"At times, we can be stuck in this cycle of doubt, and I think the proper term for it is fear avoidance behaviour, where you're scared and then avoid doing things,” Dr Leia Kane says. “A lot of the official advice I was given early on was to change jobs and you'll never triathlon again, let this go.”
Emergency doctor Leia Kane was walking around proudly after completing a local sprint triathlon but, suddenly, “Something was not right,” she says. “My legs were numb. I was really sore, I couldn’t pee, and that’s when I went to hospital.” What followed was a scary whirlwind of emergency surgery and the fear that she would lose control of her left leg after she had been diagnosed with cauda equina syndrome. The rare and extremely serious condition affects the bundle of nerves at the base of the spine—the grouping resembles a horse's tail from which its name is inspired—and can result in permanent paralysis and incontinence.
“My left leg wasn’t really working after the operation but I just decided to get on with it,” Dr Kane says. Despite her brave actions, Kane admits the entire experience was traumatic and she wasn’t able to talk about her experience for a long time. At the time, however, Kane continued her recovery with crutches and got herself a recovery training partner: a puppy. “I was just really sad so I got a dog,” she says simply. “In hindsight, it’s probably something you shouldn’t do spur of the moment when you’re not feeling your best but it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”
The two started walking five minutes a day and built up together until Kane was recovered enough to start physical therapy in the water. After a couple weeks of just walking in the water, Kane attempted a length of front crawl. Despite the difficulty getting dressed and getting in and out of the pool, Kane found solace in swimming. “It was hugely significant because it was the first time not feeling completely helpless. It was having control over your own physicality—like I can't do anything else but I can do this—and the progress was actually really quite quick.”
“Once I could do like one or two laps, I joined a local triathlon club. They didn't really know the full extent of the injury; I wasn't in a place at the time to be telling people about it. I just wanted to be doing stuff and they were really good, they let me go at my own pace.”
Along with having some control of her body again and feeling progress in her recovery, Kane also was buoyed by the sense of community from the club. “Just knowing that Monday night I’m going to the pool, there’s people around—it was always something to look forward to and it still is.”
Shockingly, only six months post surgery, Kane returned to the start line and completed a local race. “It was awful. It was horrendous. It was bad. I was dead last—but I loved it,” she beams. “It was reassuring that things might be okay.”
Going for Extra
What followed next, Kane only labels as “stupidity.” A huge fan of triathlon, Kane loves to watch televised events and found herself watching the Ironman world championship. “There was a guy, Al Tarkington, who was the last male finisher at Kona that year and he was 82 years old. Wow, that’s incredible. It’s incredible isn’t it? I was like, gosh, if he can do that, then maybe I can do that.”
“I told everybody,” Kane laughs. “I told everybody I'm going to do [an Ironman], especially triathlon people, triathlon club people, you know, swim coaches, like everybody, this is what I'm going to do.” Although people thought she was crazy, including herself a little, Kane was determined. With about 8 months to train, Kane got a book and just followed the plan, slow and steady, to prepare for the 3.9 km swim, 180 km bike, and 42.2 km run.
Trust Your Body
But it wasn’t always smooth sailing. With the severity of her injury, Kane had a few rough patches both mentally and physically. “I fell off my bike about a year after the original injury and I actually thought that was it. Whatever that jerk did to my back that day, I thought it was game over. I had new pain, new weakness, it was all back,” she explains. “The surgeon said to stop doing everything and, to be fair, I did. I reminded myself what I want.”
“I made a very conscious decision at one point that all I wanted, really, was to be able to walk my dog, drive, and work and to have a meaningful life—everything else was extra. So I just went back to square one and started again.”
While most might be disheartened at starting all over, Kane said it was actually easier the second time because of one thing: acceptance. Accepting her situation empowered her to shift focus from fear to a trust in her body.
“I have learned to have a little bit of trust in my body… I've had lots of really horrible dark days where I'm too scared to move or do anything but it's that process of learning, well actually, what can you do? Trusting in that and knowing, learning, or relearning normal pain as opposed to pain from damage and it's incredible what our bodies will do if we work with them.”
"At times, we can be stuck in this cycle of doubt, and I think the proper term for it is fear avoidance behaviour, where you're scared and then avoid doing things. A lot of the official advice I was given early on was to change jobs and you'll never triathlon again, let this go. I completely understand the intentions behind that kind of thing but we have this amazing capacity to recover if we allow ourselves to do it.”
Do Hard Things
Despite all her setbacks, Kane got to the start line of Ironman Vitoria. Kane says it was quite emotional to finally stand on the start line, shoulder to shoulder with all the other hopeful athletes after everything she had been through. “And then we were off,” she says. Kane had trained herself to be calm and comfortable in open water so she quickly found feet, a comfortable rhythm, and came out of the water on pace of her goal time.
After a fantastic start, inexperience and nutritional mistakes ultimately led to her missing the bike cut off and untimely a DNF but, for Kane, “Nothing was going to be failure.” Although she has “unfinished business,” she admits with a laugh, Kane took it as a learning experience and immediately signed up for another ironman.
“Actively choosing to do really hard things that you might fail at puts everything else into perspective…I think doing really hard things repeatedly by choice then makes dealing with the really hard things that come your way by accident, whether that be work or family or health or whatever, almost makes it a little bit easier because you regularly do really stupid-hard things—you’re trained for it.”
Now in a place where she can talk about her injury and her experience, Kane isn’t just sharing her experience, she’s putting the lessons she’s learned into practice to create a meaningful life, whether that’s walking her dog, practicing medicine, or doing “really stupid-hard things.”
“Life is for living. There's no point waiting until we're retired at 65. You don't know what's going to happen between now and then. Let's live our life absolutely to the fullest.”