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    9 Lessons I Learned From a Broken Neck, Neurological Tumour, and a 56 Degree Bend in My Spine

    By Kieran Drew

    “Kieran, there’s a problem.

    I’m sitting with my mum in the cramped, poorly-lit consulting room — rocking the graphic T and terrible haircut only a 16-year-old thinks is cool. My mum smiles at me, grasping my hand under the table. You can tell she’s nervous. She’s lost her usual Irish charm.

    The surgeon clears his throat, spreading the X-rays before us.

    “We found something…”.

    I went into the hospital two weeks ago for back pain. The doctor noticed my spine was bending — scoliosis — so he sent me for a scan. We knew it was serious, but we shouldn't have been called back to the hospital for a month. Something wasn't right.

    “We noticed a shadowing near your skull. There’s a tumour stopping your spinal cord fluid from flowing and slowly degrading your nerves. You’ve also fractured your vertebrae in multiple places. We advise you to operate as soon as possible. If you don’t, there’s a chance you might not walk by 30.”

    Stunned silence. Massive curveball. Not the plan.

    Over the next two years, I spent almost 20 hours in surgery. They sliced away part of my skull, hammered pins into my vertebrae, drained the tumour, and straightened my spine with titanium rods.

    You could say I’m a bit like Wolverine, except he’s jacked, and I’m… well, writing this to you. It was one of the best things to happen to me because of the lessons I learned, and today, I want to share why.

    Problems are like poison

    Before the hospital appointment, I was a normal kid worrying about my inability to talk to girls and how I would get into university. But now, my only concern was getting chopped up. And I didn’t want to face it at all.

    I told my parents that leaving school early would ruin my career opportunities, so we decided to defer the operation until after college. But really, I was just sh*t scared.

    We waited two years, and the delay was horrendous.

    The fear of an unmade decision is like a dark cloud pressing on your mind. Some days, you can ignore it enough to get on with life. But it’s always lurking in the background, slowly consuming how you think and feel.

    Avoidance has a cost — one you pay in anxiety. I thought pushing away the problem was a good decision. But the longer you wait, the bigger the bill. If you have a difficult thing to face, don’t bury it. Take it on as soon as you can.

    It’s better to suffer once in reality than endlessly in your imagination.

    How you respond is everything

    The consent form for the surgery was basically a book of what could go wrong. The surgeon said the operation would be at least 10 hours and that there was a chance I might not walk again. Hell, there was a chance I might not come back at all.

    I felt like a victim. Like life was unfair and that I deserved sympathy. The closer the operation loomed, the more anxious I became.

    But on D-Day, everything changed.

    As I rolled towards the operating theatre, I realised my life was in the surgeon’s hands. There was nothing I could do except reassure my mum.

    I slapped on a brave face and told a joke.

    I can’t remember it, but I’m sure it was terrible. She laughed anyway. I went into surgery smiling and chuckling with the nurses. This was the calmest I’d felt in years. I had discovered one of the most important ideas in life.

    You can’t control what happens, but you can always control your response.

    Pain is a gift you can choose to use

    I woke up in heaven. The sun poured through the windows as nurses smiled at me. They said everything had gone well and there was nothing to worry about. I felt on top of the world.

    And then the morphine wore off, and it all came crashing down.

    The surgery took 13 hours. I had almost died from blood loss so needed multiple transfusions. I had a 12-inch wound stapled together on the back of my neck and my spine had been worked on like a mechanic banging on a car engine.

    The pain was crazy. Imagine your worst, pounding headache, combined with whiplash, and then a sensation like hot needles pressing into your brain if you tried to move an inch. There was no chance of sleep. I lay there all night, my only company was the relentless beeping of machines from a busy hospital ward.

    It was the worst, longest, darkest moment of my life — and one of my favourite memories.

    The Stoics have a principle called negative visualisation where you think about the worst that can happen. Most people believe you should avoid thinking about bad things, but they can be a great reminder of how good life actually is.

    When you go through hell, you come out with a better perspective.

    When I find myself worrying about problems that aren’t really problems or getting stressed about insignificant things, I zoom out and remind myself it could always be worse. You should too. The ability to change the lens through which you view the world is as close to a superpower as you can get.

    Character is a choice

    Three weeks later, I came home.

    My plan was to get back to normal. Walk the dog, hit the gym, play computer games. But reality slapped hard. I was disabled and hooked on pain meds. I couldn’t function without help. It was rock bottom, and I handled it terribly.

    I was irritable, depressed, and demanding.

    And my mum?

    She didn’t complain once. She quit work to care for me. She was selfless, encouraging, and supportive, without a single squeak about her own struggles. It’s the strongest sign of character I’ve seen.

    As I recovered, I vowed to be the same — and I’ve worked on who I am every day since.

    You get to decide the type of person you want to be. But if you’re not intentional about it, when times get tough, your character will come crumbling down. Instead, clearly define who you are. Literally write it down. Then work on it every day.

    Everyone has the best possible version of themself buried somewhere, but few people make the effort to find out.

    The secret to success

    The hardest part about the operation was being completely dependent on someone else.

    You have no pride, dignity, or autonomy.

