Name: Christopher Key.
Hometown: Formerly of San Francisco, Key now lives in Bellingham.
Family: One son and one daughter.
Sudden pain: Key had no idea what was wrong when he went to the hospital in 2006 complaining of sudden severe pain in his back and neck. The doctors told him he had contracted MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), an infection that can spread to bones and cause bone tissue loss.
"You usually get it in a hospital setting, but they told me I was one of the very rare cases of community-acquired MRSA, which means I got it in public somewhere," Key says. "I didn't have any wounds or big open cuts, so they didn't diagnose me for weeks."
Rendered immobile: The infection destroyed three vertebrae, and Key says he went from being healthy and active to being unable to move his arms and legs even a few inches. Four emergency operations later, doctors healed his bones, but Key says that was only the first step to recovery.
Because he couldn't use his neck, legs or arms, he started physical therapy at St. Francis of Bellingham.
"My pain was off the scale, like a 12 out of 10, and I couldn't even raise my arms to wash my own hair," he says. "The physical therapists were determined for me to get better, and that made me determined to get better, too. I didn't want to accept this as my future."
Determined to improve: As executive director of Whatcom County Medical Society, a group that brings medical professionals together to talk about health issues in the community, Key says he knew he had to work hard in physical therapy, even if it was painful.
Still, his therapists were shocked when he regained almost all of his mobility in four and a half months.
"They were astounded," he says. "The fact that I did as much as I did in therapy was something no one expected. They're surprised I lived at all, so I'm sort of a walking miracle."
Active again: Six years later, Key is back on his snowboard sliding down the slopes, a hobby he says he started when he was 51. He says snowboarding doesn't hurt his back, but his other hobby as a blog writer for Entertainment News NW causes moderate pain.
"The only time I really feel back and neck pain is when I'm on the computer for long periods of time," he says. "I have to get up and stretch a lot while I'm typing. Even with that, I'm in pretty good shape for almost cashing it in."
Back on the stage: Key's mother was a drama teacher and he says he was interested in acting from an early age. He has worked with a theatrical production company in Whatcom County for 14 years and helps with productions for Northwest Ballet Theater.
"I don't know what I'd do without snowboarding, writing and theater," he says. "These things keep me happy to be alive."
Key says it's important for people going through pain or medical problems to find activities they love and to commit fully to them.
"The worst thing you can do is give up or sit around waiting for things to get better," he says. "You have to keep that level of physical activity as high as possible or you'll keep going downhill."
Lives with his pain: In addition to physical therapy, Key took yoga classes to stretch his muscles and learn to cope with his pain. He doesn't take pain medication for his back problems, and says he views his pain as a normal part of his life.
Pain medication helps some patients with back problems at first, but dulling the pain with drugs is not a long-term solution, Key says.
"I stopped taking pain meds because I knew I had to accept my pain and work through it without having to be stuck on a pill regimen for the rest of my life," he says. "That's not living to me."
Key says he empathizes with people who are going through severe pain because he has experienced it first-hand. The pain medications Key took in the beginning of his recovery process caused memory loss, he says. He says he remembers the tests doctors gave him and the pain he had, but little else.
"I was taking a witches' brew of pain meds," Key says. "I understand pain better than most people, but people need to stop being wussies about pain. Some people take a pill with the slightest twinge of pain, and sometimes they take more pills to offset the side effects of the ones they have.
"My motto is, if it's something you can live with, learn to live with it, otherwise you're fighting against yourself," Key says. "Patients need to think seriously about what they're taking."
New insights: Key says he never had a family physician before his MRSA infection because he was too healthy to need one. Although Key wasn't accustomed to health problems before his infection and bone loss, he says he now has a better understanding of what he is able to overcome, and a greater appreciation for what he is able to do today.
"I want people to know they should never give up," he says. "You can come back."
Marissa Abruzzini is a freelance writer in Bellingham.