Read how treatment at the OHSU Spine Center made a difference in patients' lives.
'Able to do what I love most'
“Hiking is where I’m in my element," said Susan P., a Portland resident. "And I’m doing it, thanks to the team at the Spine Center. The team approach is exactly what makes the difference at OHSU. I injured my back when I was 27, and I had tried everything for the pain — or so I thought. OHSU gave me options and empowered me with the tools to take control of the pain myself, without surgery or medication. And now I’m able to do what I love most, thanks to the OHSU Spine Center team. And that’s what life’s all about.”
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When I was 21, I broke my back. I fell at work and busted six discs. That was about 30 years ago. I've had multiple surgeries since. Things were deteriorating to the point where I couldn't walk, and it was affecting my everyday life. Because I'd already had so many surgeries, few doctors would look at me.
My wife and I did our research and that's how we learned about the OHSU Spine Center. I didn't think they'd accept my case — decades of back surgeries, chronic pain — but we got the call to come on up. I brought all my records: You can imagine the file from the past 30 years! When we met Dr. Lin, he sat and talked to me for an hour and then asked my wife if she had any questions, too. That meant a lot. We felt like human beings, and not just a number.
Dr. Lin showed interest and concern. He seemed like a very normal everyday Joe and was willing to work with me. He explained things in layman's terms: The hardware I'd had put in my back from previous surgeries was failing.
I had to try to alleviate the pain in my legs and arms, and I couldn't turn my neck anymore. And I didn't want to lose the ability to walk.
A few months later, I had surgery. Dr. Lin went in, took out all the failing hardware and replaced it with new screws, connectors, wires … you name it. He also did bone grafts from my spinous processes, the bumpy ridges at the back of my vertebrae.
The surgery took about five hours. The next morning, I sat up. I'd never done that before right after surgery. I was either flat or in a brace and couldn't move. Also, they had me walking the day after surgery. That was also new. I was in the hospital four days, the fewest ever after a major surgery. That was a new record for me, too. If I called for help or anything, there was always someone there to assist me. Everyone treated my wife with respect, too. That was very important to us.
It's been almost a year since my surgery, and I'm still plugging along. I have been given another chance to walk! I can move my arms and neck now, and walk, and take the dog out and toss the Frisbee. Everyone's situation is different, but I'd advise to never stop trying to improve what you did yesterday. You have to go forward. The minute you give up, you might as well jump in the hole and have someone cover you up.
I have no qualms about suggesting people to go to OHSU. I would recommend Dr. Lin to anyone.
About two years ago, I began to have a problem standing up straight. My back pulled to the right and down. The disfigurement distressed me. I was looking more and more like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. I didn't want my grandsons to see me like this. I had adult scoliosis, but because of my age — I'm in my mid-70s — my primary care provider said I wasn't a candidate for surgery.
I wanted to explore my options, so I went online to do some research. I made an appointment at the OHSU Spine Center. When I met with the team, we first discussed noninvasive options, but we could all see that my situation was serious. When I saw the results of the imaging they did, it was just disheartening. My spine looked like a "C."
When I met Dr. Lin, who would be my surgeon, I liked him very much. He seemed to be very open and honest. He said that this was serious scoliosis and that I was heading for a wheelchair, but questioned me intensely about why I thought surgery would be a good option. We spent considerable time together talking about risk factors and the chance of things not working out. Afterward, I thought a lot and decided to go ahead with surgery.
Leading up to the surgery, we took another battery of images: X-rays, CT scans, etc. The next time I met with Dr. Lin, I also met his team including Kara, his wonderful physician assistant. We scheduled the surgery for the next month. I believed in the procedure and the skill of the team, and felt positive. The plan was to perform a spinal fusion surgery to prevent the curve from progressing and relieve pain on the nerves. Screws would help the bone heal together.
The surgery ended up being 14 hours long! When I talked to Dr. Lin afterward, I'd asked why it took so much longer — I'd expected maybe eight hours — and he simply said, "I wanted to make sure we straightened you out." My entire spine was fused from the bottom up to my neck.
I was in the hospital about five days. The Intensive Care Unit was a wonderful facility. The next day after surgery, they were helping me get up and walk around with a walker. We went to the imaging lab, and the team and I were pleased how the procedure had gone. I could already pick up things off the floor, and as I healed, I got about one or two inches taller!
I cannot say enough positive about Dr. Lin, and I have a great deal of respect for OHSU. I got exactly what I hoped would happen out of the surgery. A few months later, I was doing everything I used to do before surgery — with no pain. My friends and family tell me how great I look.
Two years ago, I started having pain shooting down my right leg. Initially, it was diagnosed as sciatica, but I knew it was more than that, so I began trying to find a doctor who believed me when I said something was seriously wrong with my back. I'd been to physical therapy and received six steroid injections. Nothing worked. When I had an MRI, my primary care provider didn't see anything but arthritis. However, I couldn't walk or drive without being in a ton of pain. I am a teacher and this adversely affected my work. I had to take off several terms.
My nephew is a medical student at OHSU and helped me get in touch with the OHSU Spine Center. Everything worked like clockwork there. I didn't have to wait. Everyone was so compassionate. First, I saw Dr. Sibell, who reviewed my MRI, and he referred me to Dr. Lin.
