Lita, four weeks of hell

by Phil Speer at on 5/17/02.

From April 6, the day she broke her neck, until April 30, the day she had surgery, Lita went through nearly four weeks of absolute hell. The physical pain was worse than anything she's ever had to endure. The mental anguish -- of getting contradictory information from doctors, of doctors trying to force her to do things she wasn't comfortable with -- may have been nearly as bad.

The injury occurred during rehearsal in Vancouver, B.C., where the former Women's Champion was filming the season finale (and, as it would turn out, the series finale) of FOX's "Dark Angel." Although it took three weeks to get an accurate diagnosis of the problem, Lita knew right away that she was hurt badly.

"I knew from the very time that I landed," Lita told "I had never felt any pain like that before in my life, and I feel like I've felt a lot of different kinds of pain."

A potentially great experience for Lita -- her first non-WWE acting role on network television -- immediately turned into what she describes as her worst nightmare. And she wasn't even done filming the episode yet.

In all, Lita missed two weeks of WWE television for just a few minutes on "Dark Angel." Since she was virtually unable to move her head, a stunt double was used for the fight scene.

Lita returned to the road with the WWE crew in time for RAW at Texas A&M in College Station, Texas, on April 15.

"Because I didn't take any time off from the road, I would go to one doctor, get his opinion, do what he said, see if that worked," she said. "And then take the next step."

That day, she visited a doctor for the first time since the accident.

"Kane had just got hurt the day before, so we both went over there," Lita said. "That was at the point still where I hadn't had any treatment and I had zero range of motion, and if I were to be holding something and turn my head it would just drop out of my hand.
"He took two X-rays of me, and gave me a cortisone pack to take the inflammation out. I took the pack and it did take the initial swelling off my spinal cord, which helped with me being able to hold stuff. The pain scale tapered off from being an 11 to being an 8. But I thought it was getting better."

But Lita knew she needed a second opinion when she found out that doctor failed to diagnose Kane's torn biceps.

"He told Kane he was fine," Lita said. "Kane (later) went and got an MRI, and ended up having surgery the next day."

On that night's RAW, Jonathan Coachman interviewed Lita, who later accompanied the Hardy Boyz to the ring for their match against Booker T and Goldust.

"It was very hard to be there and be on camera and try to act like the Lita that fans like because I didn't feel 10 percent like myself," she said. "I felt like a total shell of myself, trying to channel any bit of energy I had for that minute that I was on camera, because I was in so much pain at the time.
"And I did that same thing during the whole filming of 'Dark Angel' -- try to lie in my trailer and try to get myself as comfortable as possible, relatively speaking, and not speak to anyone. I couldn't do anything to let any of my energy escape. I had to use all it. I'd come (to the set) and say, 'OK, tell me what you need me to do.' I'd listen and go, 'OK, let's go.' And then, as soon as we were done, I'd say, 'OK, I need to go lie back down.'"

On April 19, Lita went for an MRI shortly before the WWE live event at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, N.Y.

"There was a radiology convention, so an intern looked at my MRI," she said. "An official report was going to be drawn up on Monday morning. But he looked at it and said I had a herniated disc and it was no big deal, and it could be managed. I was asking him how to manage it. He said, 'Well, I don't know. You'll have to go to an orthopedist -- more of a rehab person -- to help you with that.'"

The worst was yet to come. At that Sunday's Backlash in Kansas City, Mo., Lita -- still feeling like a shell of herself -- accompanied Jeff Hardy to the ring for his match with Brock Lesnar. They drove all night to St. Louis, sight of the next day's RAW, but she woke up early to visit an orthopedist.

"I called and got the official radiology report from the MRI and they said, 'The radiologist says he apologizes, but he says thinks that you left the office not thinking that your neck was as severe as it is. We're seeing some potential cracks in your neck and ordered for a CAT Scan.' They thought maybe it was just on-the-surface cracks -- not all the way through. So later that afternoon, the CAT Scan showed that I had three breaks -- completely, all the way through -- and that my disc was actually ruptured."

