How recovery techniques help one Naperville pastor 'breathe my way through' pandemic

When Naperville pastor Glen Wagner recovered from knee-replacement surgery last fall without pain medications, he thought he was doing it to avoid the risk of dependence or abuse.

Turns out he's now using the techniques he learned for another purpose: coping with the stress caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

"All those tools I used to get through knee surgery, I am using every day," he said. "Working through the surgery and the pain management gave me some different emotional management, mindset management tools that are helping me everywhere."

Wagner, 62, of Bolingbrook, is outspoken within the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church congregation about his struggles with depression, anxiety and addiction. So he knew when he researched knee surgery options that using narcotics to manage post-surgical pain was not an option.

"I cannot put that stuff in my body or I will be addicted," he said.

Wagner also knew he wanted to get back into peak athletic form. He has a long-term goal to be the oldest man to complete an Ironman, the length of triathlon known for its grueling distances of 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of biking and an entire marathon - 26.2 miles - of running. Wagner has competed in triathlons and other races off and on since his 30s.

The oldest man who has finished an Ironman is 85. The fact Wagner is a solid two decades younger is part of "the power of that motivation," he says.

"I see people who give up in their 50s and 60s, and I don't want to be that guy," he said. "Having a long, big goal like that, it becomes a lifestyle."

The surgeon Wagner chose to fix his right knee uses a procedure that reduces pain by not cutting muscle, ligaments or tendons when replacing the knee bone that has worn out. But even Dr. Richard Berger, an orthopedic surgeon at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, said it's rare for patients to recover with no pain meds.

"Anyone who is used to running a marathon - or worse, an Ironman - you're used to having a little bit of pain ... " Berger said. "Glen probably has a higher pain threshold than most."

One day while in some discomfort, Wagner tried Tylenol to lessen the ache. But when it didn't do anything noticeable, he returned to the other methods he learned working with experts.

Wagner said he met with a therapist who recorded meditations for him and taught him breath work techniques to relax. He underwent physical therapy as well and now considers the mental and physical pain control methods he used as "tools" for pandemic living.

If worries creep in about whether he or his family will get sick (Wagner lives with his wife, daughter and four grandsons), he knows how to address them. When fears set in due to the side effects of stay-at-home isolation on his church, his consulting business and the world, he knows how to quiet them.

"When I wake up, I do some meditation and my mind settles. I don't have to hold onto all those worrisome thoughts," Wagner said. "When I do experience stressful moments, I can breathe my way through that. I can control my stress responses."

Wagner hasn't yet found his triathlon training groove without use of the pool, weights and exercise machines at Lifetime Fitness in Warrenville.

But he's breathing his way through that challenge, too, and keeping an eye out for future competitions.

His goal was to run his first Ironman-level race this fall, but now he expects to wait until early next year.

But, he said, "I am going to run triathlons again."

Glen Wagner, 62, of Bolingbrook, is using the techniques that helped him recover from knee-replacement surgery last October without the use of pain medications to help cope with the stress and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. Courtesy of Glen Wagner
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