Patient Tia Gundlach credits spinal surgeon for saving her life during surgery for cancerous spinal tumor removal

By: Crystal Huff 

Tia Gundlach and spine surgeon Matthew Goodwin, MDIt was August of 2019 when Tia Gundlach began experiencing shooting pain down her right arm and in her shoulder. There were also bouts with numbness. After the pain increased, she consulted with her primary care physician and was told it was osteoarthritis. She was prescribed a medication to help control the symptoms.  

Tia says, “The pain was horrible and would not subside  It radiated in my shoulder blade and the pain in and numbness in my arm and hands began affecting my work.” At the time, Tia was an independent insurance agent with an office in Farmington, Missouri. 

On October 21, 2019 the pain became so unbearable that she ended up in the emergency room at Parkland Health Center in Farmington.   

Several blood tests and scans were performed and the doctors discovered that Tia has multiple myeloma, a cancer that affects bone marrow — the body's blood-forming system. 

Tia says, “Some of my vertebrae in my neck were eaten away by the cancer. I needed surgery.”  

Tia was transferred to Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis in the middle of the night to be seen by specialists who would put together a treatment plan.  

She started her first cycle of chemotherapy treatment through Siteman Cancer Center, and a week later she was scheduled to see Matthew Goodwin, MD, PhD, a spine surgeon with Washington University Orthopedics. Her surgery was scheduled for the day after thanksgiving so she could receive more chemo treatment and prepare her office for when she would be out for surgery.

Dr. Goodwin explains, “Tia is unique in many ways. Not only is she young to have multiple myeloma, but she also had such bad disease at one spot (at the base of her neck) that one vertebrae had collapsed and was pinching nerves. I had to take the tumor out from the front of her neck, going right above her heart and great vessels, placing a cage in the missing vertebrae’s place. I then made a separate incision in the back of her neck to place screws and rods to stabilize it. Without intervention, she would have likely lost significant function and had further collapse and more pain.”

“Dr. Goodwin is my hero – he saved my life. During surgery, the cancer wouldn’t stop bleeding and I needed three pints of blood. Dr. Goodwin never gave up. He saved my life,” says Tia. 

Dr. Goodwin says, “Tia did have a very vascular tumor that we removed. We had it embolized before surgery to cut off as much blood supply as possible, but we still knew it would be bloody to remove it. Controlling bleeding from a tumor directly over the spinal cord can be tricky – you can’t just compress like you do other places in the body. When we know we have a tumor that is very vascular like this, we have several different new technologies and techniques prepared in the operating room, and because of that she ended up doing great.”

After surgery Tia was in the hospital for almost a week. She began radiation treatment on her neck and did 3 more cycles of chemotherapy before receiving a stem cell transplant.  

Tia Gundlach after surgery and cancer treatmentTia says, “I think Dr. Goodwin is awesome and during my recovery he was completely available to me at all times. I had direct access to him and he responded immediately. You can tell how much he cares for his patients, he is very upfront and honest. I feel like if I had anyone else had been operating on me, I might not have made it out!”  

Dr. Goodwin says, “I always tell patients that when I operate on them we enter into a professional relationship. A big part of that relationship is trust, and I take that seriously. There are lots of great technical surgeons, but the best surgeon is usually a surgeon who you can trust, who you have access to, and who will take care of whatever comes up throughout the process of your surgery and disease. Tia embraced this and always had very blunt and straightforward questions for me. In holding before rolling back to the OR she asked, “Dr. Goodwin, am I going to bleed out and die in there when you take the tumor out?” She is the only patient that has asked me that right as we were about to start her surgery. Like I said, Tia is unique in many ways!”

She is now back to work and after 100-day mark of cancer treatment, we should know if she is remission. All signs indicate that she is now cancer free!

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