Marathon runner back to training after near-death spinal injury, grateful for care he received that saved his life


Featured patient: Chris Carenza
Anterior Cervical Discectomy and Fusion

Chris Carenza

Patients, family members and friends often thank their caregivers, the doctors, nurses and others who touch their lives, often unexpectedly. When St. Louis attorney Chris Carenza suffered a life-threatening accident, he knew one thank you would never be enough. He said it over and over at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine until as many people as possible heard.

Carenza’s accident happened on a beautiful October day in Forest Park. He was training for the New York Marathon. It was to be his fifth marathon in five years. Carenza ran 18 miles the day before so on Sunday, October 16, 2016, he rode his bike.

He was going downhill when he noticed another cyclist quickly approaching from behind. He looked away for a moment and that was when his front tire left the paved path. It hit gravel and sent Carenza over the handlebars. He crashed hard into the ground and lost consciousness.

His first memory after the crash was a stranger’s voice. “I remember going from darkness into light. I heard a guy say, ‘Can you hear me? Are you okay?’,” Carenza recalled.

Witnesses called 911. First responders stabilized Carenza and took him to the emergency department at nearby Barnes-Jewish Hospital, a level one trauma center. His injuries were serious. He was in shock and had weakness and numbness in his upper body. An MRI confirmed his spinal cord was seriously bruised, and his neck was broken in three places.

Despite his state of shock, Carenza recalls being taken aback by something: kindness and compassion. It began with the witnesses and first responders and continued in the Barnes-Jewish emergency department and every stage of his care. “They see people like me everyday. But for me, it was one of the most significant experiences of my life,” said Carenza. “They treated me like my care was the most important thing they’ve ever done in their lives. You would think I was the only patient they had to care for.”

It took a couple of days for Carenza to realize the full extent of his injuries. Jacob Buchowski, MD, a Washington University School of Medicine orthopedic spine surgeon at Barnes-Jewish Hospital helped in what Carenza described as the most caring way possible.

“When Dr. B spoke with me, he looked me in the eyes and was very straightforward,” Carenza said. “At the same time, he did not talk down to me. It was like the two of us were colleagues working on the same problem and figuring out how to solve it together. And he did it with such humanity, it felt like loving kindness.”

Dr. Buchowski recognizes the importance of his conversations with patients. “I try to treat them as a brother, a sibling, a relative,” said Dr. Buchowski. “I might use ‘doctor talk’ but I try to approach patients as fellow human beings.”

Together, Dr. Buchowski and Carenza established a plan that involved a procedure known as an anterior cervical discectomy and fusion. Dr. Buchowski decompressed Carenza’s spinal cord, repaired the broken vertebrae with cadaver bone and used a titanium plate to fuse the C3 and C4 vertebrae.

Through it all, Carenza’s gratitude grew. He asked family members to write down the names of everyone who had a hand in his care during his five day stay at Barnes-Jewish. “I almost still can’t believe how great they all were,” Carenza said.

Soon after Carenza was released from the hospital, he penned a two page letter addressed to Barnes-Jewish vice president and chief medical officer, John Lynch, MD. It read, in part, “The doctors and nurses who took care of me treated me in a friendly and professional manner with first-rate medical expertise, and throughout it all with compassion, respect and dignity.”

“I am just a very small part of the whole enterprise,” said Dr. Buchowski. “The rehab people have just as much of a role in recovery. The post-op care is just as important. Even in the operating room, I couldn’t do what I do without the help of others.”

Three months later, while his strenuous recovery continued, Dr. Buchowski delivered the news Carenza was not certain would come. He was told he would run again. Carenza is taking it slow, but his sights are set on the race he missed. He has already started training to run in the New York Marathon in November, 2017.

“It was a very scary, near death experience. I was a wreck, emotionally. But Dr. Buchowski, his team and the team at Barnes-Jewish Hospital made it possible for me to get through it, and start me on the path to recovery. Here I am today, very optimistic, very encouraged and very grateful.”

A year after surgery, Chris ran in the New York Marathon. Chris talks about his experience in the Edwardsville Intellligencer and in this incredibly inspirational video courtesy of John Klobnak:

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