Matt Hardy had a match with Brock Lesnar on that night's RAW, so Matt was shuttling back and forth between the Savvis Center and the hospital. There were periods of time when Lita sat there by herself, in excruciating pain, mentally exhausted. The hospital staff told her to wait until 10 p.m. so that she could talk to a surgeon who was in the operating room.

"They tried to stick IVs in my arm," she said. "I was by myself again, and I was just like, 'Whoa, whoa, I'm just here to talk to somebody.' (And they said), 'Well, we have it in here that you're staying here.' I was like, 'Well, I'm not.' But then I'm thinking, 'Well, am I? Am I stuck? I don't know.' I've never been in a hospital except to be born. So I didn't know what the rules were or anything."

By 10 p.m., Matt had returned (his match with Lesnar was the first segment of RAW). The surgeon came into Lita's room with more bad news.

"He told me ... it was amazing that with such trauma to my neck, that I was even able to stand up," Lita said. "He said, 'Because of how unstable your neck is, a sneeze, a cough, walking down the hallway -- anything you do can paralyze you.'"

The doctor recommended emergency surgery for 4 p.m. the next day. He said that he wouldn't let her check out of the hospital unless she signed papers stating that if she was paralyzed or died, the hospital wouldn't be held responsible. He also said that, if she did leave, he wanted to put her in a surgical halo vest "that was very painful and leaves horrible scars above your eyebrows."

Exhausted on every level, Lita had to make one of the most important decisions of her life -- one that could end her career, or worse. Did she go ahead with the surgery from a doctor she didn't even know? After all, other doctors had misdiagnosed her. Who's to say this one was right?

"I was asking some questions, and he said, 'Look, I probably know as much about your job as you do about surgery. This is what I'm telling you to do. So what do you think?'" Lita said. "I was floored, because I knew my neck was killing me, but for three weeks I had been walking around. I was like, 'Well, I need some time. I need to think about it for a second.'"

She talked with Matt and the WWE trainer, Chris Brennan, who had also gone to the hospital to check on her.

She remembers telling them: "You guys, I can't make this decision. I'm way too mentally f***ed up to try to make a decision about whether I should (leave) and potentially be paralyzed, or sit here and have surgery from a doctor who I have no idea who he is -- not to discredit him or anything."

She called Stone Cold Steve Austin -- who knows a thing or two about neck surgery himself. In fact, Austin had such a good experience with Dr. Lloyd Youngblood, a surgeon based in San Antonio, that every superstar who has needed a similar procedure since then has also gone to Youngblood. Lita wanted to see him too, but the doctor in St. Louis implied that her situation was so grave that she may not make it to San Antonio.

"I was calling people," she said, "and I talked to Steve Austin, and he said, 'Well, look, I'm not a doctor, but you've been walking around for 17 days. I think if you walk around for 18, I think you'll be OK.'"

Lita took his advice and told the nurses in St. Louis that she wanted to check out. Fortunately for her, the doctor who practically insisted that she stay there and have surgery had left by that time.

"Just the resident was there," Lita said. "And he came in with my X-rays, CAT Scans and MRI, and it really made me calm down because I was not anywhere near strong enough to put up a battle, with somebody there telling me I'm going to die, and being like, 'No, I'm leaving.' I wasn't ready to put that battle up. Fortunately the resident just came in there and said, 'I don't support your decision. If you reconsider or have any more pain tonight, please come back. But here are your papers.' So that was a relief."

Lita, Matt, Steve and Debra flew to San Antonio the next morning.

"Steve was talking about what a great doctor (Youngblood) was, and I was hoping that he was so great that he was going to tell me I didn't need surgery," Lita said with a light chuckle. "But no such luck."

One week to the day after visiting Youngblood, on April 30, the doctor performed surgery on her, using a bone from her hip to fuse her C5 and C6 vertebrae. It will take a year for her to recover, but Lita will undoubtedly never forget the hell that she went through for nearly four entire weeks.