Back to Life: Bill Walton's Story

Bill Walton
Pain
Improving Quality of Life

Bill Walton wears a lot of hats: NBA legend, broadcaster, father and friend. Some may associate him with his bold political activism or his intense dedication to the Grateful Dead. Bill figures that he’s attended more than 1,000 of their shows over the past 52 years. But, these days, Bill is screaming and shouting on behalf of a different group: the medical technology community.

He’s a patient ambassador, meeting regularly with patients, doctors, hospitals, government officials and industry leaders to help raise awareness about innovative advancements in treating chronic pain. That’s because, after decades living with debilitating chronic back pain, Bill found what he calls “a miracle in medtech.”

“Now that I have my life back, thanks to the sacrifices of others, I have a responsibility to pay it forward,” Bill said. “I want to do everything I can to help those suffering the way I did.”

A CAREER CUT SHORT

At 6’11,” Bill has heard it before: “You must be a basketball player.”

Not only was Bill a basketball player, he was the basketball player, an excellent rebounder with a deadly jump hook shot. He’s credited as one of the greatest college basketball players ever, having led the UCLA Bruins to two consecutive NCAA championships, not to mention an unheard-of 88 game winning streak. He’s a member of the NCAA All Time Basketball Team.

Bill had similar success in the NBA, collecting two NBA championships and 2 NBA Most Valuable Player awards, as well as a best 6th Man Award over the course of his career. Bill’s picture hands in the Basketball Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 1993, his first year of eligibility.

But Bill’s professional success was stifled and short-lived: During his 14 years in the NBA, he missed more games (680) than he played (488) due to a laundry list of injuries.

“My injuries piled up,” Bill said. “Bad back, broken bones, ankle and foot problems, broken hands and wrists, knee injuries, and broken noses.”

By his count, Bill has had 38 orthopedic surgeries to mend his various injuries. Eventually, those injuries – and the chronic pain they left behind – would sideline him for good.

“While my heart was still willing, my body no longer worked” Bill said. “I couldn’t run. I had to stop playing the game that was my religion and life.”

Fortunately, there was still room for Bill on the basketball court as a television broadcaster and commentator. Bill’s unconventional, stream-of-consciousness style injected a new kind of fun into the industry.

“As a lifelong stutterer, learning to speak is my greatest accomplishment in life. And your worst nightmare,” said Bill.

But then, even broadcasting became too difficult to manage in the face of his worsening chronic pain.

“The constant travel—600,000+ domestic air miles and 200+ nights a year in hotels – in a world that’s built for preschool children – took a tremendous toll on my already broken body,” he said. “One day in early 2008, after 18 years of chasing that dream, I was getting off yet another flight when I literally couldn’t move anymore.”

Bill tried treatment after treatment to ease his pain. But nothing worked. 

“I tried everything to stop the unrelenting, excruciating, and debilitating pain: acupuncture, chiropractic adjustments, alternative medicine, meditation, massage, yoga, physical therapy, core strengthening, medication, injections…EVERYTHING,” he said.

Bill’s pain became so severe, he could hardly even speak.

“My joyous life was quickly reduced to nothing,” Bill said. “I couldn’t sit, stand or lie down. I couldn’t work, speak, think, leave the house or care for myself. I couldn’t even get up off the floor. I had to eat my meals lying on the floor, face down. And it was getting worse.”

Bill saw suicide as the only way out of his nightmare. 

“Although I had a great family and wonderful friends, my life was so limited, so painful, so empty, I was ready to end it,” he said. “I found myself searching for bridges. I was looking for the highest ones, with the longest of falls and the hardest of bottoms.”

Just when Bill was ready to give up, he was presented a solution: an innovative, pioneering spine surgery powered by medical technology.

