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Medical Advances Keep Runner on Track after Spinal Injury

The National Institutes of Health says roughly 40 million people in the United States suffer from, or are at high risk for, osteoporosis, a condition that decreases bone mass and often results in fractures in the spine, hips, and wrists. While older women are more likely to develop the disease, it was a surprise to one man in the Chicago suburbs who had built a life on running and was at risk of being sidelined after his diagnosis.

Jon Macnider, or “Mac” to his friends, has been running since 1968. “Running is what keeps me sane, keeps me healthy and happy, and it’s what I enjoy doing," he said. "It’s something to start the day with.”

From a hobby to a career

What began as a hobby for Macnider turned into a career, first as a marathon runner, then teaching physical education at a suburban Chicago high school where he also coached a women’s running team.

“It’s been rewarding. Actually, my coaching career has been much more rewarding than my running career,” he stated.

But during Macnider’s last year as coach, he ran right into a problem.

“We were on an eight-mile run, and I turned over my shoulder to encourage some girls to keep up, and it felt like someone shot me in the back,” he explained.

A visit to the doctor revealed it was not a gunshot, but a spinal injury caused by an unusual case of osteoporosis, or a thinning of Macnider’s bones. “I had a compression fracture of my T-7 vertebrae,” he said.

Bone thinning, nearly ends coaching

Macnider feared the injury meant the end of his running career. “We were the number one-ranked team in the state," he noted. "And my dream was to go out running with my girls and it wasn’t going to happen.”

Orthopedic spine surgeon Thomas McNally said in the past this might have sidelined Macnider. “What they would have done is treated him with brace treatment and medications, and it would have taken him a longer time to get back to his activity level,” he said.

But Dr. McNally had a different approach, suggesting Macnider undergo balloon kyphoplasty. It inserts a balloon into the spine near the site of the fracture. “You blow up the balloon, it makes a hole in the vertebral body, and then we fill with bone cement. It acts like an internal cast,” he added.

Treatment, fast track to wellness

That internal cast has put the stride back in Macnider’s step.

“Had the surgery on a Friday, walked out of the hospital and told my wife it’s fixed. I started running again on Monday,” he recalled.

Now, three years beyond the procedure, Macnider is preparing to do what he has done so well in the past, cross the marathon finish line one more time. “That’s the goal. I’ve been taught to set goals. That’s something I want to do, get to run a marathon with my kids," he said.

He hopes to complete that goal next year before he reaches another milestone… his 60th birthday.
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    Kane Farabaugh

    Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where since 2008 he has established Voice of America's presence in the heartland of America.