Spencer Stein, MPH
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Spencer Stein, MPH

Founder and President, Spiral Health®

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Special to the San Diego Union-Tribune

By Spencer Stein on August 18, 2012

The thin nylon fabric of my glider collapsed, and as I fell 200 feet into Lake Isabella, I knew my life was about to change. Change it did, in ways I never expected.

I was 18 on that July day in 2010 when I slammed into the lake. It hurt. Struggling underwater to free myself, I figured I would be OK once I got to the surface for air. A rescue boat arrived and took me to the shore, where I was embarrassed to hear applause for my spectacular showmanship — the perfect example to the other students of exactly what not to do.

I had some mild back pain, but my adrenaline was pumping and I decided to give “wingovers” and “full stalls” another shot a couple of hours later. My parents thought I was crazy. I think I used the phrase “getting back on the horse.”

Up in the air again, my confidence a bit rattled, I intentionally entered a full stall and started plummeting. The parachute reinflated, just like it was supposed to. I took a deep breath and floated down for a landing. The ordeal was over.

Not so fast. A week later, my back still hurt. I went to the hospital, where doctors found four compression fractures in my spine. And then they found something else.

Hidden in the center of my spinal cord, wrapped around my central nerves, was an abnormal tangle of blood vessels. It was a birth defect, totally unrelated to the fall, a monster lurking there for 18 years. The neurosurgeon called it a “cavernous angioma” and said it could start bleeding any time, leading to sudden, lifelong paralysis.

An MRI of Spencer Stein’s spine, showing the abnormality, was taken in August, 2010, not long after the teen’s paragliding fall.

So much for being an invincible teenager.

And yet the surprising diagnosis would never have happened if I hadn’t fallen from the sky that day. Sometimes the worst thing that can happen to you is also the best thing that can happen to you. The fall was a gift.


I faced a dilemma. Leaving my defect alone, without surgery, could mean permanent loss of all bodily sensation, hideous neurological pain, or loss of functioning and movement in the lower half of my body.

Yet an operation on this ultra-important, all-but-inaccessible part of my body could cause any of the same problems. It seemed like a no-win situation.

I got a second opinion, and a third and a fourth and a fifth. Some doctors recommended immediate surgery, while others wouldn’t dare operate on the exquisitely sensitive and vulnerable central nerves — especially those of a healthy and athletic teenager.

I could turn to my parents for advice but ultimately it was my body, my life — my call. The existential quotation “Life is the sum of your choices” resonated with me because I knew I was about to make the hardest choice of my life.

The monster helped me decide. It began sending terrifying signals periodically, nerve pain that felt like pins and needles in my feet. I had to go for the surgery before it was too late.

I remember the morning before the operation. I was staying in a hotel across from Barrow’s Neurological Institute, at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix. Surprisingly, I was not fearful, just calm and collected. The anxiety of the past year had vanished at the most critical time. I walked down the sterile hospital halls into the pre-op room filled with confidence and a present-minded readiness to endure six hours of surgery.

Waking in the ICU, still dazed from the anesthesia, I faced another big test. “We have finished the surgery,” the doctor whispered in my ear. “Why don’t you try wiggling your toes?”

I looked down at my feet. The anticipation was awful. My toes started moving, and then the whole foot, and then my legs. I did it!

Although I had movement, I soon realized I also had incredible back pain and wasn’t able to feel my legs. I also experienced patches of intense tingling. This was a risk of the surgery. The numbness and tingling were so annoying — like the feeling of your feet falling asleep — and never ending. My limbs seemed wooden, like they were foreign objects.

I was admitted in a neuro-rehab unit with a spinal cord gym and a brain gym. The routine set in pretty fast: two hours of physical therapy a day, one hour of occupational therapy. By the end of the first week, I was taking my first steps without any assistance.

Spencer Stein, seen two weeks into his recovery from risky surgery, works with a therapist to regain the ability to walk. Photo by June Stein

Physical therapy took place in the gym. It was full of patients in wheelchairs. Some had arrived recently. Some had been there for months. I shuffled in, and eyes stared at me from all around the room. Men, women, teenagers.

I was the only patient who was able to walk. I felt guilty for walking. What a strange feeling that was.


I still have some of the same numbness and tingling, which might stay with me for the rest of my life. This troubled me at first.

But while I underwent various therapies — acupuncture, hyperbaric oxygen, magnetic therapy, supplements, laser therapy, yoga, meditation, energy healing — I thought of the challenges facing the people I’d seen in rehab. Those images made me want to help others instead of worrying about myself.

The summer after the surgery, I interned at the San Diego Zoo. Coincidentally, I was assigned to a project involving those with physical disabilities.

My job was to create a tour for blind or low-vision guests. The zoo management had a remarkable philosophy — to give all guests, regardless of their circumstances, the best experience possible. They wanted to go above and beyond the access laws for the disabled, and I was passionate about making that happen.

This required developing a tour where tactile and auditory senses were involved. To test it, I escorted blind guests around the park and watched their reactions.

When I placed a lock of a lion’s mane in their hands, they smiled. I was able to experience their joy. It felt great.

These guests taught me about gratitude. Their enthusiasm and appreciation for life despite their challenges aided my own recovery. They equipped me with the tools necessary to accept my own circumstances — to live with that annoying feeling in my legs.

It is now two years after the accident. I am surfing, playing basketball, and paragliding again. I’ve become a certified postural alignment therapist. Soon I’ll be back at Cornell University, in the School of Hotel Administration, where I’ve launched the Stein Family Prize to reward students who pay attention to disability-access issues in business plan competitions.

My life changed on the day I fell from the sky. Changed for the better.

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