Where do I begin? For nearly 6 years I tried to work through my worsening back pain, never considering major surgery. I first consulted a pain management doctor who started me on opioids and rest. At that time, I was an avid runner, weightlifter, and basketball player. As time went on, things got progressively worse and my medications went up—you name it, I tried it. Images through those years showed I might need a fusion. I dismissed that until I could no longer deal with the pain and restrictions. I had tried every conservative treatment - physical therapy, massage, acupuncture, chiropractic, injections, ablations, discectomies, traction, inversion tables, and the list goes on. My pain only got worse and I was forced to stop running, lifting, and essentially any exertional movement. I had consulted at least 5 doctors hoping I could avoid back surgery. No 2 doctors, during those years, could agree what level of my lumbar spine needed to be addressed. At this point, I continued conservative treatment while researching specialists. I called HSS and sent in my images and reports. Based on my condition, I was referred to Dr. Andrew Sama. 3 weeks later I had my consultation. I had my son with me and I knew there would be a lot of information. After a cordial meeting, he cued up my images and began to show us in detail what needed to be addressed. I was looking at an approximate 8-hour operation - that’s if I remained stable enough after phase one of the (XLIF) minimally invasive lateral entry to gain access to my lumber spine. Once they were done with what they needed to do, I would proceed to Phase 2, which was putting the hardware in through an open back procedure. I needed time to disseminate the diagnosis, and the fact that I was overwhelmed and left emotionally and psychologically numb. I took some time to think about it, and a week later I booked surgery with Dr. Sama for early June 2017, which gave me a couple of months to prepare things as a single parent, and caregiver to my mother.
I reported to the hospital in the early morning of June 7, 2017. I don’t remember too much after that, other than Dr. Sama and Dr. Fantini coming in to check on me and discuss the surgery. I woke up 24 hours later after a 12-hour 8 level fusion from S1-T10. I was a bit disoriented, but I do remember being told I made it through both phases. Dr. Sama was right there with my sons when I woke up. This gifted doctor showed me the post-op images of my spine with the new hardware installed.
It was the next day that I met Tara, one of Dr. Sama’s talented physician assistants. As of this writing, if I need anything, I can contact Tara. She is incredibly knowledgeable and was instrumental in answering questions and addressing concerns. She is incredibly competent and in general, a really caring person, as is everyone on his staff with whom I started the long way back. As an exercise physiologist and health and physical education teacher, I was motivated to try and get back to where I was before this nightmare began. I have a lot of knowledge in the field, and began doing something every day, no matter how small it was. I still had another major issue to address - to get off the pain medications. There was a pain doctor involved prior to my HSS experience who was supposed to continue my treatment post-op. However, he withdrew all interest in my case and would not answer any inquiries. I immediately expressed my concern to Tara as I was running out of medications that I needed for the pain, but this doctor did not return any calls, even one made by Dr. Sama’s office on my behalf. Tara called me back and told me Dr. Sama is addressing the issue and she would be in contact with me by the end of that day. She called me back and arrangements had been made with Dr. Seth Waldman, Director of the HSS Pain Management Division. My initial appointment was a week later. Dr. Waldman listened to me, did not rush me, and addressed all of my concerns. He devised a plan to “gently” taper me off the medications with no miserable side effects if I followed his directions. He was confident that if I did so, he would have me off all pain medications in about 3 months. Suffice to say, I followed his directions exactly, and 2.5 months later I was off all pain medications with not one side effect after 7 years of use. Dr Waldman is an incredible doctor. He had faith in me when I was questioning myself as to whether or not I could do it.
I joined a gym 6 months post-op. I was walking on the treadmill every other day, and as I progressed, I began to jog/run for 30 second intervals with no pain in my back. I had not even attempted to run in the previous 6 years, but I finally got the urge to try. Three months into 2018 and 9 months post-op from my back surgery I developed a pain in my right upper quadriceps/hip flexor, at least that is what I thought it was. I chalked it up to my running (too much too soon). I stopped anything that aggravated it. The first week I was limping. By week two I was using one crutch, and week three I knew I needed to see a doctor. I could no longer stand; the pain was increasing each day. I went to a doctor closer to home just to see what he thought. He took images and thought I might have a strain or possibly an impacted stress fracture in the neck of my femur. He told me to go non-weight-bearing for a couple of weeks and it might heal. Three days into those 2 weeks I knew something was not right. I called Dr. Sama’s office for a referral to a hip doctor at HSS. There was no doubt that I wanted a doctor from HSS because of my spine surgery. I wanted to maintain continuity of care because everything is so intricately connected. I chose Dr. Wellman off the referral list. I had an appointment the next day. Dr. Wellman wanted me to get a CT scan and then we could better assess the situation. The scan showed that the suspected stress fracture had opened up into 2 pieces - it was blatantly obvious on the images. He informed me that I needed a total hip replacement as I also had some arthritis from the 30+ years of running on hard surfaces. Dr. Wellman repairs hips, but doesn’t replace them. I wasn’t a candidate for repair for a couple of valid reasons. He informed me that he would like to admit me ASAP and wanted to hand me off to a hip replacement doctor who was available as quickly as possible. After all, my femoral neck was now in 2 pieces. Dr. Michael Cross picked up from there. I was greeted at the door by someone with a wheelchair, because I couldn’t walk without excruciating pain. I was admitted that night and taken to a step-down unit in preparation for surgery the next day. When I got to the step-down unit, there were 3 nurses waiting. They helped me undress and had me comfortable and hooked up to the IV in minutes. I didn’t think I would see any of those people again after my back surgery, at least not in a hospital environment. Everyone I encountered was exceptionally professional, competent, and caring. I met Dr. Cross the next day 2 mins before surgery. He reassured me and put my mind at ease, telling me he had spoken to Dr. Sama and this surgery was going to be much easier compared to my spine surgery. Sure enough, I was waking up in recovery in just 2 hours with less pain than I had going in. I still could not believe what had happened to me. I got out of surgery at about 6 pm, Dr. Cross came in and said everything went well, not to worry, he would see me in 6 weeks for a post-op checkup. I was taken to my room after recovery. This was a big hiccup in my spine recovery. I did not take any pain medications once I left the hospital. I did not want to go down that road again. I didn’t want any additional setbacks. This was already a big setback.
I am 18 months post-op from my spine surgery, 10 months off all pain medications, and 9 months post-op on my hip replacement; back to work as a substitute teacher, thinking now that I am ready to attempt a full-time job in teaching health/physical education, or exercise physiology.
I have to say that these doctors are not practicing medicine at HSS, they are mastering it. They have literally given me my life back in more ways than one, and I am so grateful for the care I have received. I can’t say enough. I’m not running, but I have been biking middle distance outside since I was 7 weeks post-op from the hip surgery, and I’m back in the gym. I am still learning how to do things more conservatively and more carefully. It takes awhile for things to heal. This may seem like a long story, because it is. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to these extraordinary people who individually and collaboratively got me back in the game: Dr. Andrew Sama, Dr. Gary Fantini, Dr. Seth Waldman, Dr. Michael Cross, Dr. Alan Lans, and Dr. David Wellman, as well as their support teams and staff.