My doctor and I had been talking for a few minutes when I decided it was time to pop the question.

“Do you know anything about shotguns?”

He shook his head no. I evaluated him for a second when he said that. He was young and fresh-faced, and I saw no glimmer of recognition in his eyes – no clue why a patient would bring that up in a discussion about that unpleasant little blob on her MRI.

“Well, this is important. I brought a shotgun stock with me – just the plastic – nothing that shoots – no ammunition. It’s in my backpack. Can I take it out and show it to you so can see how I use it?”

“Sure,” he said. No fear showed on his face – and this just two days after the Boston Marathon bombings had put everyone on edge about what deranged people can do. Good. This was going well.

I pulled my black synthetic Beretta 3901 stock out of the backpack, gave him the spiel about how your dominant eye is the rear sight in shotgun shooting, then showed him how my face is supposed to rest on the comb – head forward and jutting to the left.

“Is this bad?”

It was one of the most important questions I would ask that day.

“Hmm,” he said, checking me out from a few angles. “It might be, if you stay in that position for a long time.”

“Well, you’re not supposed to. It’s more like this,” I said, walking him through the steps of see duck, wait for duck to get close, stand and shoulder gun, swing, bang, bang. OK, I said three bangs and omitted the swearing.

“Could this have caused the problem?”

He shrugged.

“This is an important part of my life. This is how we put meat on our table.”

And that’s as far as I’ve gotten on the question, and it’s only because it’s spring that I’m not panicking.

I’ve had a bad neck since I made the poor decision in 1986 to try to bike across a road with some really fast oncoming traffic and didn’t quite make it to the other side. The biggest impact (since my body slammed onto the asphalt) has been a lifetime of headaches rooted in the vertebrae at the top of my neck, but another problem has been brewing a little bit lower for the past couple years. And in the past few months, it started getting bad – especially when I spent prolonged periods looking to the left or looking down.

An MRI revealed the problem: a herniated disc in my neck, on the left side, between C6 and C7. Mercifully it’s nothing warranting surgery, but I’m now busily working with a physical therapist on things I can do to minimize pain, and can’t do if I want to avoid pain and further damage. And I don’t know yet where my bird hunting fits into that.

Have I mentioned bird hunting is my life?

I haven’t gone shooting since the end of duck season, and I’m a bit afraid to even think about it right now because we’re trying to promote some healing in the disc before I go putting it through normal paces. But I’m thinking about it a lot, and wondering what I’ll have to do to make sure I can keep doing what I love.

Maybe a super duper amazing custom stock so I don’t have to do all that scrunching?

All I know for now is this: Down and left hurt. Down and left are where my head has to go for me to shoot my shotgun.


Holly A. Heyser is a hunter, forager, writer, photographer and college journalism lecturer who lives in Sacramento, California. You can see more of her work at