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Timothy Wrenn

When Others Gave Up, UCSF Spine Surgeons Save Patient's Life

By Abby Sinnott

By the time Timothy Wrenn visited a neurosurgeon in Chico, Calif., he was in so much pain he couldn't get out of bed or walk for several months. He was told that nothing could be done for him.

"The doctor just shook his head and said, 'I'm sorry, but your condition is so advanced that I can't help you. You'll be on an IV antibiotic and in pain for the rest of your life, and the only time you won't be in pain is when you are sleeping," remembers Timothy's wife, Sherry. "It's a miracle he's alive today."

In July 2005, Wrenn who was 57 years old contracted a "staph" infection in a Sacramento hospital while being treated for a chronic hemoglobin disorder. Staph infections arise from staphylococcus aureus, a common bacterium that lives on the skin and in the nose of about 25-30 percent of the population. S. aureus can exist in this form without causing any harm. However, if a person has a break in their skin, suffers an injury, has a weakened immune system or undergoes surgery, S. aureus may cause a variety of infections, ranging in severity.

Wrenn's staph infection did not respond to antibiotics, which is a type of strain called methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Eventually, the infection settled in his spine, causing a severe life-threatening infection that eroded the discs and vertebrae in his spine. While spending time in various medical facilities, he was bedridden for months and suffering from bedsores and excruciating pain.

His staph infection required surgery. However, this is an extremely complicated and high-risk procedure, especially for Wrenn, who has had previous back surgeries and also suffers from serious pre-existing medical conditions. Because of this, he could not find a doctor who would treat him.

"We had given up all hope and then Wrenn's neurosurgeon said UCSF might be the only place that would be able to help him," says Sherry. "They agreed to take him and we were so thankful."

In October 2005, Wrenn was admitted to UCSF Medical Center, where he was treated by UCSF spine specialists. With some of the highest patient success rates in the country, the UCSF Spine Center is one of the largest centers of its kind in the country, treating 10,000 patients each year.

"Had Timothy not come to UCSF, he would have remained bedridden and died from a complication while in bed, such as pneumonia, and continued to suffer from bedsores leading to a horrible painful death," says Dr. Shane Burch, an orthopedic surgeon who treated Wrenn. Burch specializes in metastatic spine disease, spinal deformity and degenerative conditions of the spine.

A team of experts, including orthopedic surgeons, vascular surgeons, infectious disease and internal medicine specialists, worked closely together to treat Wrenn.

"I've been to a lot of hospitals and I've never seen anyone treat their patients so attentively and acutely," says Sherry. "All of Timothy's doctors and nurses worked together amazingly as a team and used each other's knowledge to make a strong cord."

At UCSF, Wrenn underwent four extremely complicated surgeries performed by Dr. Sigurd Berven and Burch within four weeks. The first procedure involved removing one of his vertebrae and several disks to eradicate his infection. Subsequently, he had additional surgeries to reconstruct and stabilize his spine.

For the first time in many years, Wrenn is now completely pain-free in his back and able to walk with a cane. With the help of occupational and physical therapy, he hopes to be able to walk on his own in the future.

"Now Timothy's back pain is gone, which is well above the baseline, and his walking tolerance continues to improve. Without comprehensive care and a team approach, Timothy would not have survived," says Burch. "He is a great example of what dedication and expertise can do in the face of everyone else giving up on him."

Story written in March 2006

Abby Sinnott is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.

Related Information

UCSF Clinics & Centers

Spine Center
400 Parnassus Ave., Third Floor
San Francisco, CA 94143-0332
Phone: (866) 81-SPINE or
(866) 817-7463
Neuro-spine Fax: (415) 353-2176
Ortho-spine Fax: (415) 353-4047