Outside British Cycling’s protective framework, Leda Cox blazed her own trail in women’s cycling securing her own contracts in Europe and the United States. It gained her independence, experience and success – two international stage races and over 30 career victories, including a prestigious win in a French Cup race.
A huge wreck in the Tour of Montreal, for which she was blameless, was the end of her professional cycling career and just the start of a long haul to recovery. We caught up with Leda back home in England to talk about the painful baby steps to health and a new future.
Leda’s own words are enough to convey the agony, frustration and hope of the last 20 months or so. Here, she picks up the story. Canada. June 2009. The end is just around the corner. A new life is still over a year distant.
Leda Cox: It’s been a bit hectic since June 2009! I was in Montreal with my team ESGL. We did the World Cup race and then the Tour of Montreal, which had a really tight criterium on the penultimate stage.
There was a massive crash. There were some quite inexperienced teams in that race and a lot of slamming the brakes on through the corners. I was feeling tired, so instead of being up front I sat further back in the pack, which was a mistake in a tight criterium like that. There was a massive crash on the penultimate corner. Unfortunately, I ended up at the bottom of it, separating my AC ligament, which was very painful. They ‘morphined’ me up in the local hospital, which did the trick, but I was affected quite badly by the drugs more than the pain to be honest!
So, I flew back to London and got some medical advice which was to rest as it could be at least six weeks until my AC ligament repaired. To be honest, I didn’t really notice any problems with my back at the time, maybe just a bit of tightness but nothing too bad. Two weeks after my crash in Montreal, I got out of bed one morning and something in my back just went ‘PING’!
It was the most painful feeling I have ever had! I couldn’t walk or move my leg at all for about 40 minutes. Thankfully Jez (Leda’s husband) was with me at the time and was able to get me to the doctor. It was bizarre as it just came out of blue!
I was obviously really concerned, as I lost all the feeling in the back of my leg and glutes almost immediately as well as not being able to stand up on my right foot to walk properly. It was clear to me that I had a disc prolapse, which I thought was quite an emergency, but the doctor was not treating it as an emergency and just booked me in for a routine MRI scan, which could have taken about 3 months to arrange, not including seeing a consultant.
Things have been unimaginably difficult for Leda, but she’s at least had her man, Jez, by her side.
I went to see a doctor privately to see if I could speed the process up. The consultant just about raised his head from his paperwork to talk to me. He was suggesting that I had a spinal fusion but didn’t think there was any hurry and put me down for a spinal disc scan, which again was going to take about 3 months. I was pretty angry about being left in this state, as I had to walk with a walking stick.
So, I got a second opinion from another surgeon in London who was a cyclist himself, so I thought I was in safe hands. They suggested I have surgery pretty much straight away after the MRI of my spine showed that my disc had prolapsed and was pushing into my spinal cord, so by releasing it, I should be able to walk and race my bike again. The doctors were unsure whether or not to do a spinal fusion or discectomy but opted for the discectomy as it was seen to be a routine surgery. Obviously not in my case … as it all went horribly wrong.
I went in for a routine re-discectomy on my L4-5 vertebrae in September 2009. After my surgery, my consultants and physio came around to see me and asked me if I could get out of bed and walk. I did everything in my power to stand up without wobbling (I just thought I was hungry!) but when tried to walk, I couldn’t control my legs at all … it was like they had forgotten how to walk and no matter how much I tried I could not control them. I was scared and didn’t have a clue what was going on.
I didn’t get much reassurance from my consultant either. I remember my consultant asking me why was I walking funny, and why I couldn’t go to the toilet!
“You tell me, Mr Surgeon, as this happened since you performed surgery on me!”
You can imagine the amount of tests, CT scans and MRI scans I had to undergo to find out what went wrong. It is not always clear on an MRI scan that someone has a cauda equina injury or so they told me. The next thing to go wrong was my bladder and bowels – that part really broke me and I struggled a lot with it but, thankfully, I don’t have to cathertise anymore. I am a very lucky lady.
I had to use a walking frame to get about the ward and without it I would just fall to the side. To get my legs working again I had hydrotherapy and a lot of physiotherapy, sometimes twice a day. I remember the pure frustration of being totally out of control as my legs would not do what I wanted them to do. I spent several physio sessions in tears, as I just wanted to walk again.
After 3 weeks of intense physiotherapy and hard work and determination from me I was able to learn to walk to degree that I was able to leave hospital, so I could continue my treatment from my home.
It’s still a big blur to me. The first year after surgery was so hard for me. To make it worse the doctors were trying to sweep my condition under the carpet. I spent a lot of time in and out of my doctor’s surgery after surgery as the hospital just left me to deal with my issues alone and to be honest I did not have a clue what was going on.
It was clear to me that my surgeon had a caused a perioperative cauda equine syndrome, as I had all the symptoms, but they were being very coy in admitting it, which of course did not help me with my recovery as they were trying to imply that I was actually imagining my symptoms! This made me so angry and upset that I’ve lost faith and trust in my doctors. There were many times during my recovery that I wanted to curl up and just die … many, many times.
I feel like I was treated with like rubbish by my consultant, but he eventually admitted that a perioperative cauda equine happened during his surgery – all I wanted was a diagnosis so I could get on with my recovery effectively.
It’s been over 17 months since surgery. It’s been incredibly difficult but my life is slowly starting to feel happier. I still have to see my consultant (a new one) as I’m still having some problems with my lumbar spine that my new doctors can hopefully help me with so it’s all looking positive. I have to go for regular pain infusions (which are working well), and I still have some nerve damage to my S1 nerves, which affects my right leg muscles, but they have improved so I still have hope that they will recover one day and I won’t give up trying to get them to work either.
I’ve been able to do some more exercise since my pain infusions, so I swim regularly and I try to go out for a little ride occasionally to feel the fresh air on my face and to keep my leg muscles working
I miss racing a lot, especially now when all the teams are gearing up for the season. I didn’t want to retire, so it will take a little longer for my dreams to die down. I’ve been catching up with some of the news on PEZ, which is a good sign but I still have to tell myself that this is real and not a dream. It will pass but I have to set myself other goals now which are also exciting in a different way.
I still struggle a bit with “Who’s Leda?” Leda used to be a professional cyclist. She used to be good at something. I think that will change when I get some work, and I can focus on being good at something else that I’m passionate about.
I am starting to think about what work I can do now. Coaching, athlete mentoring or working with pro teams . To be honest, I don’t know what I want to do, but I suppose I won’t know until I get back out there and try different stuff.
I hear people say to me: “You’re really strong! I can’t believe that you’re able to do these things”. I’m not going to just give in and do nothing with my life, stay in bed, get fat and hate myself. I’m going to fight and do what I can to live my life … it’ll just be lived in a different way now.
There was no self-pity when Leda spoke to me. There was fire, frustration, a fierce determination and a lot of laughter. You don’t make your own racing career in Italy, France and the USA without being driven. You don’t deal with such a shattering end to your career without being strong.
Thanks to Leda for being so candid. You can send Leda good wishes and find out more about her on her website.