Dr. Lin is one of the best listeners I know! He said, "You're not crazy. You have things going on that are giving you serious pain." I had quite a few bone spurs putting pressure on my nerves, plus narrowing of the area around the nerves. I also had a slipped disc. Kara, Dr. Lin's physician assistant, explained to me that some people can go a long time with this and not have pain, but others need surgery.
We talked about all my options and agreed to do surgery, doing the least invasive procedure first, which was a laminectomy–discectomy to ease the discomfort in my back. I recovered well from this surgery, but it didn't solve the problem. My symptoms continued to worsen. Dr. Lin and I discussed this further, and I decided to have spinal fusion surgery, during which he would take bone from my hip to graft it into a new disc.
This was a very long surgery, about 10 hours. While he was doing the surgery, he also removed many bone spurs and any other defects that could impinge on the nerves. The nurses on the orthopaedic floor took such good care of me, so kind, and they made sure I had no pain. Dr. Lin even came in on his day off and checked on me. I stayed in the hospital about two days after that, and in a few days was moving normally. I started physical therapy six weeks after surgery, and about nine weeks later was ready to resume most of my normal activities.
Since the surgery, I haven't had any pain in my back or legs, other than aches and normal pain associated with returning to my normal routines. I love walking, and now I can walk for hours. I can drive as long as I need to and not feel pain. I have much more energy. I feel like dancing!
I feel very blessed I went to OHSU. I have told anybody, everybody who has orthopaedic pain that they have to go there. I call Dr. Lin and Kara and his entire team "my miracle workers." If I send an email through MyChart, they respond within hours. They are constantly available, kind and compassionate. It is exceptional medical care.
Josh, who’s in his 40s, races dragon boats nearly year-round, even in the rain.
Dragon boat racing is a difficult sport. It involves using back muscles, twisting and pulling a paddle.
After two days of serious racing in August 2015, Josh's back was killing him, and pain was shooting down one leg. The next day, he couldn’t get out of bed. He thought the pain would subside with rest.
He had experienced back problems and other injuries before. In 2001, while working at a lumberyard in Hawaii, Josh slipped while unloading molding in the rain. He moved quickly to catch the load, hurting his back.
A month later, he was hit by a car while riding his bike home from work. He had surgery on his leg and was unable to walk for a year. He healed and, in the four years before the dragon boat pain, his back was completely pain-free.
But after his 2015 injury, Josh’s pain quickly became excruciating. Bent over and unable to walk, he was taken by ambulance to the emergency room, where he received pain medication and a referral for an MRI scan.
The MRI showed a herniated disc pressing against his spinal nerves. His primary care doctor referred Josh to OHSU spine surgeon Dr. Jason Chang.
Dr. Chang showed Josh and his sister the X-ray and explained what was going on. The bones of his spine were not lined up because an old fracture didn’t heal properly. Over time, his body had worn down the disc, and the nerves had become irritated. This can often occur when fractures don’t heal well.
Dr. Chang helped Josh work through whether to have surgery. By then, Josh’s whole leg was numb, and he was hunched over and couldn’t walk. He opted to have it.
The surgery fixed the bones and freed the nerve. Josh’s pain vanished.
As part of his recovery, Josh does strengthening exercises with a physical therapist. Now he’s able to mow the lawn, rake leaves and do other normal stuff. He also asked Dr. Chang about returning to dragon boat racing. Dr. Chang expects him to be back in the boat soon.
Denise had always been active and healthy, often biking 100 miles a week or more. But when she was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease, her life changed dramatically.
She began having problems with a disc in her lower back. She couldn't sleep in bed because lying down was too painful. Sitting for any length of time was also next to impossible. Denise, 47, would often eat at restaurants standing up. She had a hard time sitting for classes in school, where she is studying nursing.
Denise had to buy a zero-gravity chair to sleep, and even then she slept for only a few hours at a time. Her lack of sleep and the constant pain made it hard to focus on studying and her regular activities.
She tried physical therapy, steroid shots, pain medication and sleeping pills, but none helped. Another spine doctor said she might be a candidate for a total disc replacement and referred her to Dr. Robert Hart at OHSU.
"I had been in pain for a year, and it kept getting worse. I was desperate when I went to see Dr. Hart," said Denise, who lives in Oregon City.
After thorough research into treatment options, Denise had a total disc replacement. As soon as she woke up, she knew the surgery had been successful. For the first time in more than a year, she was lying flat in bed without pain.
"Dr. Hart gave me my life back. I can sleep in my own bed again, and I can sleep comfortably in any position. I can walk and ride my bike and work in my garden again. I would have been happy with a 50 percent improvement, but I feel 100 percent again," Denise said.
The lack of sleep and constant agony had taken its toll on Denise's emotional well-being. The normally self-described "happy-go-lucky" woman had lost her vitality and a lot of her positive attitude. Within weeks of being able to sleep normally and live without pain, she started to feel like herself again.
"I still wake up every day and thank God and Dr. Hart for the fact that I'm not in pain anymore."