Kate Rutherford, Sports Medicine


​How UW Medicine keeps me hanging on.

​I’m a professional climber. And that makes me a terrible patient.

That might sound funny to say, but in my case it’s true. My job requires that I spend much of the year traveling to remote parts of the world, so I’m seldom able to come in for appointments. This high level of climbing also requires a high pain threshold, which means I’m liable to push myself beyond reasonable boundaries.

I’m also a bit on the stubborn side. That’s just me.

See? Terrible.

That’s why, when I got hurt, I wasn’t looking for a typical doctor.

I hurt my back on a climb in California, compressing my spine and injuring a disc. I thought it would get better if I simply took it easy. The thing is, I didn’t take it easy.

After six months, the worsening pain finally caused me to miss a trip to Patagonia, and I decided enough was enough. I pulled up the UW Medicine website and started researching doctors, determined to find the right one. One who would understand my mindset, the demands of my job and my passion.

My search brought me to Dr. Kra​bak (UW Physician, UW Medical Center). Noticing that he’s heavily involved in adventure sports, endurance races and that kind of craziness, I thought that he might understand my perspective.

It turns out that he did.

When I called his office, I explained that I was leaving soon to teach climbing in California, that I was in pain, and I needed to get it under control.

He said, “Come on in.”

In his office, he confirmed that a bulging disc was creating something called a radiculopathy — an intense nerve compression centered in the spine, causing pain down my leg.

It wasn’t bad enough to require surgery, he told me, and he knew that a long recovery wasn’t acceptable. Instead, he focused his expertise on helping me manage the pain and improve my function so that I could keep doing what I love to do while still making sure I was safe.

He prescribed spine exercises and a prednisone injection to help relieve the inflammation, reduce the pain and make me more active. I asked, “Can we do the injection tomorrow? I have to pack the truck and be on the road in four days.”

I could tell by the look on his face what he was thinking. “I know,” I said. “I’m crazy.”

He made it happen. Not because I was being demanding, but because he knew this was my best shot at being able to continue in my career.

After the appointment, he said I should take it easy for a few days. Of course, I didn’t. He said not to lift heavy things. I sort of did. He gave me exercises to do. I didn’t do them very often.

But despite my best efforts at thwarting him, Dr. Krabak still succeeded in allowing me to pursue what I love.

With my travel schedule filling up, I told Dr. Krabak I wouldn’t be able to come in for some time. So he made me promise to check in from time to time and tell him how I’m feeling.

With his initial treatment, I was able to keep going for four years. It was when I was in remote Patagonia that the pain returned with intensity.

The timing could hardly have been worse. Not only was I in one of the most remote parts of the world, but I was about to attempt what I considered the biggest climb of my life — Mount Fitz Roy. What was I going to do?

Amazingly, Dr. Krabak was able to consult via email, helping me find the medications to manage the pain, while making sure I wasn’t unknowingly taking anything dangerous.

I learned the name for it: telemedicine. But I call it being an amazing doctor.

After Patagonia, I flew to Hawaii and then to teach a class outside Las Vegas, and it was then that the remedy that got me up Mount Fitz Roy lost its steam.

This was terrible. I was flying to Croatia for an expedition the following Monday. I simply could not miss this trip. Once again, I emailed Dr. Krabak.

I’m not sure how most doctors are, but I wouldn’t expect most doctors to offer up their lunch break on a moment’s notice.

He cared enough to make my needs a priority. He met me on his lunch break — the only time of the day he had free. He scheduled an MRI on practically a moment’s notice. And he provided a comprehensive treatment program that would put me back in condition in time for my trip. I even perform my spine exercises, knowing the importance for preventing injury.

I think of our relationship as beyond merely doctor/patient. I now look to him as a partner who I rely on to keep me going.

As a climber, I like to think that I play a part in educating people and getting them excited about these beautiful parts of the world. Then maybe they’ll want to help protect and preserve them.

That’s something that drives me, and Dr. Krabak is a big part of making it possible.​