Meet Charlie


Walk for Wishbone Auckland, 26 May 2019

Wanaka-based investor, strategist and business mentor Charlie James is donating to the Wishbone Foundation because of the benefits he’s had from orthopaedic surgery. The Foundation helps fund research into improving surgery and treatment for broken bones, joint replacements, congenital disorders, bone infections, cancers and sporting injuries.

On St Patrick’s Day 10 years ago, Charlie had what he describes as ‘titanium ladders’ screwed into each side of his lower spine and a fusion at the bottom of his spine, helping alleviate years of pain.

“I’d suffered back pain all my life. I’m quite tall, so I just viewed that as life and got on with it. But it became increasingly uncomfortable and then I started getting numbness in my right toes that started spreading up my leg.

“I found I was playing ‘peg leg’ tennis in that I had to have conscious effort to guide my right leg; my leg wasn’t responding to the autonomous system. And I started falling over. The muscular pains started becoming pretty universal and at their peak I got to the stage where I could barely walk 100 metres.”

Charlie, who was living in Auckland at the time, was referred to orthopaedic surgeon Peter Robertson.

“Peter came highly recommended. I went to see him and he was honest that they didn’t really understand it, but in basic terms the vertebrae in the lower half of my spine were slowly dissolving. My vertebrae had lost all the ‘pointy bits’ and just become blocks. Therefore, my whole spine had become unstable and my muscles were working harder and harder to try and maintain stability, hence the back pain.”

Charlie was told the condition would get progressively worse and if he did nothing he would end up in a wheelchair. When the pain became really bad, he opted for surgery. Other than some complications related to a reaction to pain killers, he recovered well.

“When I came out of surgery, for the first time in my life I did exactly what I was told! I stood for all the waking hours I possibly could. I walked further each day. Then I had physio and a programme of exercises, which I did for a while. By that stage I was doing pretty well, so I signed up for pilates.”

Charlie is a keen tennis player, and had been told he should not expect to play again.

“When I saw Peter next, I told him that I felt I was up to tennis – and I started playing again. About four or five years later I saw him for a check and said I’d like to think about skiing again. I hadn’t skied for 30 years because of the back problems. Peter encouraged me to cycle first, which I did, and then I started dabbling with cross country skiing. This year, I’ve already bought my season pass for cross country.”

Charlie recently turned 60 and says, as a present to himself, he wants to give something back to aid research into orthopaedic surgery and treatment.

“I’m 60 and I’m living a life I never anticipated, so if I can help with research that finds out about spinal conditions like mine and others, I want to do that. I’ve had quite a few friends who have had back surgery and I think I’ve had the best outcome. Most of them don’t have clarity about what caused the problem, and research will be able to help with that.

“When you have had such a slow, destructive process going on, losing function – after you get it back, you know what you had lost and you really appreciate it. It’s like a second life”.