persistence with home rehabilitation, receiving chiropractic adjustments specific to my spine, avoiding NSAIDS, changing my diet to anti-inflammatory, and the passage of time–all those things made a huge difference.
Recently, I told a friend that in my early thirties, I feel like I have the energy and health of a 21 year-old. When I was in my early twenties, I felt like someone pushing 50. It’s been a nice progression.
Stay tuned for part II when I share a couple of case studies on how chiropractic care has helped military aviators complete the mission.