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

Mary Miller

“I forget I even had surgery; I feel so normal.”

This is Mary Miller. Six years out from her spinal fusion surgery at UVA Health, she says she couldn’t be happier with her choice. “I’m still pain-free, and I can do any activity I want,” she shares. “I forget I even had surgery; I feel so normal.”

Mary had suffered from a herniated disc, a painful spine condition. She faced the same difficult decision many people face: Should she have spine surgery? And where should she go for care?

When Surgery Makes Sense

Mary had to do something. A nurse for UVA Continuum Home Health, pain made caring for her patients difficult. She had to give up yoga, which she loved. The daily pain left her feeling depressed.

Still, Mary worried about the recovery time after surgery. Thankfully, her spine surgeon, Chun-Po Yen, MD, used a minimally invasive technique. This helped Mary recover faster with less pain. She was able to get back to her normal life sooner than she expected.

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Have Back Pain? Mary's Advice

Mary shares her advice for others considering spine surgery: “Don’t give up and don’t wait,” she says. “I thought surgery wasn’t worth it and I lived with pain for years. But the technology and expertise is so advanced. I got great care at UVA Health throughout my whole experience.”

Read this post Mary shared in 2019 about her spinal fusion at UVA Health.

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 UVA Spine Center

From the moment I contacted Nicole Gibson, senior medical office coordinator, 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 & 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.

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.

Tags: neuro, spine

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