From Constant Back Pain to Forgetting My Bad Back: Mary’s Spinal Fusion Story (Video)

Mary Miller, her doctor & a nurse after her back pain surgery
Mary Miller (center) and some of her spine surgery care team.

Mary Miller, RN, who works at UVA Continuum Home Health, contributed this post.

One day in 2007, my back started aching for no apparent reason. Within 24 hours I had shooting, searing pain down my right leg. My primary care doctor said I most likely had a herniated disc and would need surgery. But I was afraid there might be complications, or the surgery wouldn’t fix my back pain. I decided to tough it out. The pain eventually got better but never really went away. I continued to have numbness in my leg and foot.

In 2014, I had another big episode and again in 2017. The last time, the pain was constant and there was nothing I could do to make it better, including pain medicine. I was at the point where I couldn’t bend over and pick things up off the floor. I couldn’t get clothes out of the dryer.

As a Continuum liaison nurse, I was trying hard not to let my patients know it hurt when I was leaning over to care for them. I loved yoga, but sometimes it hurt so badly I couldn’t get up off the floor. It hurt to turn over in bed, and getting up in the morning was torture. I consider myself a pretty positive person, but the chronic pain was making me very depressed.

Over the years, I tried physical therapy, neurostimulation, and eventually, a chiropractor. Unfortunately, that made the pain worse. My chiropractor felt I needed further imaging and ordered an MRI. After seeing that the imaging showed I had a large herniation, she suggested I see a spine specialist.

Getting Support from the UVA Spine Center

From the moment I contacted Nicole Gibson, senior medical office coordinator, at the UVA Spine Center, every single person I encountered was friendly and responsive to my unique needs and challenging work schedule.

Nicole promptly responded to all my phone calls and MyChart messages. She even scheduled the needed tests and appointments around my work hours.

Nicole also made sure all of this could be done in calendar year 2017, as I requested, due to changes coming to my insurance in 2018.

I expressed to neurosurgeon Chun-Po Yen, MD, my desire to get back to work as quickly as possible, and he suggested a modified, minimally invasive approach to my L5/S1 fusion surgery.  This was out of the norm and more difficult for him but greatly reduced my recovery time.

This allowed me to return to work faster than most patients who receive a spinal fusion with a spacer. A spacer is a foreign object a surgeon places to hold the vertebrae apart so the nerves are not compressed by the ruptured disc.

Lara Myers, NP, taught me what to expect during and after my surgery. It was very reassuring knowing I could reach out to her at any time.

My Uneventful Surgery Adventure

Every encounter in preparation for my surgery was smooth and thorough, and I felt confident leading up to my December 1, 2017 operation. On the day of surgery, the staff was informative and protected my confidentiality. I also felt they were genuinely concerned for what I was going through. My husband was pleasantly surprised at how often the staff updated him on my status throughout the day.

I woke up on 6 West, and they treated me like a queen. I was so impressed with the new bed and its fancy USB port and the comfort measures, like an eye shade and headset.

My pain was managed very well – the nurses knew better than I how to avoid severe post-op pain. They walked me through every aspect of my hospital recovery and checked on me frequently. I rarely had to use the call bell. I also really appreciated the help I received from occupational therapist Erica Umback and physical therapist Chad Aldridge, who taught me how to do my daily activities and stretches without further injuring my spine. Even the food was good and hot!

Back to Life and Pain Free

I returned to work on December 26, 2017. Now I feel like a new person! I no longer have a limp and can exercise and move. I’m finally enjoying life again! I’ve gotten back to all the things I had given up for the last couple years, like working in the garden and lifting heavy things. Sometimes I even forget I had a bad back.

Considering Spine Surgery?

Learn more about minimally invasive spine surgery at UVA.

If I talk to someone who is experiencing chronic back pain, I tell them to go see Dr. Yen at the UVA Spine Center. I also tell them not to be afraid, like I was. The nurses, doctors, and entire UVA team really cares about the patient’s experience. They will do everything possible to meet their every need.

Watch Mary’s Back Pain & Spinal Fusion Story

Mary was so relieved to be free of her back pain that she wrote a letter to UVA Health leadership describing her experience. Watch her read it.

Comments (1)

  1. Gary Grime$ says:

    Wow what a wonderful blessing Dr. Yen is. My husband had a large tumor removed from L5 and required a fusion and quess who is surgeon was Dr. Yen. What a pleasant, caring and skilled surgeon UVA has.

    We are from Winchester, VA.

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