RECOVERY AND RELIEF

Bill’s friend and broadcasting colleague Jim Gray had been pursuing endless research on Bill’s behalf, scouring every lead he could find, until he found a brilliant surgeon, UCSD’s Dr. Steve Garfin, and a promising procedure: a minimally invasive surgery performed through the side of the body instead of the front or the back as in traditional spine surgeries. The lateral access, along with the developing techniques, procedures, and equipment, allows the surgeon to avoid major nerves and muscles in the area between the incision and the spinal column, reducing risk, postoperative pain, excessive blood loss, hospitalization, and recovery time.

During Bill’s surgery, Dr. Garfin repositioned several of his vertebrae that were impinging on nerves. Garfin also fused some of his lumbar vertebrae.

“I had the most serious, complicated surgery of my life – and I’ve had a lot of surgeries,” he said. “This was, by far, the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do—by and incalculable measurement.”

A week later, Bill went home to begin his recovery. He had been warned that progress would be incremental. It proved a unique test of patience.

“During my recovery, there were endlessly long stretches when I didn’t feel like I was making any progress at all,” he said. “But my wife, Lori, knew otherwise. That’s when I started finding the little Post-it notes in unexpected places around our house that she had left for me. Little yellow notes with simple – but incredibly powerful – messages written on them.”

Lori chronicled Bill’s small yet significant recovery milestones note by note: Today you were able to sit on the edge of the bed. Today you were able to dress yourself. Today you were able to eat sitting up. Today you went from your wheelchair to your walker. Today you went from your walker to your cane. Today you were able to bend down and pet the dogs. Today you were able to put your own shoes and socks on (“Lori’s happiest milestone,” Bill jokes.).

For Bill, these results were well worth the challenge.

“About 8 months after my surgery, I experienced a moment I will always remember,” he said. “I was doing some gentle weightlifting in my gym when I realized that my agonizing pain was gone. For the first time in seemingly forever, I knew that I was going to get better. I knew the surgery worked and that, for the first time in years, I had the chance that once again I would be able to enjoy the activities I loved. I would be able to ride my bike and move again.”

Today, years later, Bill is living pain free.

“I have no pain. I take no medication,” he said. “I’m healthier than I’ve been since high school, and I’m busier and happier than I’ve ever been. It’s a miracle.”

Now, he’s dedicated to helping others find that same relief.

“That’s why I’m here today, because this works,” Bill said. “These people have revolutionized spine surgery, and they’ve given up their lives to help others. Everyone who is on their way back [from chronic pain] becomes an absolute evangelist, because we’re overcome by how fantastic this feels. I want to do everything that I can to help those suffering the way I did.”

PAYING IT FORWARD

Bill once more leads an active, happy life.

“10 years ago, I had nothing,” Bill said. “I couldn’t even stand up. Today, I have everything. Now, I can go. Full speed ahead. I can also ride…and ride…and ride. It’s all good! It’s a miracle! I am alive!”

Bill swims, lifts weights and bikes – he prefers a “century,” cycling slang for a 100-mile ride – every day. He serves on numerous business boards, supports countless local and national charitable initiatives and is back to his television broadcasting and speaking career.

“When I was finally able to ride my bike freely again, I knew I had made it all the way back,” he said. “After being in so much pain for so many years, to be able to ride a bike, to feel the wind rushing through my hair and the sun on my face, the sweat cover my body, it gives me more joy that words can ever tell.”

While these passions and work take up a lot of his time, Bill centers his focus on helping others suffering with chronic pain.

“I spend hours every day on the phone, face-to-face, on the internet, talking people off the bridge,” he said. “These people have severe chronic pain, like I used to, that makes them question their very existence. Dealing with desperate patients is tough. But it’s not anything compared to what they’re going through. The satisfaction I get when they emerge from their personal depression is the greatest feeling in the world. It makes me so happy. I know the misery. And what it means to have it go away.”

Beyond these patient-to-patient interactions, Bill also advocates on a broader scale for smart health care legislation and regulation.

“We, as a country, need to have better public and social policies to take care of people when things go wrong, when the ball bounces the other way,” he said. “That’s what [patient advocacy] is all about and why I’m the proudest and luckiest guy in the world to be a part of it.”

Read more about Bill’s experience with medical technology.