Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore |

Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore

Tony Vagneur
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

It’s that kind of place where people walk in under their own power without recognizing that they’ll never leave via the same doors. Within minutes, I’m stripping down to my skin, physically and psychologically, pulling on some ankle-high, no-slip booties over my feet.

When I was 5 or 6, I had my tonsils out in the old, three-story Pitkin County Hospital, and putting on a hospital gown for the first time since is a bit disquieting. How do things come our way, these things that supposedly only happen to other people?

It’s certain, I’m a fast skier who’s known for ripping up the bumps, an Aspen Mountain snob, and I’m also a dyed-in-the-wool cowboy who keeps a couple of high-spirited horses around for moving cattle through the high country. At 63, I’m not exactly a kid anymore, but neither am I convinced there’s anything kids can do that I can’t.

Which is to say, I’ve always gone at it hard, not afraid to lead with my head, and never fearful of the landing. My knees and hips are solid, skinny legs stronger than iron, and my mind disdainful of people who think “aging gracefully” has conceptual meaning.

If you’ve been following the story, you know I crashed on Silver Queen seven weeks ago, laid there in a paralyzed heap for several minutes and likely would have suffocated had it not been for the actions of my buddy Bob. Later that day, I left the emergency room with the knowledge that I had a couple of prolapsed cervical discs pressing into my spinal cord, not only as the direct result of that ski mountain fall, but probably others, as well, all exacerbated by non-symptomatic spinal degenerative arthritis and a narrowing of the spinal column. The degeneration is not uncommon in folks as they grow older and, no matter how tough you are, you can’t limp your way out of stuff like that.

“You may not be afraid of much, big boy,” but some things are beyond one’s control and as such, inescapable. Had I not tried to self-destruct riding a pair of sticks, it might have just as easily come as a slip in the driveway washing my car, or stepping off the curb wrong, or falling backward on the slick talus of a favorite hiking trail. Any of these has the potential to cause catastrophic injury to those susceptible, particularly those of us in the over-50 crowd.

At last, I’m needled, gowned and “bootied” up, those elastic white anti-clot hose hugging my calves like thick second skin. I’m more curious than apprehensive for I’ve already given my trust over to this team, one of excellent reputation, and there’s nothing I can do about it anyway as surgery is my only option. Lizzie, my surgical “aide de camp,” throws a couple of blankets fresh out of the dryer over me, and announces to no one in particular that “we’re ready.”

My daughter gives me a good-luck hug and off I go, a wild-driving nurse steering me down the loneliest hallway in the world, halting in front of “Operating Room 1.” It’s a good sign; we’re getting the numbers right, anyway.

We enter the surgical theater and it’s as if we landed in a different reality or something. There’s dark blue cloth everywhere, the operating table glaringly apparent under a serious-looking, modernistic light. Everyone’s face is covered and I quit looking at people, concentrating instead on what they say. “We’re gonna give you something to relax you,” says a voice to the left. I know it won’t be long. Briefly, I recognize the friendly eyes behind the opaque face on my right and whatever’s blasting through my face mask isn’t oxygen, and I wonder …

In recovery, smiling doctors tell me my spinal cord was almost totally crushed, but the surgery has been successful. Lizzie squeezes my hand and asks how I feel, and my reply is a simple “ecstatic.”

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