Back from the Brink

By Vic Kohring, August 8, 2017

I've had my share of close calls through the years, from injury to illness. One of the more prominent was a neck injury from a car accident which grew progressively worse until it finally struck me down while on the campaign trail in 2002. I was running for reelection to my House seat at the time, with the usual array of opponents and criticism. 

The '02 campaign was typical - the anti-conservative, anti-Christian advocates were again out in full force trying to defeat me, both Democrat and RINO Republican. The battle came from all fronts, including the leftist Anchorage Daily News who led the chorus against me that I was practically Atilla the Hun for simply wanting to achieve an efficient government and keep taxes and regulations limited.

It was Sunday, November 3rd, two days before the General Election that year. I was alone putting up some last minute campaign signs near the Glenn Highway in my old Peters Creek district at Eklutna. As I was nailing 2X4's together for a frame to hold up a large roadway sign, I was suddenly stricken by a knife-like pain between my shoulder blades. The pain was so intense, it nearly paralyzed me and caused me to fall to the ground in agony. The worst I ever experienced.

I had no idea what was going on. Perhaps a heart attack or stroke? The pain was so severe, it had me in tears and crying to God for help. I managed to crawl inside my truck, sit up just enough to see over the dashboard and drive to the emergency room of the old Valley Hospital in Palmer. I was placed on morphine with an IV while they assessed my situation.

The hospital staff, as competent as they were, erroneously focused on my back, not realizing the source of the pain was elsewhere. I was declared "OK" and sent home after several hours of observation with an inconclusive diagnosis. But a follow-up MRI revealed that the nerves in my neck were compromised by injury which was in-turn causing pain in my mid-back. A cross-section image of my spinal cord showed it flattened like a pancake from a disc which had ruptured inward at C3/C4. The doctor declared my condition exceptionally serious that warranted immediate surgery. It was shocking. 

The next day, a few days after my successful reelection, I was on a flight to Seattle, where I checked into Virginia Mason Medical Center to consult with a surgeon. Not satisfied with his insistence that I proceed with a multi-layer fusion which essentially would have locked up half my neck, I was referred to Harborview Medical Center, well known as a trauma facility. Then it was a specialty clinic with the Seattle Seahawks primary orthopedic surgeon. Armed with a consensus that my condition was indeed chronic, I concluded I should find the best hospital and surgeon in the country. Operating on the spine was not a simple matter after all. And if I was going to be altered forever by a knife, I wanted the best.

Ultimately, my odyssey took me to the vaunted Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota where I found myself a patient of the hospital's chief neurosurgeon. However, he warned me that I risked paralysis from the neck down should I sustain another injury before the corrective surgery and ordered me confined to my room until it could be performed. He explained that my condition was so perilous that even a modest whiplash in an auto wreck could sever the cord in my cervical (neck) area and that I should therefore avoid cars at all cost as a precaution. 

Surgery was immediately scheduled and I reported to the hospital a couple days later - the day after Christmas on December 26, 2002 (Christmas Day was spent alone as I readied for surgery, one of the loneliest days of my life) - where two surgeons, a neurological and orthopedic, removed the damaged disk which relieved the pressure off the cord and allowed it to eventually return to a normal, healthy round shape. They also fused my neck to stabilize it, using screws and a titanium plate as well as cadaver bone from a donor to fill in the space around the vertebrae. The procedure, which lasted over two hours, was limited to a single level, but I was cautioned that a multiple fusion would likely be needed down the road given the severity of my injury. 

The operation literally saved me as I could have been paralyzed and lived the rest of my life as a quadriplegic. I was pulled back from the brink - a very close call. I believe that God directed me to Mayo Clinic, placing me in the hands of one of the top neurosurgeon's in the country (and probably the world) at arguably the best hospital on earth. Fifteen years later, to this day and through God's saving grace, I'm doing fine.