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Alex Puccio: On Spinal Surgery and Staying Strong Through Her Recovery

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Alex Puccio Bouldering Rock climbing spine surgery
Photo: Jon Vickers

“Wiggle my toes and fingers to make sure I’m not paralyzed.”

That was Alex Puccio’s first thought upon waking up from spinal fusion surgery. Then she drifted back to a head-spinning sleep. Days earlier she was climbing at the Vail Bouldering World Cup. A herniated disc between her C5 and C6 vertebrae put pressure on her spine and changed everything.

Three months before Alex was seen rubbing her neck and shaking her arms in Vail, the wheels of a serious injury had already been set in motion. While Alex was coaching the Momentum climbing team, one of the kids jumped on her back numerous times in play. At the time, she didn’t feel any discomfort, but at 3 A.M. she woke in excruciating pain, unable to sit up in bed. For the next five days she couldn’t support her head, let alone climb.

“It felt like I had the worst whiplash ever,” Alex said. “Originally, I thought it was a muscle-related injury since the pain was in my neck muscles and shoulder blade. After a week, it started to subside, but never went away 100%. The pain came back periodically in the months leading up to the World Cup. Even though my disc was injured before, my doctors think that it became fully herniated at the event.”

Alex saw a massage therapist, chiropractor, and a physical therapist but noone thought she needed imaging for her neck. They all agreed that it was muscle-related or possibly a misplaced rib. She didn’t have any shooting pain, numbness, or weakness. To say Alex was surprised when she found out she had a herniated disc affecting her spinal cord is a gross understatement.

“After taking a deep breath, my first thought was, ‘What’s going to happen?'” she said. “The doctor explained that I could be paralyzed if I didn’t get the surgery. At that point, I knew it was my only option. I was in the hospital the next morning and had the procedure 24 hours later. Everything happened pretty quickly. I didn’t have time to be scared, which was a good thing. The surgeon was great throughout the whole process and took time to explain everything I needed to know. He really helped give me a positive outlook.”

Learning about the seriousness of the injury has taught Alex to pay attention to her body’s signals. “If others think something isn’t wrong I will listen to their opinion,” she said. “But I will follow my intuition and make the final decision regarding my health. Other than that, I doubt I’ll change much of my training because of this injury.”

After two big surgeries in the past year (Alex tore her ACL and MCL in her left knee at the 2015 Vail World Cup), Alex says she has learned to be patient. She has also come to realize how much climbing outside means to her and why it’s important to love what you do, when it can be taken from you so quickly.

“The main thing this injury and recovery has taken from me has been my time,” she said. “Time that I would have loved to be outside, traveling and climbing. But it also gave me other things, like time spent with friends. There is always something positive in something negative, at least I like to see it that way.”

Alex coaches the Momentum climbing team. Photo: Jon Vickers

While Alex says she might participate in fewer competitions, she doesn’t see herself quitting them in the near future. The injury, surgery, and recovery did derail her summer plans, the most disappointing of which was not being able to climb outside. She plans to make up for it this fall and winter.

“I’m excited do some traveling around the US and get in some amazing outdoor climbing while I’m away,” she said. “I’m planning on doing some sport climbing and that will be new for me. Although I’m definitely psyched to climb on real rock, I will always have a soft spot for competitions. I’m not scared to compete because of this injury. Knowing I was injured before the competition and that it got worse at the World Cup makes me realize I can get injured anywhere and at any time. I found it worrisome to learn that muscle soreness from exercise can cause the same pain as my herniated disc. It’s difficult to tell the difference between an injury and post-workout aches and pains.”

While Alex is learning patience, listening to her intuition, and getting in touch with her priorities, she’s keeping herself busy by training as much as her body allows,

“Everyone thinks I heal abnormally fast, but the reality is I don’t give up during an injury,” she said. “Some people get injured and sit around waiting to heal. I find ways to work around my injury so I can stay fit and come back sooner than expected.“

Notorious for her commitment to training, Alex started on an elliptical two weeks after surgery, slowly increasing both the time and intensity of her workouts. She was on the hangboard and starting core workouts after four weeks.

“At first I was shaky and my muscles felt weak, but after a week, muscle memory kicked in and they started to remember how to work,” she said. “Every time I started a new exercise there was about a week learning curve again, but it’s all coming back. I won’t have to make up a lot of groundwork once I’m fully recovered. Even though I may have been set back a little, it will probably only take a month or two to get back to where I was prior to this injury.”

True to her word, Alex climbed her hardest sport route to date before hitting the three-month recovery mark: Atomic Cow (5.13d) at Wild Iris, Wyoming.

Stuck on a problem? Work with pro climber and coach Justen Sjong in Climbing Magazine’s Climb a Grade Harder online course today.

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