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Running straight: Iowa woman to run 5K after corrective spine surgery

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She was diagnosed with scoliosis at the age of 13 and didn’t leave her bed for seven months at 16. She’s 65 now and has endured four surgeries and 40 years of searing back pain, two of which were spent leaning over at a 50-degree angle after a rod fused to her spine broke free.

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But that’s not preventing Rheon Wolske of Ames, Iowa, from being among the 2,000-plus runners at Friday’s William A. Irvin 5K in Canal Park.

The idea of Wolske running 5 kilometers — or even 5 feet — would have been preposterous before August 2013. That’s when she decided to have a fourth surgery, which entailed replacing the severed rod with modern, more flexible rods that run up both sides of the spine and anchor to the vertebrae. The goal was to realign the spine and correct her flat-back syndrome.

It worked.

Wolske spent 11 hours on the operating table at a University of Iowa hospital in Iowa City. Her spinal surgeon, Dr. Sergio Mendoza, warned her it would be an excruciating ordeal. It was, and after it was over, Wolske was told she had to walk 100 steps before she could go home.

Up until that point, she had spent what felt like an eternity hunched over, perpetually looking at the ground. In the hospital room, with her husband (Tom), son (Marty) and older sister (Janet Cuevas) looking on, Wolske stood up — straight.

“I stood up and I walked to the door and Dr. Mendoza was there and all of the nurses, and my sister had tears in her eyes because she hadn’t seen me standing straight for almost 40 years,” Wolske said last week by phone, the emotion in her voice crystal clear even 350 miles away. “She didn’t know how to handle it because she was so happy for me, and she knew what I had gone through.”

The two were girls the last time Cuevas saw her younger sibling stand upright.

“I was so happy I could be with her for that because it was such a long process,” said the 70-year-old Cuevas, who lives in a suburb of Dallas. “It really was overwhelming.”

It was the first time Marty, 41, had ever seen his mother stand like that. Her condition worsened dramatically shortly after he was born in 1972.

“Prior to this, she was at a 50-degree angle, so her natural gait was always to look down,” Marty said. “In order to look up, it would be like if you or I were looking up into the sky.”

Wolske couldn’t believe her eyes.

“The world looked so different to me because I was looking up and out, not down,” she said. “I always was looking down all the time; that was the way I walked.”

An apt description of her transformation: Wolske’s spine now resembles an exclamation point instead of a question mark.

LEADING AN ACTIVE LIFESTYLE

When Wolske was diagnosed with scoliosis, little was known about the disease. Specialists initially believed gravity had something to do with it. Hence, a 16-year-old Wolske was confined to her bed for seven months. All that has changed, of course, and an active lifestyle now is encouraged.

Wolske, who never has let scoliosis dictate her life, is happy to oblige. An avid traveler, she has walked atop the Great Wall of China and climbed Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia. She even took up golf a few years back.

“She’s never used it as an excuse to not do something,” Cuevas said, noting that “I’m the proud older sister, so I can say these things.”

Ask those closest to Wolske to describe her fight with scoliosis, and the conversation inevitably veers toward her unflappable optimism. She never complained about her condition, becoming so adept at masking her discomfort that often the only tell-tale sign Wolske was in pain was when she clasped her hands behind her back in an attempt to brace herself.

The pain is gone these days — well, most of it. Wolske is dealing with a new kind of ailment she never would have expected: runner’s knee.

She’s fine with that.

“I tell people at work, ‘I don’t look it, but I feel 20 years younger,’ ” she said, laughing. “I have more energy, I have more zest for doing things. I cannot believe it. It’s just like this is the way normal people live.

“I’ve never had a normal life. Since I was 16 years old, I have never had a day that I did not have back pain. I lived with that because that was my life. And now I’m doing things I have never done in my whole life.”

After Wolske runs the 5K Friday, she and Tom will watch Marty take part in Grandma’s Marathon for the fourth consecutive year. The past three times they have hopscotched the course, stopping frequently to steal glances at their son. It was a workout for the entire family — Marty because he was immersed in running from Two Harbors to Duluth; his mother because her back was barking; and his father because he was trying to support two bodies.

“I would get such a bad gait because she would get tired when we’d go down to the next place to try and catch Marty, she would hang onto me and she’s pushing down to take the pressure off her back,” Tom, 66, said. “I’d be pulling up to kind of hoist her back up, and now both of us would be limping.”

That won’t be the case this weekend. Wolske, who wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to run before going to work at Iowa State University, is down to about a 12-minute-mile pace. That’s a far cry from her early training, when “I’d run a block and I’d about die.” She bought herself a new pair of running shoes and even has a special outfit that she won’t break out until race day.

Her goals progressively have become more ambitious. At first, she simply wanted to finish. Then she decided she didn’t want to be the last runner across the finish line. And now she’s aiming for a time of 37 minutes.

Don’t bet against her.

Marty, a veteran distance runner, admits he’s more nervous about his mother and the 5K than he is about the marathon Saturday morning.

“I hope they have medals,” he joked about Friday’s race. “If they don’t, I’ll probably make one.”

Wolske said once she decided to run a 5K, she sought Dr. Mendoza’s approval. The doctor’s only request?

“Just be careful and send us a picture when you’re done,” Mendoza told her.

If a picture is said to be worth a thousand words, imagine the price tag for that one.

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