Brent Wightman's spine rehabilitation story

Brent Wightman

Why I joined the military

I joined the military because it was a family tradition on both sides of my family ever since the Wightmans came over on the Mayflower. I also felt that it was my calling and I wanted to serve my country and make the military my lifelong career. There has been a member of my family in every American war. My dad was in Korea, my uncle was a MASH commander in Korea, two of my uncles on my mom’s side were in WWII Marine Corps, and my great grandfather rode with Teddy Roosevelt with the Rough Riders in the Spanish American War. I knew from a young age that I was going to serve my country in the military because of my family commitment to protect American freedom.

I joined the Army when I was 17 years old. I went to basic training, jump school, Ranger school, all at Fort Benning, Georgia. I was Airborne with the 1st Battalion Rangers.

My first enlistment was for six years on active duty. Then I was in and out of the Army for the following 10 years after that for multiple deployments, always Airborne.

Life before my back pain

I could do everything. I was lifting 200 pounds over my head and running 10 miles a day–nothing stopped me. I could just put pain out of my mind after a tough workout. Pain meant nothing to me.

About my spine injuries and treatment

The first time I injured my back was in 1981 when we were out in the field doing a military training exercise where we were moving 400 pound drums of fuel. I felt something pop in my back and I went down to my knees. Doped up on pain killers and muscle relaxers, I was put on bed rest and it took about six months. It finally got better, and I went back to full duty.

Then I had a couple of bad jumps as a Paratrooper that flared up my back pain again, so I had to go back on light duty status, doing physical therapy and taking pain medication…and I finally went back to full duty. Each one of my back flare-ups was followed by about a three to six month recovery before I could go back to full duty.

Then in October of 1985 while on active duty, I had an accident in the line of duty where I broke my hip and my pelvis in six places each. I spent almost six months at University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics in the Orthopaedic ICU, including three months in traction. In addition, I threw a pulmonary embolism and almost died. I spent a year in recovery after this injury until I was close to being back to normal again. My treatment included traditional physical therapy and pain medication, and I continued to have chronic back pain.

Then in 1998 I reinjured my back again while on the job moving large drums. Again I heard a popping sound and I went down on my knees in pain. My treatment included physical therapy, pain medication, and injections. Then the decision was for me to have spinal surgery (not done at UI Hospitals & Clinics), which was a laminectomy/discectomy. Following surgery, it was two years of recovery before I was released to light duty work. I have never been the same since my surgery. The surgery minimally reduced my chronic back pain and unfortunately drastically reduced my ability to physically function. The results of my spine surgery were very disappointing, and my chronic pain was still a large issue for me.

My next spinal surgery was in 2008. I was injured while moving furniture on the job, and my back pain markedly increased. I lost feeling in my left foot and I had incontinence problems. Because my initial back injury was service connected, the Veterans Administration provided my treatment after this injury. I had my second surgery discectomy/laminectomy, plus removal of scar tissue from previous surgery. Because of this injury I now have permanent nerve root damage, a left foot drop, no feeling in my left foot, minimal feeling on my left leg from the knee down, and debilitating chronic back pain. My treatment after my second surgery and before I came to the Spine Center included: neurological blockers, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications, pain medications, and nerve root block injections every three to six months. I continued to have severe ongoing chronic back pain, some really bad days and some OK days.

My chronic spine pain has really messed up my life; it has caused marital problems, employment problems, financial problems, increased stress, depression, anxiety, anger management problems–all issues I did not have before my chronic spine pain and physical limitations.

I have never ever been a quitter, but with all of these issues going on in my life and the chronic spine pain, I’ve definitely considered quitting life in the past. I know what it is like to have no hope for my future with no plan to help me get my life back on track. That is a horrible place to be.

How I learned about the Spine Center

I learned about the Spine Center while talking to a friend about my chronic back pain. I researched the Spine Rehab program and felt that it would help me. Then I requested a referral from my doctor (Dr. Bellinger) at the Iowa City VA hospital to be evaluated at the UI Spine Center, and it was approved. Since the VA does not have an interdisciplinary spine rehabilitation program to teach patients how to manage chronic spine pain, they approved to pay for me to be evaluated at UI Hospitals & Clinics Spine Center. They also thought that type of program would be beneficial for me. I attended the one-day evaluation at the Spine Center and I was approved for the two week Spine Rehabilitation program. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. I just went with an open mind.

My experience at spine rehab

While I was at Spine Rehabilitation I got a new sense of discipline. In physical therapy, I learned how to use my muscles correctly, avoid guarding posture due to pain, and how to avoid favoring certain muscles when I move. Physical therapy did hurt but it was a good hurt because I know I was not harming myself and I was getting stronger. I am using muscles that I had not been using for a long time. I’ve increased my strength, flexibility, and endurance. I feel comfortable using my body again. I understand the concept of hurt versus harm and I am able to have a better quality of life.

Dr. Chen has answered a lot of my questions about procedures and managing pain, which has been very helpful for me.

Another important part of pain management at Spine Rehab is the coping skills and relaxation techniques taught by Dr. Keffala (psychologist). These skills have definitely made a difference in how I think about my pain and how I manage my pain. Relaxation helps to reduce stress and when stress goes down then pain goes down. As my pain management skills improve, my mental health improves and my physical health improves – it all works together.

I liked the group experience because I was with other people who were in the same position that I was and we all related to each other. I felt understood by both the staff and the others in the group. I didn’t have to try to explain my chronic pain and I could get down to the business of getting my personal pain management program developed.

I have found that the holistic approach to managing chronic pain that is taught at the Spine Center to be very important for me to improve my quality of life. The Spine Rehab program is about learning new skills to increase quality of life.

I feel better about my overall physical and mental health. I can do things again that I couldn’t do before. I have a new outlook on life. I know I can’t go back to running marathons and lifting 200 pounds over my head again, but that is okay. I don’t need to do that to have a quality of life.

I feel more educated and confident about using my body since attending Spine Rehab. I know that it is not a cure, but provides me with the tools to live the best quality of life that I can.

I know that I have to do the physical therapy exercises and pain management skills that they taught me at Spine Rehab every day to maintain my improved quality of life.

My personal goals

My personal goals are to improve my everyday activities of daily living so that I can do more now, knowing that I am not harming my back just because I experience back pain. The pain is never going to go away entirely, and I know that I have multiple medical issues that will never be cured. Spine Rehab has given me tools to help me cope with those as well. I have a new outlook on life.

I have to thank the Veterans Administration for allowing me to participate in the UI Hospitals & Clinics Spine Clinic program. The physical therapy and pain management tools that I learned in Spine Rehab have given me the tools that I have needed for years to handle my everyday life and manage my pain.

In closing, I would like to say that this program is what I’ve been looking for. This has saved my life. I would recommend the UI Hospitals & Clinics Spine Center to everyone who has chronic back pain. You have to come and check this out. It will help you if you work hard and continue to do the program on your own. That is critical for a successful outcome.