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Douglas M. Gillard, DC: an Autobiography

How It All Started | An early fix | 1st Strike | 2nd Strike | 3rd Strike | The Botched Microdiscectomy | Medical School | A New Career as a Spine Researcher | The Educator

Unfortunately, I am one of the unlucky ones who has been plagued with low back and leg pain for over 40 and 10 years, respectively. Although it was certainly livable for many years, a failed microdiscectomy in 2003, which left my sciatic nerve root damaged and wrapped in scar tissue, has greatly changed my life for the worse.

My bad luck, however, is the reader's good fortune, for it has turned me into a "super geek" with regard to spine research. That is I'm obsessed with searching the medical literature databases for new breakthroughs in the treatment of chronic back and leg pain, and when I find them, they are posted here at ChiroGeek.com.

How It All Started

I believe my bottom two discs, which are the ones that typically give out in most patients, were initially injured when I was about seven-years old. I was pretending to be Superman and, to my mother's horror, leaped off a 15-foot-high slide, landing feet first in a sandbox. After having the wind knocked out of me, I remember being checked at the hospital, but don't remember having any back pain. The amount of axial load generated during that leap must have been tremendous and probably resulted in disc and endplate damage; the train of degenerative disc change was put into motion.

When I was about 12 years old, I remember developing low back pain for no particular reason which prompted my father to take me to an orthopedic spine surgeon. After reviewing the x-rays, he said that I had "sway back," (i.e., a hyperlordotic lumbar curve) which meant that I had some lumbar spine biomechanical challenges that are known to be associated with chronic low back pain.

A more memorable incident occurred when I was about 14 years old. I was swinging from the top of our 15-foot-high boathouse, out over the lake when the rope broke, and I came crashing down into the shallow water in a seated position. This resulted in my first real strong attack of low back pain which took a week or so to to get over.

During my high school years, I would suffer flare-ups of low back pain every three months or so, which would necessitate a day on the couch. I was never offered any treatment and just hold to rest when these flare-ups occurred. Low back pain notwithstanding, I remained very active in high school sports and lettered in football and track & field all four years.

Weight lifting: A Temporary Cure?

After graduating from Mona Shores high school in 1978, I attended Ferris State University on a track & Field scholarship, and surprisingly my low back pain completely disappeared a few months after I started heavy training, which included throwing, weight lifting, core strengthening, and circuit training.

Although I was competitive at the collegiate level in the shot put and discus throw, I really had a gift for throwing the hammer (Hammer Throw Competition) and, in addition to winning several collegiate MVP awards, achieved All-American honors six-times during my four year throwing career at Ferris State. Ultimately, in 2006 I received their highest athletic honor by being inducted into the Ferris State Hall Of Fame. [Gillard Inducted into the Hall Of Fame].

Out of the Snow and In to the Humidity

After graduating from Ferris State, I had a big decision to make: to go into medical school or continue to pursue my dream of becoming an Olympic-level athlete and win a gold medal for the United States.

Against my physician father's approval, I chose the latter and moved to Marietta, Georgia where I increased my level of training (this time without the obstacle of winter) and started graduate school at Life Chiropractic University, which at the time was much less time demanding compared to medical school.

During my time in Georgia, which had a miserable climate for most of the year—it was terribly humid and there were too many gnats for my liking—I rapidly moved up the US Hammer rankings and by 1986 had become one of the best 18 throwers in the Country.

Although a mandatory student x-ray in 1983 demonstrated a 50% loss of disc height at L5/S1 (the train of degeneration was still quietly rolling along), I can't recall a single attack of low back pain during my four years in graduate school, which I attribute to the fact my annular disc tear(s) had not reached the pain-sensitive outer one third of the disc and I was incredibly strong from all that weight lifting.

To the Land of Sunny California

After graduating from chiropractic college in 1986 with honors (cum laude), I moved to Los Gatos, California in order to work with one of the Olympic hammer coaches, Ed Burke, and, after a six-month internship at a top-notch postsurgical rehab center, I took a job as a associate chiropractor in Gilroy, California.

With guidance from the US Olympic coaches and the help of some top-level international hammer throwers that frequented the area, I moved into the top 10 rankings within a year and qualified for the 1988 Olympic trials, in which I placed (if I remember correctly) 12th.

In 1989, I was one of the hottest young hammer thrower in the land, for I was having training throws over 240 feet in the winter without backing off my training, which would have translated into throws well over 250 feet during the summer season.

This was one of the happiest time of my life, for not only was I on the path to potentially winning an Olympic medal in the upcoming Olympic Games, I had also met the love of my life, Lydia (figure left), who, God bless her heart, has stuck by me through all these years of hardship and put up with my crazy sports and academic obsessions, as well as my disabilities—she is still the love of my life and the best thing that has ever happened to me.

