Battling back after a back injury

Mike Rice set his sights on earning a qualifying time for the Ironman World Championship.

Endurance athlete gives new meaning to Ironman

Ironman triathletes are known for their extreme feats of athleticsm and physical and mental stamina. Many train for months to accomplish the grueling event that includes a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run.

When Mike Rice, a seasoned Ironman triathlete and father of two boys, Jonathan and Ethan, began his training for the 2011 Ironman Louisville — his second triathlon that year — he set his sights on earning a qualifying time for the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. However, just two weeks before the Aug. 28 event, he was hit by a car while biking in LaGrange, Ky., on a stretch of road that was part of the Ironman Louisville course.

“My first thought after the accident was, ‘What kind of shape is my bike in?’” Rice said. “I knew the accident cost me my shot at qualifying for Ironman Kona.”

Mike had suffered a complete rupture of a disc in his spine. Despite the injury, he went on to compete in the 2011 Ironman Louisville, pushing through severe pain and finishing in 12 hours, 7 minutes — just six minutes short of his personal record.

“Quitting wasn’t an option for me. I’d put in too many long hours of training not to try,” he said.

The pain continued after that accomplishment, severely limiting his activity level and hindering his lawn and landscape business. He couldn’t run more than three miles. After realizing surgery was a means of getting his life back, Rice went to see a specialist at Norton Leatherman Spine Center.

“Mike was very limited in his activities when he first came to see me,” said Mladen Djurasovic, M.D., orthopaedic spine surgeon. “He was unable to train for his triathlons and was having difficulty doing his day-to-day work. His back condition was greatly interfering with his everyday life.”

Upon reviewing Rice’s case, Dr. Djurasovic was optimistic about improving his overall quality of life and ability to function in day-to-day activities. He was more cautious, however, about Rice’s ability to return to high-level athletic competition.

In March 2012, Rice underwent surgery to fuse his L5 and S1 spinal vertebrae to repair the damage caused by his biking accident. The minimally invasive procedure resulted in a beyond-average recovery.

“Mike has had tremendous success,” Dr. Djurasovic said. “Improvement in symptoms and function are very common and what we would expect. Complete elimination of pain and ability to perform at the highest level athletically, such as he experienced, is beyond even what we hoped for.”

While Rice’s level of recovery is not the norm, patients undergoing or considering similar surgery should be encouraged by the fact that lumbar spine surgery significantly reduces pain and improves function and quality of life in at least 80 percent of patients, according to Dr. Djurasovic.

Patients who have minimally invasive spinal fusion surgery are able to resume normal activity within two to three months instead of six months, as is seen with traditional fusion operations, according to Dr. Djurasovic, and the procedure may have contributed to Rice’s exceptional recovery.

“The use of minimally invasive techniques helps preserve muscle function and may allow patients to return to higher levels of physical activity,” Dr. Djurasovic said.

Despite his earlier prognosis, Rice was determined to get back on his feet and on the road to his previous activity level. He credits his physical therapy team for keeping him encouraged through weeks of therapy sessions.

Just two months after Rice’s surgery, Dr. Djurasovic gave him permission to begin easing back into his active lifestyle by jogging. In August 2012, Dr. Djurasovic reported that the spinal fusion was about 95 percent healed and released Rice to begin performing his regular activities. Rice resumed his training regime and completed his first postsurgery marathon in December 2012.

“Mike is one of the most driven and motivated patients I’ve had, which means he was very dedicated to his postoperative rehabilitation,” Dr. Djurasovic said. “His hard work and dedication had a lot to do with his results.”

Rice competed in the 2013 Ironman Louisville on Aug. 25 in hopes of qualifying for the world championship in Hawaii.


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