By Dr. Bernie Kastner
It had been 22 months since I last stepped onto the tennis court. Back in August 2012, I began feeling a dull pain in both of my legs. At first, I brushed it off as fatigue or muscle strain. I was in relatively good shape and had never experienced that kind of pain before. I figured it would go away with some rest and TLC. Well, that didn’t happen. The following week, the pain I felt on the court became worse and it lingered and began to affect my regular daily routine. An orthopedist said that my problem was emanating from my lower back. A few X-rays, a CT, and an MRI confirmed that I was suffering from a herniated disc at L3-L4. Moreover, the protruding disc was pressing on a nerve center that was shooting excruciating pain down both of my legs.
Over the course of a few months, I went from a perfectly normal, functioning individual to one who had trouble walking those few steps from his bed to the bathroom. Getting up from a chair was painful, as was regular walking and going up and down stairs. Soon the pain was accompanied by extreme weakness in the legs. I was practically confined to my recliner.
My journey towards treating this condition was seemingly long and arduous. I certainly didn’t want to consider surgery—after all, who wanted to mess around with one’s back? One little mistake and one could become paralyzed for life.
So I tried painkilling medication, chiropractic, osteopathy, acupuncture, steroid injections, and physical therapy. Aside from some temporary relief from the injections, nothing was working. I finally consulted with an orthopedic surgeon who told me it was time to consider surgery to correct the problem. I was also told that I might have waited too long and might have sustained some permanent nerve damage.
That was the last thing I wanted to hear. After mulling over the options, risks, and benefits, I decided to go ahead with the TLIF (transforaminal lumbar interbody fusion) surgery. The prognosis for a full recovery was good but there were the regular risks associated with this type of surgery, which were scary in and of themselves. So in July 2013, I underwent the surgery, which was deemed successful, both technically and also from the progress I was making post-surgery. My main question to the surgeon was “Will I be able to return to the tennis court after the initial recovery period?” And the answer was one laden with cautious optimism. One never knows for sure if the nerves that were affected by the radical compression would be able to regenerate and recoup the strength they enjoyed before all of this started.
The tennis thing became my personal measure for success. Whenever anyone would ask me how my recovery was going, I would answer by saying that I hoped to be able to return to the tennis court. Anything less would be construed as unsuccessful.
The initial two and a half months following surgery went very well, and the hope was that by the four-month mark I could even think about love, faults, and aces (on the tennis court, of course). No guarantees, though. But then I had a setback—a crack in one of the vertebrae in the area of the surgery. That episode was no less painful than what I had experienced before surgery. What was going on here?
The root cause was not clear. After ruling out infection, the crack could have been there as a result of the surgeon being aggressive in pushing the screws into the bone, or from something I did after the surgery to aggravate the lower back. To this day we don’t know for sure. What was for sure was that it set me back another three or four months. Until now.
I started to feel much better—pain-free and without medication. I gained weight over the winter months due mainly to inactivity (and eating everything in sight). I had an idea of getting back to tennis sometime in late April or May, but I first wanted to try to get back into shape a bit—shed a few pounds, strengthen my leg muscles, and upgrade my aerobic ability.
I began to do just that but was inconsistent in my regimen. I thought that at this rate, it would be July before I tried getting onto the court. Hence, I decided to just take the plunge and see to what extent I could tolerate the various movements needed to play tennis. I made a surprise call to my tennis partner and said that I need to experiment on the court in order to know where I stand. We reserved a court for the next evening—Tuesday, May 20.
I didn’t fully realize it at the time of making the appointment, but this was a momentous occasion. Thinking back to how I had practically become an invalid, and then the slow post-surgery recovery, the limited range of motion, and associated pain—all of that was now behind me and I was about to step onto the tennis court—something I otherwise may have never been able to ever do again.
Two hours before the 7 p.m. court time, I sat in my front yard contemplating the moment. This had the potential to become a big day for me—it was the day I was long waiting for. It was the mantra of hope and measure of success I was yearning to attain. It was slowly dawning on me that this was to become an important day in my life.
I took a 500 mg pill of Optalgin (Dipyrone) for prevention, gathered my racket and gym bag, and headed toward my car. I began to feel the excitement of doing something I had not been able to do for the past 22 months. I parked the car and walked through the entrance to the tennis center and immediately noticed a number of upgrades to the facility as a whole. A member of parliament was even sitting in the lounge hosting some foreign dignitaries. I waited for my partner to arrive and again took in the moment of just being present in the tennis center.
We walked over to court #14. The weather was perfect. I warned my partner that I didn’t know what to expect in terms of my current athletic ability—this was a big test for me. I went so far as to instruct him to begin hitting the ball directly back to me, thus purposely limiting my movement on the court. I did feel quite rusty, but my strokes were fluid and strong. There was no back pain, and my range of motion in my upper body was just fine.
Then I wanted to test my limits and found that my acceleration wasn’t what it used to be. My ability to run front and back and laterally were somewhat limited. I didn’t feel as strong in my lower body. It was hard to know whether this was a lack of conditioning, the large layoff period, or whether there was some residual nerve damage. I guess time will tell. I am ready to reserve the court again for next week.
Despite not feeling 100% on the court, I must pay a huge debt of gratitude to Hashem for even reaching this day. After all the talk about hoping to get back onto the court, here, I made it.
My tennis partner had to leave, so I remained on the bench to ponder the moment. Soon the lights were shut off as nobody reserved the court after us. This gave me an opportunity to connect within myself on a deep level and make sense out of the past 60 minutes. I became so overwhelmed with emotion that I chanted the blessing of Shehecheyanu “Baruch ata . . . shehecheyanu v’kiymanu v’higiyanu la’zman ha’zeh.” It was after 8 p.m. and I thought about getting to shul for the Arvit service where I would have extra special kavanah in my gratitude. But I did not go to shul that evening. Instead, I prayed right there on the court. Facing east toward the Kotel, I felt a particular closeness to Hashem right where I was. It was here that the miracle-like event happened, so I felt it fitting to show my appreciation on the spot. I was alone—nobody was within 200 feet of me. No fanfare, no public announcements, no press, no parties. Just me talking to G‑d. Just me remembering how disabled I was before the surgery, and of the ups and downs of the ensuing 10-month rehab period. And now knowing that my body was restored to a level that I had doubts I would reach, it was humbling.
I also must give credit where credit is due—to my family for being there when I was most vulnerable. Bending over to put on socks or tie a sneaker was not possible for a period after surgery. So hakarat ha’tov is in order to every one of them. And finally, the next morning I sent off a text message to my surgeon to share with him the good news and to let him know how much I appreciated his role in getting me to this point.
Life is fragile. We can control only so much. Nonetheless, we must push and strive toward our goals and objectives, because without that as a guiding light, we are at risk of giving up on our dreams. And that is something we must never let happen. v
Dr. Bernie Kastner is a psychotherapist in private practice with offices in Jerusalem. He is also the author of “Understanding the Afterlife in This Life,” “Masa El Haor,” “HaOlam She’acharei,” and “Back to the Afterlife.” Visit his website at drbkastner.com or write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.