The First Strike:The power clean that ended my Olympic dreams

So, things were going fantastic during the winter of 1989 until, for the first time since high school, I suffered a severe attack of low back pain after doing power clean (a weight lifting exercise) triples with weights over 350 pounds (specifically, I slipped on the last rep and hyperextended my low back). The pain was unbearable, and I was not able to even walk for three days.

Although it took me over a month to recover enough to resume my training (which was devastating to a 12-month training program), I was able to salvage part of the 1989 season and managed a personal best of 72.46 meters (237 feet) and a fourth-place finish at the 1989 Olympic Track & Field Championships.

My low-back, however, would never again allow me to accomplish the heavy training and weight lifting that was needed for my continued improvement in the sport; therefore, I sadly called it quits in the fall of 1989.

The Train of Degeneration Keeps a Rolling

After quitting my chiropractic associate job in Gilroy, I turned my full energy towards building a chiropractic practice of my own, and it wasn't long before I was one of the busiest chiropractors in the Bay area. At our peak and with a staff of 15 employees and three associate doctors, we helped thousands of of back and neck pain patients overcome their pain and disability throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.

Because my back was feeling so much better after the elimination of the Olympic-class training routine, I said another sports goal: to become a professional golfer. Although I was able to get down to a 2 tournament-handicap within three years (I had played golf in junior high and high school), again my low back just couldn't take the daily training regimen that I had created; I had to quit the sport after another severe flare-up of back pain in 1995.

In 1995, I sent another goal after attending a Blues Festival in San Francisco with my wife: I wanted to learn to sing and play the guitar, à la Stevie Ray Vaughn. By the late 1990s, that goal was in the officially accomplished, as I had played over 100 gigs in Northern California with my blues band, Dr. Doug and the Blues Creepers. Some new health problems, however, put the Kabbalah on that hobby and I quit. (*I still greatly enjoy singing and playing the blues in my music closet {my wife thinks I'm crazy} and may venture out to form another blues band in the near future.)

The Second Strike: Road bike racing and disc herniations don't mix!

In year 2000, I set my next athletic goal: to become a nationally-ranked road bike racer (à la Lance Armstrong). After hiring a professional coach, I was soon logging hundreds of bike-miles per week and began competing. I was a natural and still had a VO2 over 60 l/min at the age of 40. Their was one piece of advice from my coach that I wish I would have listened to more closely: you can't train hard all the time and needed to lift weights to supplement your road bike training. I figured that since I had lifted weights for over 10 years at a level higher than any of these road bike riders, I didn't need to do it. BIG MISTAKE!

The beginning of the end occurred while doing seated intervals up a 7% grade mountain: I felt something pop and suffered immediate back pain. This time, however, the pain was different, for it was localized in my left and then right sacroiliac joint. So, not being as educated as I am now, I diagnosed myself with having a sprain/strain of the SI joints. *Little did I know was the fact that full thickness annular tears (the precursor to disc herniation) often refer pain to the sacroiliac joints; my diagnosis should have been a full thickness annular tear, which would have drastically changed my training: it would've stopped it completely and immediately.

Alas, notwithstanding the low back pain, I decided to finish my final and favorite race of the year, which was a 7-mile uphill time trial that finished at the top of beautiful Henry Coe State Park—my home turf and favorite training grounds (it was only a few miles from my house).

The Third Strike: ironically, it was a chiropractic treatment that finished me off

As you may have guessed, I suffered a severe flare-up of back pain following that race on 10/20/02, in which I placed 2nd, and I never recovered. Although the pain would settle down after a week or two, the minute I jumped back on my road bike, it would return with a vengeance and force another week or two recovery. This pattern of flare-up and recovery went on for the next few months, until, ironically, a not-so-smart associate doctor of mine finished me off with a chiropractic adjustment.

Specifically, despite my admonition, he tractioned me way too hard, which in turn herniated my L5 disc and probably tethered my left S1 nerve root (an unfixable over-stretch nerve injury). Forty-five minutes after that treatment in January, 2003, I developed horrible left sciatica which has ruined my life, and damn near killed me by being at least part responsible for the development of severe blood clots in that same sciatica-infested leg which progressed into pulmonary emboli, in 2013. Chronic sciatica is truly a horrible curse that no one can completely understand unless they too have lived with the horror.

The Botched Microdiscectomy

I wish I would have had this website, ChiroGeek.com, available to me before I allowed an orthopedic spine surgeon operate on my 4 mm contained disc L5 herniation. (figure 6.1) For if I would have read this site, I would have quickly learned that microdiscectomy has a very poor track record for treating disc herniations that are still contained by the posterior longitudinal ligament and are less than 7-8 mm in size, all of which were true for my little herniation.