    I empathise with the elderly who refuse help, and I’m sure I’ll be a stubborn nightmare in the future (sorry kids). But unlike people at the end of their life, I was at the beginning of mine. I’d been accepted to dentistry at university. However, because I’d already taken a year off to recover, they explained they couldn’t hold my spot if I missed it again.

    I had six months, and it didn’t look good.

    I couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t think straight. Hell, I couldn’t even sh*t or shower without help. And the more I focused on what I couldn’t do, the more desperate I became. But then I changed my approach and focused on what I could do, no matter how small. Take a few steps. Try sit down unsupported. Not complain about the pain.

    It wasn’t much, but over the next few weeks, I began to make progress.

    I still remember how good I felt after my first proper walk.

    My first shower.

    My first unassisted toilet visit (I’m sure my mum was relieved too).

    It’s easy to underestimate what you can achieve with daily repetition. Big goals often overwhelm you into doing nothing at all. But momentum creates momentum and small wins stack fast. If you have something you want to achieve in life, break it down into manageable steps. Treat it like a video game. Keep playing and keep levelling up.

    One day, you’ll look back and be amazed at how far you’ve come.

    And don’t forget to celebrate the small wins. They’re the building blocks of something beautiful.

    Find the positive angle

    I made it to university. I even managed to get my chubby ass in shape and lose 30lbs during recovery.

    The first year of my new life was great (although I still sucked with the girls, that’s never changed), but there was a problem. My back was bending… fast. When I first had the scan, I had a 30-degree curve. It was now 56 degrees.

    I was folding like a piece of Ikea furniture. Whilst everyone enjoyed their first university summer holidays, I went for round 2 under the knife.

    This time, two 12-inch titanium rods were slipped snuggly against my spine to straighten me out. Aside from one of the worst episodes of constipation I’d ever experienced (I will never take morphine again), recovery was much easier — 8 weeks instead of 6 months.

    The good news?

    I got 2 inches taller — which was a blessing at 5 foot 6.

    There’s always a positive in poor situations if you choose to look. Even if it doesn’t feel like it in the moment. Even if there’s nothing good to take from what happens, you can take pride in how you respond. You can always choose to be the most positive person in the room.

    Talent is overrated

    After I graduated from university, I wanted to apply what I’d learned to the real world and build a great career.

    I wasn’t great at dentistry, but I took on two jobs and worked my heart out. Within three years, I was doing pretty good. I was in the UK’s top 1% of earners and at the start of a promising cosmetic career.

    It was nice to feel like a winner. Especially since I was always a fat loser at school. I realised that you can’t choose how gifted you are, but you can choose to work harder than everyone else. You might not get to the top, but you can get close.

    But a word of warning.

    There’re no points for climbing the wrong mountain

    Turns out, it was a big mistake.

    I always knew dentistry wasn’t for me. But the money was great, so my plan was to ‘suck it up’. I’m from a working-class village in the north of England and the first in my family to go university. I felt like I had no right to complain. Instead of facing the fact I had chosen the wrong career, I doubled down on it.

    I worked early. I worked late. I worked every weekend.

    I’ve met many driven people who make the same mistake.

    You’re told the more you earn, the more successful you are. But few people consider the hidden metrics. A sense of purpose. The joy of creativity. Finding work that feels like play. These are the signs of a great career, and what you should aim for from day one.

    You’re going to work hard most of your life anyway. You might as well work hard on the thing you love the most.

    As I approached 30, I began thinking about my neck and how lucky I was. I decided to take that gift seriously. I began exploring my curiosity in my spare time and stumbled across writing. I fell in love. 5 am every morning before work, I’d write for two hours. I sucked, but I loved it regardless and so kept publishing my thoughts online.

    After a gruelling year, I still hadn’t crossed 1,000 followers.

    But 18 months after my first blog post, I quit dentistry to go all in.

    It was the scariest and best decision of my life. Sure, some things have gone poorly, but many things have gone well, too. But more importantly, I had aligned my curiosity and career. Writing feels natural (although it’s bloody tough at times), and I look forward to it every day.

    The truth:

    There’s an opportunity cost behind every decision. When you settle for a career you don’t love, it stops you from building one that you do. Don’t do what I did and race to the top of the wrong mountain — money and status won’t make you happy. Only doing great work will.

    Explore your interests and share the journey online. Find a skill you enjoy and solve people’s problems. As investor Naval Ravikant says: “The internet has massively broadened the possible space of careers. Most people haven't figured this out yet.”

    Let’s wrap this up.

    Make it count

    Unfortunately, my doctor said the tumour could return.

    I’ll have to reface the music at one point in my life. There’s nothing like a ticking time bomb in your neck to remind you to live.

    You get one shot on this spinning rock we exist on, but most people don’t realize until it’s too late. The last thing you want to finish with is regret. Be a good friend. Care for your loved ones. Be responsible for your happiness. Pursue a worthwhile purpose and let go of the sh*t that holds you back.

    Like Confucius once said:

    “We have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we only have one.”

    Thanks for reading,

    Kieran


    Kieran Drew

    About Kieran

    Ex dentist, current writer, future Onlyfans star · Sharing what I learn about writing well, thinking clearly, and building an online business