May 16, 2023

The Patient and the Problem 

Melanie Gibson is a source of motivation and inspiration. She is a licensed Zumba instructor, leader of core workouts, strength training, and certified personal trainer. Her high level of activity requires a healthy body, but that all became increasingly difficult as the symptoms of back pain increased and spread. In addition to localized pain in her back, she started experiencing neck pain, arm numbness, balance problems, migraines and tension headaches, muscle spasms, and too much discomfort to sleep at night. Her symptoms were a result of myelopathy caused by spinal stenosis, spinal cord compression, and degenerative and herniated discs.

Melanie moved into pain management to see what conservative care could do for her symptoms; she had trigger point injections and joint injections. "I was scared to death of a surgery," she shared, and she didn't want to slow down her active lifestyle. In 2021 she learned she needed surgery, but she wanted to prolong the inevitable because she was looking forward to so much in 2022: her daughter's wedding, upcoming travel, and celebrating her 60th birthday in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico! Melanie got to enjoy all of those things, and then had to get serious about the needed operation, "It was only a matter of time before I had to have surgery because the myelopathy would become irreversible and leave me paralyzed."

The Right Doctor for a Unique Case 

She sought out a second opinion for her worsening back problems with Washington University Orthopedics spine surgeon, Jacob Buchowski, MD, MS. From the beginning, Melanie appreciated Dr. Buchowski's candidness and honest demeanor. She spent months researching his practice and decided, "This is the doctor I want. If I had to have spinal surgery, I need to have the best."

Dr. Buchowski explains Melanie's case, "Her symptoms were caused by degenerative changes in her neck including bone spur formation and disc bulges. These changes caused narrowing of the spinal canal resulting in compression of the spinal cord and the nerves which exit the spinal canal. This was further complicated by development of abnormal alignment of her cervical spine and prior surgery at the C6-C7 level. As a result, Ms. Gibson presented not only with neck pain, but also with upper extremity pain and numbness, clumsiness/dropping things, and difficulty with balance.

"In order to address the multilevel cervical spinal stenosis and cervical kyphosis, I elected to perform surgery from both the front and from the back of the neck. More specifically, I started the surgery by going in from the front of the neck and performing an anterior cervical diskectomy and fusion (ACDF) at C5-C6 and C6-C7. Once this was done, I then went in from the back of the neck and performed a posterior spinal fusion with instrumentation from C2 to T2 and decompression from C3 to C5. Although the surgery was extensive, it allowed a thorough decompression of both the spinal cord and nerves exiting the spinal canal and restoration of normal alignment of the neck." 

While the technicalities of the surgery were impressive, Melanie trusted Dr. Buchowski and the plan. "I am so grateful to have found him, he took the time to understand me as a person and he was so supportive," she explained. 

Being Vulnerable and Moving Forward 

As the independent and athletic woman she is, Melanie wasn't used to needing the physical assistance of others. Surgery recovery presented limitations like not being able to dress herself, which comes with serious mental impacts. She proved to be an inspiration in that regard too. She accepted the fantastic care of her husband and kids, and she had an amazing support system from those in her previously-taught workout classes. She would tell other patients recovering from physical limitations to be positive and celebrate the small victories, like being able to put a shirt on again. "You have to learn to laugh at the ridiculousness," she said with resolve and commitment to move beyond her limitations. "You know what you want to do, but your body isn't allowing it so you get discouraged but you have to find an alternative." 

Twelve weeks after surgery, Melanie was released to teach her fitness classes in a modified capacity. "You accept your altered body, and appreciate what it can do now. There are things I won't ever be able to do again, but I can't be concerned with those things." Instead, she focuses on what she can do and reteaching herself how to do so safely. "Given the patient's determination to get better, the right attitude, and well executed surgery, I am not surprised that she has done well since surgery," Dr. Buchowski complimented Melanie. Her resolve to learn the capabilities of her new body is unsurprising for the woman who spent 26 years teaching elementary school children. While this may be Melanie's biggest lesson yet, her determination to live a healed and fulfilled life is nothing short of inspirational. 

Learn why patient's choose Washington University Orthopedicsrequest an appointment online or call (314) 514-3500.

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