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Up and running
Spinal surgery sends elite athlete on the road to recovery


Erika Osborn is back in training following a serious accident and spinal surgery.

In the summer of 2010, Erika Osborn should have been in the thick of training for her third World Duathlon Championships, this time in Scotland. Instead, she was recuperating from a fracture in her back, in pain and pondering whether to undergo surgery.

Osborn had been struck by a car while running on a road outside Delavan that May. She suffered a gash in the back of her head, a concussion, and "a lot of road rash." She spent five days at Froedtert Hospital. Months of rehabilitation followed, including three to four months of wearing a rigid brace to support her back.

"Itís a testament to her toughness that she decided she would try to get treatment for this without surgery," says Dr. Raj Rao, who eventually operated on her last November.

After the three-hour surgery, Osborn was able to resume running ó even training for the ZOOMA Great Lakes Womenís Half Marathon in Lake Geneva in October.

"I was kind of hoping to be a little further on the pain scale, but I also have high expectations for my level of performance," says Osborne, now 31, a married mother who works as business manager at West Wood Health & Fitness Center in Pewaukee.

Stabilization surgery has been used for traumatic injuries of the spine for about the past 10 to 15 years. In Osbornís case, it involved removing one of her ribs, so Rao could access the L1 and T12 vertebrae at the junction of her mid- and lower back. He inserted a bone graft, screws and a rod, all intended to reduce the workload of pain-producing damaged ligaments and irritated nerves.

"The purpose is to allow the fracture to heal in as straight a position as possible and prevent the bones from slip-sliding on each other any further," he explains.

Years ago, such procedures involved fusing as many as six vertebrae, resulting in a longer recovery and more stiffness. Going back further, spinal fractures were treated with extended bed rest, according to Rao, an orthopedic surgeon at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Osborn was no typical patient. A former two-sport athlete at Mukwonago High School and Waukesha Express club swimmer, she had played rugby in college and completed two Ironman triathlons before qualifying for her first world duathlon in 2008. She suffered sports injuries and two previous knee surgeries.

"I was 20 years old then, and I had the nothingís-going-to-stop-me attitude, so I probably jumped back in too soon," she recalls. "This time, I was religious about what the doctor said. I thought of him as being my coach."

Osbornís general fitness allowed her to start the rehab process in a much more aggressive way than the average patient might have tolerated, Rao says.

About six weeks after her surgery, Osborn was permitted to resume running ó twice a week for just 10 minutes per workout. Now, she does yoga, nonimpact pilates, walks and uses an elliptical machine. She upped her running mileage 10 percent per week, but limits herself to trails or a treadmill.

"I absolutely will not run on the roads, because a harder surface is going to be hard on my back," says Osborn, adding that she also feels frightened about training on roads again.

Osborn has been unable to resume cycling or swimming without pain, so for now a duathlon or triathlon is out of the question. Still, she knows it could have been far worse.

"That day when I was laying on the road, the first thing I did was check for paralyzation. When I could gently wiggle my fingers and toes, that was amazing," she says. "Iím alive and able to be a mom ó I didnít have that taken away from me."