Magee-Womens Hospital Spinal Surgery Patient Stories
Here we feature two of our patients who have visited us for spinal surgery and want to share their stories with you.
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Betty Crites was just nine years old when her parents (who owned a farm and riding academy in Ohio) gave her a horse. A half-century later, Betty’s greatest joy — apart from her family — remained riding and showing horses.
But when she reached her early 60s, Betty began experiencing debilitating sciatic pain in her right leg.
“I’m an active person, so I was committed to doing whatever was needed to get back to normal,” says Betty. Her local hospital in Ohio provided her with the name of a surgeon. In September 2009, Betty underwent back surgery to relieve her pain.
After her surgery in Ohio, Betty started experiencing excruciating headaches when she sat upright. She also noticed swelling at the area of her surgery.
Her surgeon diagnosed the problem as a dural tear (a leak in the watertight tissue that covers the spinal cord and nerves). He advised continued bed rest, and after several months, her headaches subsided. Betty was assured that the swelling on her back would also disappear as her body gradually absorbed the excess spinal fluid.
But Betty found herself “feeling progressively worse. Anytime I tried to rest in a chair, my sit bone just ached.” And the swelling on her back never went away.
To cope with her discomfort, Betty never went anywhere without an ice pack, heating pad, and pillows. She began to resign herself to the fact that her condition was the norm.
A Life-Changing Operation
In January 2011 — nearly a year and half after being operated on in Ohio — Betty visited a friend who had just had back surgery. “She was doing great!” says Betty. “She was bending over, walking, moving around with ease — everything I had problems doing.”
After hearing about Betty’s difficulties, the friend (a surgical nurse) told her, “You need to get help — fast.”
She shared with Betty the name of her surgeon, Matt El-Kadi, MD, chief of neurological surgery at the Spine Center of UPMC Passavant.
“For a second, I thought, do I really need to travel all the way to Pittsburgh? But I realized that I would go anywhere to feel like myself again.”
Betty learned that she actually could visit Dr. El-Kadi’s office in Wheeling, WV, which was closer to her home in Ohio. “I really appreciated that, since I had trouble taking long rides,” explains Betty.
Following a physical exam and a contrast MRI, Dr. El-Kadi confirmed there was spinal fluid leaking in Betty’s back. In May, he operated to repair the dural tear.
A New Turn On Life
Despite her long-standing symptoms and the build-up of scar tissue from her previous operation, Dr. El-Kadi was able to fix Betty’s problem using minimally invasive and microscopic techniques. Betty did well during her hospital stay in a private room in the Tower at UPMC Passavant. “They called me wonder woman,” laughs Betty. “But after two years of being in such pain, I felt so good!”
Within three months, Betty was able to return to riding. “Before this operation, we were literally ready to sell our farm and my horses. Now I can be out there riding with my grandchildren. This procedure gave me my life back.”
Betty’s confidence in Dr. El-Kadi and the Spine Center at UPMC Passavant is so great that she wants to share her story with others considering similar surgery. “I can honestly say that when I woke up from my operation, the pain was gone — totally gone. I never expected that kind of relief.”
Christiane Majeski is a whirlwind of energy and optimism. After the end of World War II and the heavy bombing of her native city of Dresden, Christiane's family fled from East to West Germany in 1953 to escape the communistic regime. Christiane eventually came to Pittsburgh, where she fell in love, raised a family, and embarked on a professional career that would take her around the world dozens of times.
Today, Christiane stays busy as an elementary school language teacher, translator, and storyteller, sharing her life’s story through a series of one-woman musicals.
But late last year, lifelong chronic back pain made even the simplest tasks difficult. Spinal stenosis and advanced degenerative disk disease caused foot drop (the inability to raise her foot at the ankle) and a constant shooting pain down her leg.
Three Options to Consider
Christiane’s doctors said she could undergo physical therapy and wear a leg brace, take injections, or undergo back surgery. Christiane decided that surgery was the best chance of returning her to an active lifestyle.
A friend suggested that she schedule an appointment with Matt El-Kadi, MD, chief of neurological surgery, at the UPMC Passavant Spine Center.
“It was the best decision I could have made,” says Christiane.
A Minimally Invasive Surgical Solution
When she met with Dr. El-Kadi, he candidly assessed her outcomes. “He felt the nerve damage might be too far along to totally fix my foot, but that surgery could help it from getting worse and give me the chance to get better,” says Christiane.
Prior to her surgery on March 18, 2011, Dr. El-Kadi carefully explained the procedure, risks, and preparation to Christiane.
When she awoke from surgery, Christiane said the numbness and pain she had endured for years was gone. “I still had post-operative pain, of course, but the pain that brought me there was gone.”
The Road to Recovery
After surgery, Christiane was hospitalized for three days before transferring to UPMC Cranberry Place for rehabilitation therapy.
Returning home after just 10 days in rehab (she was approved for up to three weeks of therapy), Christiane credits her active lifestyle for her quick recovery. She exercises often, is an avid golfer, and had been a lifelong downhill skier until she was sidelined by a knee injury. She now enjoys cross-country skiing instead.
By June 2011, Christiane was back on the links. By October, she was able to travel abroad to explore the Balkans. “I went up more castle steps than I could count,” she says with a twinkle in her eyes. “Six months ago, I couldn’t even take a long car ride!” She’s also back to teaching German to 240 elementary students two full days a week and travels to teach home-schooled students on other days.
Her advice to anyone considering back surgery:
“Make the commitment and stick with the follow-up physical therapy and Dr. El-Kadi’s recommendations before and after surgery.”
And just to prove it, Christiane reaches down, and without bending her knees, touches her toes with a smile.
Note: These patients' treatments and results may not be representative of all similar cases.