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Photo by Todd Lester.
Oak Mountain head football coach Cris Bell persevered through a life-altering condition this offseason that required a 40-day hospital stay. Having been temporarily paralyzed from the waist down, Bell can now walk unassisted after months of physical therapy.
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Photo by Todd Lester.
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Cris Bell is easy to spot on Friday nights.
Identifiable by his 6-foot-3 frame, gray hair and portable headset, the fifth-year head football coach at Oak Mountain High School patrols the sidelines with a glacial look that conveys austerity and concentration.
But perhaps his most conspicuous trait — this fall, at least — is the distinct limp that accompanies every stride.
There is a story behind the step.
Bell, who has the chance this season to become the winningest football coach in Oak Mountain history, is on the road to recovery from an offseason back surgery that forced him to spend 40 days in the hospital.
For seven of those days, he lost complete feeling and function in the lower half of his body, leaving him temporarily paralyzed from the waist down.
But, Bell said, thanks to a rigorous physical therapy regimen, widespread community support and the impact of prayer, he is expected to make a return to almost — if not completely — full health.
“I tell people I’m very grateful to have gone through it,” Bell said. “I don’t know what that sounds like, but I think I’m much better for having gone through it. I think God has given me a perspective that either I didn’t have or maybe I just minimized before.”
A debilitating pain
Feb. 16 is a date that will forever be etched in Bell’s memory.
That’s when he married his wife, Kim, more than 26 years ago. This past February, that was the day he now points to as the beginning of one of his most challenging trials.
“I remember waking up on the morning of our anniversary, and I actually had a doctor’s appointment with my dermatologist; I couldn’t get out of the driveway,” Cris Bell said. “The pain was shooting down my legs so bad. I was trying to drive over there, and I pulled back in.”
The pain that shot down Bell’s lengthy legs on that mid-February morning originated in his lower back. The coach was diagnosed with spinal stenosis in 2009 and had spent a portion of this past winter in rehab after a flare-up around Thanksgiving.
Stenosis, as Bell explained, indicates the narrowing of the open spaces around the spine.
“If you compare the width of your spine to the height of a ceiling — you know, the average ceiling height is eight feet — well, my ceiling height would be four feet,” Bell said. “I guess my spinal column down there is about half the size that it’s supposed to be down in the lumbar region between L1 and L5.”
In Bell’s case, the condition led to nerve compression that resulted in pain radiating from his back down his legs.
He suffered through it for three days.
Then, on Feb. 19, he received an epidural block in his lumbar region that was intended to bring him relief. Instead, it triggered catastrophe.
Bell said his doctor believes too much fluid was injected into too little spinal space during the block. Rather than calming the inflammation, the injection irritated it even more.
“I couldn’t imagine having pain worse than what I was enduring,” Bell said of his condition on Feb. 21, two days after the block.
The next morning, he had his wife call an ambulance to come pick him up from their home. By the time he was admitted to Brookwood Baptist Medical Center about midday Feb. 22, he said he had lost all feeling and function below the waist.
He wouldn’t start to regain it for more than a week. “In essence, I was paralyzed from the waist down by mid-morning Monday [Feb. 22],” Bell said. “I had no feeling.”
Three days later, Bell’s doctor at Brookwood performed a laminectomy on his L2, L3 and L4 vertebrae. The procedure, he said, created space around the previously compressed nerves.
“When I came out of the surgery, I still didn’t have any feeling at that point, but the pain was gone for the most part,” Bell said.
The recovery process
March 2 stands as another date that has engraved itself in Bell’s recollection.
It’s the date that he identifies as his lowest point.
It’s the one time he worried.
Having moved to Brookwood’s rehab floor earlier in the day, Bell received a visit from the hospital’s chief neurosurgeon during one of his first physical therapy sessions. Bell was told there were concerns about his lack of physical progress since the surgery.
“That was the first time that I really began to get concerned, and I’d asked him, I said, ‘Should I be worried?’” Bell recalled. “He said, ‘Well, yeah, maybe you should, because I’d expect you to have a little more movement at this point.’”