If you have studied the disc anatomy page and disc herniation page, then you should have easily spotted my 3-4 mm contained herniation in figure 6.1, which is contacting and deviating the left traversing nerve root.

Not only did this 2003 discectomy fail to relieve my back pain and sciatica, it actually made things much worse by knocking me out of work for nearly 6 months (I was working before the surgery), which was incredibly costly because I did not have any disability insurance.

The aftermath of the surgery demonstrated MRI-findings of excessive scar tissue around the left S1 root (which I believe was secondary to excessive or rough handling of that root during surgery) which was a sign that the insides of the root was permanently damaged and susceptible to the easy generation of pain signals to the brain, which is perceived as sciatica.

Medical School: a new adventure

Although it took five years, thanks to mother nature, gentle chiropractic Cox flexion / distraction treatment and exercise I recovered to the point that I was no longer in pain and could even hike in beautiful mountains of California without incident.

Although I still had limitations with regard to heavy lifting, and repeated bending at the waist, I thought that I was in good enough shape to take a run at a childhood dream: becoming a physician.

After mandatory refreshment of all my core science classes (i.e., organic chemistry, general chemistry, physics, physiology, anatomy, and molecular biology) and scoring fairly high on the MCAT, I was accepted into the St. George School of Medicine in 2011 and was so incredibly happy.

Unfortunately, I soon realized that sciatica is truly "forever" and all that sitting stirred up the "beast" again which wreaked havoc on my leg. I finally got to the point that I just couldn't take the pain and was forced to take a medical leave at the end of 2011.

A New Career: a spine researcher, spine research coordinator, and director of spine research

As it turned out, all that hard work was not in vain, for my blog caught the eye of two spine surgeons almost simultaneously, both of whom wanted me to direct their spine research programs.

After interviewing and shadowing both doctors, I chose Vail, Colorado, over Melbourne, Florida, and was off on another adventure—much to the chagrin of my loving and ever so patient wife, Lydia.

Specifically, in early 2012, I accepted a job as the Director of Spine Research for a prominent orthopedic spine surgeon from the Steadman Clinic and to work as a Spine Research Coordinator for a prestigious Research Institute (The Steadman Philippon Research Institute), which was located within the same hospital, at the base of Vail Mountain. (*The only pain of this job, was that my sciatica would not let me ski; however, I was able to do a little hiking in the most beautiful mountains I have ever seen in my life.

During my two years in Vail, I accomplished a great deal including the design, completion, and publication of two research investigations, one of which I was the lead author on; the landing of a $54,000 grant for a lumbar brace study that I single-handedly designed and pursued; and the IRB approval (which was not an easy task) of another randomized control trial that I designed. I also learned an awful lot about different data-collection systems and their management, as well as the different methods of collecting long-term follow-up data. I also learned the nuts and bolts of how to build a research program from the ground up.

Unfortunately, the spine unit of the research Institute closed, and I am out of a job.

What's next?

I absolutely loved my job as a spine research coordinator / director of spine research and have recently began to looking for a similar job, only this time a little closer to my California home. Specifically, I am looking for a spine surgeon, pain management group, or an orthopedic group that desire to start publishing the results of their treatment outcomes and surgical innovations, but don't really know how to get started. I can get you guys started and at a price that is much more affordable than farming research projects out to large institutes. I can do it all in house if you so desire or would be just as happy being your spine research coordinator. If you are interested, I've created a comprehensive online resume that will explain my unique skill sets more thoroughly. (learn more)

I've also gotten my chiropractic license in California re-activated and may be opening up a pain clinic in the not so distant future with a physiatrist friend of mine, that is, if I cannot find another dream job as a spine researcher. I'm also greatly enjoying helping patients who are confused by their sciatica and chronic spine pain and don't know what to do or who to trust. Specifically, to fill this need, I offer a Coaching Service where I review your MRI/CT, create a key image worksheet, and then we discuss your unique situation and potential treatment options over the phone (or Skype if you are out of the country).

The Educator:

I just (December, 2014) receive news that I got another dream job. Specifically, after trying out for a quarter in the Fall as a Gross-I Anatomy Instructor and an Upper-QuarterCervical Pathology/Diagnosis Instructor, my application for full-time employment with Palmer chiropractic college has been accepted. I am now an Associate Professor of Clinical Sciences with that college and am having the time of my life! Between my thriving coaching service business and this full-time employment, things couldn't be better – now if I could just get rid of that damn sciatica, things would be perfect :-)

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