Suzanne English has embraced exercise for as long as she can remember. She walked three miles a day for more than 20 years and biked outdoors.
Ten years ago, the retired speech pathologist from Ottawa was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which she controls through medication. While that slowed her down some, it was the pain in her right leg that eventually led her to Rockford Spine Center.
English had experienced sciatica before, and steroid shots were the only relief. This time, she opted for alternative treatments, trying acupuncture for six weeks, then a chiropractor, then physical therapy. But none of those efforts delivered the relief she was seeking.
So, she consulted with a local surgeon, who suggested a series of three epidural shots, starting in October 2015. But again, no relief. She traveled to Florida for the winter in January, and by February, she was using a cane to walk because the pain was so bad. When she returned home in March, she started using a walker – she had begun listing to the right side and lost 2 inches of height because of that.
It was then that an osteopath near her home diagnosed her with severe scoliosis. Two more doctor consultations told her the surgery she’d need would be very involved – over 10 hours with a long recovery and lots of physical therapy, and it wouldn’t necessarily relieve her leg pain.
“At this point, I was waking up every morning in pain. If the pain shot up my leg, I’d be in tears,” she recalled. “I couldn’t take it anymore.”
English discovered Rockford Spine Center after a friend went through surgery with Dr. Fred Sweet. She made an appointment and sent her patient questionnaire with her friend, who was traveling to Rockford for a post-operative visit. English received a phone call the same day asking if she could come in sooner than her scheduled appointment.
“The way she filled out the questionnaire and after reviewing the imaging studies, I knew she was suffering a lot, and I didn’t want her to have to wait a long time,” Sweet said. “She was having a lot of pain, and her scoliosis was pretty bad.”
Her scoliosis had progressed, to the point where she was so bent over that her right ribs were touching her right hip. Dr. Sweet told English she needed surgery, and he detailed the plan: that it would take about eight hours, but he didn’t need to do the more time-consuming and painful surgery where the entry point is through the front of her body, a technique that’s still very common. She was more hopeful than she’d been in a long time.
“He showed me an X-ray of a man he had operated on eight years earlier who had Parkinson’s. The X-ray looked similar, and he pointed out how straight the man’s spine was after – that sold me right there,” English noted. “I told him, ‘If you can give me my 2 inches in height back, you’ve got the job.’”
Sweet performed a partial transforaminal anterior release (TFAR) and total spinal fusion on English in July 2016 at Rockford Memorial Hospital. Though Sweet didn’t have to start the procedure through the front of English’s body, it was still a very involved surgery. She donated two pints of blood beforehand, in case they needed it during the operation.
“I liked the way he approached everything and his positive attitude. One thing he did before surgery, he said a prayer, asking that God would give him the skills to help me,” English said.
There has been a lot of excitement about TFAR in the spine surgery world – Sweet first presented about the technique about 12 years ago, and he published an article and clinical results on the topic about two years ago. He travels to several academic universities each year to teach and talk about TFAR.
“We can do all the correction from the back side without having to do the separate surgery through the side or through the front of the abdomen, so this makes it a lot less surgery and a lot faster recovery, and the corrections are quite excellent,” he noted.
After the surgery when Sweet told English that she got her 2 inches of height back, she cried. Getting up from the hospital bed and moving around post-surgery was painful and difficult, but she had immediate relief from her leg pain.
English stayed in Rockford for a few weeks to do physical therapy at Van Matre HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital and continued to rehabilitate well during the months that followed. Nearly a year after the surgery, she’s returned to her active self: She rides three miles a day on a stationary bike, and does tai chi twice a week and chair yoga once per week. English, now 67, is starting a program in the community for chair yoga, and she also leads a Parkinson’s support group.
She also is adjusting to her new normal. Her abdominal/core muscles are still weak. She uses a cane if she must walk longer distances, and her shoulders are more rounded. But those differences are minor, she said, in the long run now that her leg pain is gone.
“You have to know your limitations, and Dr. Sweet told me this recovery is not something I can rush,” English said. “I don’t have a lot of patience with myself, so I’ve had to learn that.”
Regarding English’s case, Sweet anticipates that she should have a “good outlook and good outcome long term.”
“The Parkinson’s was probably a large contributor to why she developed such a severe deformity and made her recovery a little bit more difficult,” Sweet said. “Patients being very active is a good thing, and I think the recovery was fairly normal, maybe better than normal given that she had the Parkinson’s, which tends to slow people down.”