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Patient Recruits Spine Surgeon to Join Her in Huntington Beach Race

Beth Sanden has completed marathons on all seven continents.

And the North Pole. And Antarctica.

But her role as a coach can be just as rewarding.

In fact, she has convinced her spine surgeon to walk the Huntington Beach Doggy Dash Cause for Paws 5K with her on Saturday morning.

Not only will Dr. Burak Ozgur, a neurosurgeon and director of the Hoag Spine Center, be out there on the course, but members of his office staff — Yulia Korol, Vernice Stern, Janneinne Le — are participating too.

“She inspired our whole office to do it,” Ozgur said with a smile.

The idea started when Sanden, who lives in San Clemente, came in for her six-month checkup following spinal surgery.

“Yulia, his wonderful front-office gal said, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t know you did marathons,’” Sanden recalled. “She had always wanted to do a marathon. And I said, ‘Well, you might want to start with a 5K first and kind of gradually get into it.’”

Sanden is plenty accustomed to building up to things ever since her cycling accident. When she was in a 50-mile bike race in 2002, she took a spill on some broken asphalt in Fallbrook.

“My bike hit the broken asphalt, and my bike flipped and went into a ravine,” she said. “I flipped over and onto my back, between my shoulder blades, and landed on the asphalt. I shattered T6-T7 and became a paraplegic.”

Sanden, now 68, is what’s known as an incomplete paraplegic. After surgery, 3½ months in the hospital and months more spent in physical therapy, the results were mixed.

“My right leg came back, and my left leg didn’t,” she said. “To walk, I swing the left leg like a pendulum on a clock, and go with the right leg that leads.”

Sanden and her husband Burt began homeschooling their two daughters, who were preteens at the time, and Beth focused on parenting. But the competitive drive never left.

After a second spinal cord surgery to take the rods out, Sanden said friends convinced her to combine to do a half-Ironman, with San Diego-based nonprofit Challenged Athletes Foundation. She swam 1.2 miles after learning how to swim with just her arms, not her legs.

Through grants, she was literally back in the saddle after procuring a race chair and a hand cycle.

“That was the beginning of, ‘Let’s take off and just go,’” she said. “That started me doing triathlons again, and some marathons.”

But a bad car accident two years ago — Sanden’s vehicle was T-boned — led to another serious back injury and put her back in a wheelchair.

Not satisfied with her diagnosis and constantly in pain, Sanden came to see Ozgur at his Irvine office for a third opinion. He understood the risks but wanted to start with a clean slate.

“Was this a reinjury of the same area, or is this something new?,” he said. “That’s probably what scares away most other surgeons. If somebody has had a significant spinal cord injury and two surgeries in that area, the fear is that it’s been reignited, that’s been injured again. It makes it very complicated to reconsider surgery in that area. There can be a lot of scar tissue and cysts that develop. That area is very sensitive.”

After conducting an EMG, a special diagnostic procedure, results showed the new injury was in the lumbar spine, the lower back, rather than a thoracic spinal injury like before. Surgery was conducted to fix the instability of her spine and also her nerve compression.

Sanden is back walking, with the help of a cane or a walker, as her energy typically wanes later in the day.

“We did the surgery and within hours, she was up again,” Ozgur said. “Any normal human being would be complaining, ‘My back hurts, I can’t get up, let me have another day or two to rest.’ I’m not blaming them. But Beth, after another surgery in the front and back of her lumbar spine, she’s already ready to get up again and get moving. The nurses, everybody on the floor still talks about her.”

Now they will be racing with her, too, on Saturday in Surf City. It’s all for a good cause, as the Doggy Dash Cause for Paws benefits animal cancer research.

Sanden, a USA Triathlon coach who also coaches members of Camp Pendleton’s Wounded Warrior Battalion – West, seemingly motivates people everywhere she goes. She completed the L.A. Marathon (fourth in the women’s handcycle division) and Boston Marathon this year, each time with a large team of veterans.

She’s not offering any time predictions for Saturday’s 5K with her medical staff, though.

“We’ll see how they do,” she said with a smile. “The 10K is next.”

By: Daily Pilot