Five days removed from the procedure, Bell had regained little function in his lower half. He said the most he could do was move his legs about two inches while sitting down, with the aid of a foam roller.
“At that point, they’re teaching you how to get in and out of a wheelchair. They’re treating you like you’re going to be confined to a wheelchair indefinitely,” Bell said. “When that was being thrown at me, that’s the first time I probably got overwhelmed a little bit. I’m starting to think, ‘Is this permanent? Is this something that I’m really going to have to learn to deal with?’ Up to that point, I had just expected to wake up one day, and it was going to come back to me.”
A steadying voice
Although she admits to being more of a worrier than her husband, Kim Bell said she felt a responsibility to stay positive during Cris Bell’s weakest moments. She also said she still isn’t sure if her coolness was the effect of being in survival mode, or her faith prompting her to be strong.
“I said, ‘OK, we are going to buckle down, and we’re going to hang in there,” Kim Bell said. “I mean, it was breaking my heart to see him so discouraged. I don’t know that I was discouraged at that time. I just felt for him knowing that the road was going to be long, and he probably didn’t feel certain about how things were going to look when he was coaching, and so I felt for that.”
The next day, March 3 — which also happened to be Cris Bell’s 49th birthday — things started to turn around.
Almost instantly, he said he began to see noticeable improvements during physical therapy, slight as they may have been.
His first step in the right direction was transporting himself from a wheelchair to a therapy table without assistance.
From there, he said he began to rejoice in every little victory.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘I can’t wait to when I can just walk across this room. That would be awesome to get to that point,’” he said.
Kim Bell noticed a more rapid improvement in her husband’s spiritual state. After Cris Bell’s isolated instance of doubt on March 2, she said he went forward with an evident sense of peace.
It’s an observation that Cris Bell verified. Following his one episode of worry, he said a heavenly peace lifted his spirits.
“It slaps you in the face when you realize just how weak that we are, and really how utterly dependent we are on God to sustain us,” he said. “Coming to that realization was a great comfort to me.”
A new perspective
Shuffle by shuffle, Cris Bell regained use of his legs throughout the final four weeks of his 40-day hospital stay.
He went to rehab six days per week, and by the time he left Brookwood on April 1, he said he could walk 300 feet with the aid of a walker.
“Each success created more anticipation for the next milestone,” Kim Bell said. “He was definitely more driven each time he accomplished something.”
Equipped with a wheelchair, Cris Bell returned to Oak Mountain the week after his release from the hospital. At first, he used a wheelchair from his office to the classroom, where he teaches social studies. Eventually, he progressed to a walker, and then a walking stick.
Upon Cris Bell’s return, which coincided with the start of spring football, Oak Mountain defensive coordinator Rusty Frisch said the Eagles received their coach with a warm welcome.
“I think the kids were really happy to see him,” Frisch said. “I think it was definitely a great example to our team of persevering and helping them understand, ‘You are going to have stuff like that in life. How are you going to handle it?’”
How did Cris Bell handle it?
He and his wife both credit his continued recovery to the power of prayer, quality care and community support.
Cris Bell labeled all of the above as “phenomenal.”
“I think that when the people from our church came to pray with him, and people were praying outside of the hospital, just around in the community, there’s no doubt in my mind that … had everything to do with the progress he made as quickly as he did,” Kim Bell said.
Cris Bell continues to do physical therapy at an outpatient rehab center twice a week. He said he has regained full movement in his legs, and can now walk two to three miles unassisted.
Although he said he still experiences some numbness in his lower legs and feet, he remains optimistic about his chances of a full recovery. His goal is to run-walk the Tuscaloosa Half Marathon in March.
All in all, Cris Bell said the unanticipated reality of this past offseason taught him perseverance, deepened his faith and broadened his life perspective.
“There are a lot of other people who go through a lot worse. I look at those people, and I have such admiration for them,” he said. “You look at the folks out there and how many people are really having to struggle just to get up in the morning. I really, really have such a greater appreciation and admiration for those folks.”