For 10 years, Dr. Jeff Brown, 46, enjoyed a career as a cardiac anesthesiologist. He lived comfortably raising two sons and had turned to cycling as a way to lose the weight he had gained during the stressful years of his residency. By cutting out processed foods and biking at least 80 miles a week, he lost 50 pounds. He was enjoying being active with his family, and it was a beautiful spring day when he was outside playing basketball with his sons that his life started on a much different trajectory.
“I felt lightning pain shooting down both my legs. I knew this was not good. As it turned out, I had severe compression of the nerves exiting my spinal cord,” he says.
Repairing the Damage
Jeff had spent years with back pain, and he finally had to undergo a spinal fusion surgery in May 2015. A daunting operation that involved placing rods and bolts into his spinal column, Jeff knew he was in for a painful recovery.
“Many patients never make it back to work with the condition I had, and a lot of them never get off pain medicines,” he says.
Jeff lost two close friends to opioid overdoses, which influenced his decision to undergo rehabilitation without pain medicine. He started with a land-based and aquatic physical therapy program at Semmes Murphey Clinic. He was determined to stay fit and walked every single day, even becoming somewhat of a celebrity at the Germantown Athletic Center for his determination and willpower. They watched him as he progressed from a walker to a cane to moving on his own.
Getting Back on the Bike
Despite Jeff’s resolve to stay active post surgery, getting back into cycling at the level he used to took nearly a year of slow and painstaking progress.
“It was literally baby steps to start with,” he says. “Inches turned into feet, and feet turned into miles.”
Since Jeff’s progress was slow, changes weren’t visible from day to day, and he often had to remind himself of how far he had come since the previous month in order to stay motivated. The transition from a walker to walking in a pool to walking with a cane to biking was tough, and Jeff and his family are so proud of how far he’s come.
Jeff maintains his healthy lifestyle thanks to his largely ketogenic diet and his consistent workout routine. He eats mainly fish, vegetables, meat, eggs, and nuts. He builds three 16-hour fasts into his weekly schedule.
His current workout routine involves riding a hybrid bike on the Shelby Farms Greenline 14 miles every day. In inclement weather, he does high-intensity interval rides on his indoor recumbent bike. They include 4.5-minute intervals of moderate intensity with 30-second sprints for a workout that lasts between 30 minutes and an hour.
The spinal surgery prohibits heavy lifting, so he builds strength through bodyweight moves like push-ups and pull-ups, as well as squats and hand weights on a Bosu ball. The balancing element engages his core to add an extra element to his workouts.
Helping Others Through Pain
Having greater empathy for a patient’s experience overcoming pain, Jeff returned to his alma mater to complete an Interventional Pain Medicine Fellowship and now works as an interventional pain physician. He specializes in non-narcotic pain treatment at the same place that helped him through his recovery, Semmes Murphey Clinic here in Memphis.
In the past 15 years, science has learned so much about the negative impact of opioids, particularly when used to treat chronic pain. From physical therapy to nerve blocks to utilizing new nerve ablation technology, there are plenty of safer options than narcotics for those dealing with chronic pain. Jeff is dedicating his career to helping people feel better through safer methods.
By Lucy Harrison
Photograph by Tindall Stephens