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Surgical team uses skill, prayer and encouragement to help patient get back on his feet

By Maureen Nagg on 
Posted on April 13, 2021

Surgical team uses skill, prayer and encouragement to help patient get back on his feet

The Spine & Orthopedic Institute at St. Vincent Charity has helped thousands of people renew their lives and move beyond debilitating back, neck and joint conditions. To schedule an appointment with Dr. James Anderson call 216.369.2830.

 

When Willoughby resident Michael Hirschberger was found one morning last May on his couch unable to stand and too weak to walk, he knew one thing: he needed to get to St. Vincent Charity neurosurgeon James Anderson, MD, as soon as possible.

Three years prior, Dr. Anderson had treated Michael after failed scoliosis surgery at another hospital. To perform the corrective surgery, Dr. Anderson turned to his colleague, Louis Keppler, MD, who is widely regarded for his surgical expertise in the correction of spinal deformities caused by scoliosis.


“We have a unique environment at St. Vincent Charity because, as surgeons, we work as a team to bring the best experts together to provide our patients the highest quality treatments,” said Dr. Anderson. “Dr. Keppler is considered perhaps THE expert in scoliosis surgery in our region, so bringing him in meant that Michael had the best opportunity for positive outcomes.”


Together, Dr. Anderson and Dr. Keppler successfully relieved Michael of the numbness and pain in his legs, which Michael describes as feeling like “my legs were on fire all the time.” He felt good for about a year and then started to experience proximal junctional kyphosis, a condition that can occur following spinal fusion in which the spine segment directly above or below the fusion degenerates and causes pain and numbness from spinal cord compression. 

Michael readily admits he did not follow Dr. Anderson’s strong counsel to be cautious in returning too quickly, if at all, to his normal activities, twisting and bending the way he did before. He felt so good and pain free that he just wanted to get on with his life.

“One of the limitations of spine surgery is that it is a treatment, not a cure,” Dr. Anderson said. “With a fusion, the body is asking the remaining levels of the spine to do more than they are designed to do. If you push it too far, as Michael did, the adjacent discs can wear out.”

Once again, Dr. Anderson’s surgical intervention succeeded in eliminating Michael’s pain. Unfortunately, that is not the end of Michael’s story.

Rehabbing after surgery, Michael’s physical therapist, not affiliated with St. Vincent Charity, pushed exercises too far, disrupting the fusions that had not had adequate time to heal. The next day, Michael’s legs felt weak. After two weeks, his left leg was dragging as he tried to walk. And just a month later, Michael’s girlfriend, Nikki, found him on the couch, after not turning in for bed, unable to walk on his own.

Nikki acted quickly and got Michael to where they both knew he needed to be—St. Vincent Charity—to get help as quickly as possible. Assessing the seriousness of his condition, Dr. Anderson scheduled Michael for surgery the following morning. The surgery was successful, but because of the seriousness of Michael’s condition and the fact this was his fourth spine surgery, Dr. Anderson strongly recommended Michael go to a rehab facility to regain function once he was released from the hospital.

Michael was terrified. Alone at the hospital due to COVID-19 restrictions, Michael was panicked at the thought of being away from the support of Nikki, her son and his friends. His life experiences, including losing his mother and siblings at an early age and becoming alcohol and drug dependent in his early teens through his mid-forty’s, made him anxious about being at a facility alone. While he was able to take pain medications after his previous surgeries and successfully stop when appropriate, he feared he might fall back into his addiction without the support of his loved ones.

Seeing his panic, Dr. Anderson made a deal with him. If, after two days at the hospital, Michael was able to walk the length of the hallway, then he would discharge him home.

“At this point, I can’t even move my foot,” Michael said. “I didn’t think there was any way I was going to be able to walk that hallway. Honestly, I was beside myself.”

Then the power of prayer and personal determination stepped in to support him. In his hospital room, nurses sat with him to pray and provided encouragement that he could do this. His Alcoholics Anonymous Facebook prayer chain was over 1,000 strong. “There’s no way I am here right now without prayer,” Michael said. 

Things started to improve step by step. First, moving his foot and then his leg. Scooting over to the side of the bed and, eventually, standing. After the two days, Michael, to the amazement of Dr. Anderson, was able to walk that hallway and then leave the hospital to return home. 

“Michael is a very determined individual and that determination enabled him to return to function much faster than normal,” Dr. Anderson said. “By the time he went home, he was better than he was for weeks before surgery.”

Six months after surgery, Michael is walking unassisted, driving and even making trips to the gym to walk on a treadmill. But, this time, he is heeding Dr. Anderson’s call to move cautiously with his activities.

“If it wasn’t for Dr. Anderson and the nurses at St. Vincent, there is no doubt in my mind I would either not be here, or be in a wheelchair,” Michael said. “They looked at my whole being—mentally, physically—and gave me the support through prayer and encouragement I need. It took every one of them to make me who I am today.”

The Spine & Orthopedic Institute at St. Vincent Charity has helped thousands of people renew their lives and move beyond debilitating back, neck and joint conditions. To schedule an appointment with Dr. James Anderson call 216.369.2830.

 

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