I am deeply grateful to Dr. Federico Girardi and the extraordinary nursing, diagnostic and rehabilitation teams at the Spine Care Institute at the Hospital for Special Surgery.
Eight months ago, I ruptured a disc in my lower back sparring in karate. I immediately sought the opinions of two orthopedic surgeons and a neurosurgeon at different academic medical centers in Connecticut. An MRI revealed that disc fragments were pressing on one of the primary nerves that control the hip flexor and quadriceps in my right leg. A disc fragment had also severed a vein, causing a hematoma.
The surgeons told me I needed a Laminectomy, which consists of removing parts of the spine, in order to repair the damaged areas, and that after surgery I would need to give up most elements of my active lifestyle. I could never do karate, snowboard or run again, but if I was fortunate I might be able to continue cycling. I was also told that if left unattended, the atrophy in my leg would continue to progress and that the damage would eventually be permanent. This was simply unacceptable news and I was immediately standing at a crossroads. My wife and I began praying for a better option, for guidance, for hope. My favorite quotation from Thomas Jefferson is “delay is preferable to error.” The next Saturday morning I learned how right he was. While watching class at my karate studio, Charles, one of my fellow students, asked me how I was doing. I shared the recommendations and bleak prognosis with him. He said “You need to go to a place where they do a lot of specialized procedures on the spine. You need to go to the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.” I make my living as a fundraiser in healthcare and have worked closely with physicians, surgeons and scientists for 20 years. I have also had the privilege of knowing countless grateful patients who have supported the programs and research interests of their physicians.
However, it was not until my experience with Dr. Girardi that I would truly understand what it means to be a grateful patient. From the initial evaluation, Dr. Girardi and his team were clearly different than others I had seen. Dr. Girardi spent more time examining me than the combined total of all previous evaluations at other institutions. After reviewing the MRI with me and my wife, he told us that he could perform a minimally invasive procedure called a Microdiscectomy to repair the damage. He would not need to remove any major portions of my anatomy and he would repair the damaged disc and clean-up the gel which coated the nerves of my spine. The best news of all was that the pain in my leg would subside shortly after surgery and I would be able to return to normal physical activity in a few months.
You just know when you find a doctor who you will trust to operate on your spine. Dr. Girardi performed a Microdiscectomy on me at HSS a week later. During the recovery, he told me that disc fragments had torn the dural layer of a nerve and it was leaking spinal fluid. The imbalance caused me to experience severe headaches whenever I attempted to sit up. I was confined to bed rest on my back for six days to allow the nerve to heal. It was a frightening and frustrating time, but I never lost confidence in Dr. Girardi, the nurses or the physical therapists. Any medical team can handle the routine, even complications from surgery, but you really get to see the remarkable character of true excellence when things do not go as expected. Dr. Girardi, the nursing staff and rehabilitation teams were nothing short of exceptional.
Moreover, I learned that Dr. Girardi's bedside manner rivals his surgical talent. Three months into my recovery, my wife and I were at a dinner party in Greenwich, Connecticut. The conversation turned early on to a question and answer session about my recent surgery. Two people responded by sharing that they too had been operated on at the Hospital for Special Surgery. My friend Rocky told us he had a hip replacement at HSS. The wife of another friend from Boston shared that she had a procedure to treat her advanced Scoliosis at HSS. I found it quite remarkable that three of the four couples that night had profound reasons to be grateful to people at HSS. Three weeks ago I celebrated the six-month anniversary of my surgery at Big Sky Montana on a snowboarding trip with friends. Sitting on the lift one morning on my way to below the summit, I could not help be reminded of Dr. Girardi’s promise that I would return to the physical activities I dearly love. I took this picture of "the bowl" just as I was thinking of Dr. Girardi and thanked him in my mind. A few minutes later I was floating down through knee deep powder. Snowboarding is a lot like life. Really challenging terrain is full of unexpected twists and turns, and sometimes it can be pretty scary. If you are not falling, then you are not pushing yourself to excel and improve. At 44, the real trick is being able to get up after a hard fall and keep going. I am back doing all the physical activity I enjoy. I offer heartfelt thanks to Dr. Girardi and the exceptional team at Hospital for Special Surgery for this and for getting me back up on the mountain of life. God bless. Chris Pates East Haven, CT