For the past 34 years, 67-year-old Virginia (Ginny) Hunt has lived in a small town tucked away in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains, the perfect place for Hunt's favorite outdoor hobbies — backpacking, bicycling and cross-country skiing. But as her back pain progressed and she began to lose feeling in her legs, Hunt was unable to walk and even stand. Eventually, after trying a plethora of non-surgical therapies to no avail, she visited the UCSF Spine Center where she was diagnosed with degenerative scoliosis.
Although scoliosis is commonly considered a disorder affecting adolescents, an estimated 60 percent of the older population has what is known as adult scoliosis.
In March 2012, Hunt, a retired computer programmer who worked remotely from home, underwent spinal fusion surgery at UCSF Medical Center. The surgery's goal is to correct the deformity by fusing the vertebrae so the spine doesn't bend.
Just seven months after surgery, Hunt went backpacking. "It was a 4-mile hike close to home and I had to take two naps to get through it," she says, laughing, "but it's a start!"
What symptoms were you experiencing before the surgery?
I was suffering from back pain for about 10 years. I couldn't do a lot of the physical things I liked to do and became very sedentary compared to how I was before. I tried a whole bunch of non-surgical therapies. I tried exercising, a chiropractor and acupuncture. My back pain got worse and I started losing feeling in my legs, so I went to a physical therapist.
I wanted to get strong enough so that I could go rafting for three weeks with family and friends through the Grand Canyon. I've done it four times before and we did go again in November of last year (2011) but I was only able to sit in the raft; I couldn't really walk or help out. I'd never thought of myself as the weak link in the group before.
What prompted you to go to the UCSF Spine Center?
Eventually, my pain got so bad that I couldn't stand or walk so I finally made an appointment at UCSF. They diagnosed me with degenerative scoliosis. In a way, it was a relief because I had a definitive diagnosis and they said they could fix me.
You had spinal fusion surgery, which is a very complex procedure. Was it hard to make the decision to have surgery?
The surgery is grueling and I think it's really important to go through all the non-surgical therapies first before you decide to have surgery so that going in, you're convinced that you have no other choice.
The surgeons told me that they could fix me, so I wanted to get it done sooner, rather than later. Some people wait until they're in their 80s to have the surgery, but it's not a good idea because it's so hard on your body. I talked to other people who waited so long to have the surgery that now they have permanent nerve damage.
What was the surgery like?
My surgeon, Dr. Vedat Deviren, was very honest with me. He said the surgery was going to be a really big deal and that I'd be in the hospital for 10 days, so I went in expecting the worst. My surgeries were scheduled for two different days.
Because the lumbar region (lower spine) flexes so much, they fused it in two places. They removed the discs and filled the intervertebral spaces with cages of bone chips. That is in front of the spinal cord, so they went in from the side, not the back. That surgery took about four hours, I think.
Then they waited a day and the second day, they worked from the back. They "sanded" off the surface of all the vertebrae, inserted two screws in most of them, tucked in bone chips, which came from the top of my pelvis, next to the sanded surfaces on the back of the vertebrae and straightened my back as much as they could, and inserted two rods into the screws.
Somewhere in there, they also removed some of the parts of a couple of vertebrae that were pressing on the nerves to my left leg. That surgery took about eight hours, I believe. So basically, it took two days because there was so much to do. One day, they worked from my right side and one day they worked from the back.
I went home with pain medications, but they caused me a lot of stomach complications so was glad I could stop taking them relatively quickly. Unfortunately, one of the rods that was put in during surgery slipped, so I had to go back into the hospital for four days for another surgery to repair it.
You have a heart rhythm abnormality known as atrial fibrillation. Did you experience heart problems during or after surgery?
My heart problems came three days after each surgery, which I'm told is not so unusual, especially with lots of blood loss, which I had. I was monitored and perhaps treated with drugs, but basically I came out of "a-fib" on my own. I am still taking a drug to regulate heartbeat, but I hope to be off of it soon.
How has your recovery been?
Well, you don't go into these things feeling normal and I'm still recovering to some extent. After two months, I was feeling better than I had in a long time and after five months I felt better enough to have another major surgery, a knee replacement.
Even though at times the pain has been excruciating, I have no regrets about having surgery at all. I am so thankful for Dr. Deviren, for the surgical techniques that were available, the physical therapy follow-up, the nursing staff.
Recuperation has taken long enough that I have to remind myself how badly I felt before the surgery. But I am beginning to feel like a normal person again. One thing has surprised me, though. I have to get used to my new body. I am now taller by at least two inches. I had to learn to tie my shoes by bending my knees out to the side instead of bending my back over. With the rods, my back does not bend. And I will have to learn how to swim again, since I can't arch my back to lift my head up to breathe, or to hold my head up when swimming on my back. I have to learn new ways to get up from sitting on the floor with new body dynamics, as well.
What plans do you have for the future?
I keep feeling better every week. This week, my husband and I are being full-time grandparents, taking care of active 3 and 1-year-olds. I have much more energy than last time we did this, and I can pick up the toddler and the toys much easier than I have been able to for almost a year.
It's just snowed here for the first time this season and I expect to be skiing in a couple of months. I just want to resume a normal life and to live another 20 years to make the surgery and recovery worthwhile!
Interviewed by freelance writer Abby Sinnott.