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Adult Spinal Deformity, Spinal Surgery

When James “Jimmy” Connors’ wife, Susie, caught sight of him one night and told him to stand up straight, he responded matter-of-factly, “I am.” Then he walked over to a mirror and saw a hunched over old man looking back at him.

James Connors Penn Spine Patient
James Connors (middle) before his spinal surgery
He usually radiates positivity and kindness, but it deflated Jimmy, as he’s known among much of the Scranton, Pennsylvania community where he was mayor from 1990 to 2002. He had scoliosis that went untreated for much of his life, but he still prided himself on keeping an impressive level of activity.

A hard fall on a patch of ice several years back had made it hard for Jimmy to get around. Now, even after several spine surgeries, he was unable to stand without significant pain, let alone stand up straight. Still, Jimmy plugged on. He and Susie sit on the boards of several nonprofits and were recently named volunteers of the year. Jimmy had certainly tried get help for his spine, which was shaped like a question mark. But surgeon after surgeon told him that at age 72, reconstructive spinal surgery was too much of a risk.

When he peered into the mirror that night, he accepted the hard reality of his situation. “I had no prospects left for improvement,” Jimmy says. “Everywhere I went, I was told that nothing more could be done for me.”

Not long after, his oldest granddaughter— a medical student— intervened and insisted that he seek out one last opinion, at Penn Medicine. Jimmy put up a small fight, but Susie did not. She was on the phone the next morning, scheduling an appointment with Dr. Vincent Arlet, Chief of Adult Spinal Deformity Surgery at Penn Medicine.

Making up for lost time

James Connors Penn Spine Patient with Dr. Arlet
James Connors (right) with his doctor, Vincent Arlet, MD (left) at a post-op appointment
Dr. Arlet performed an operation that included inserting a cage in front of Jimmy’s spine, into which he placed two quarter-inch stainless-steel rods that he attached to the full length of Jimmy’s spine with 30 titanium screws.

“Such a surgery, in most places, is done in two parts staged several days apart,” Dr. Arlet says. “But at Penn Medicine, we have the expertise to do it all at once—and under only one anesthesia, which is much easier for the patient.”

It’s a 10-hour procedure he performs about 100 times a year at Pennsylvania Hospital, occasionally on patients even older than Jimmy. “We do operate on patients in their seventies and, sometimes, early eighties, even though it’s major surgery,” Dr. Arlet says. “Nowadays, if you’re 80 and you’re in reasonably good shape, you can expect to live into your nineties. So, that’s 10 years of quality-of-life that we’re able to give back to our patients.”

After the surgery, Jimmy spent two weeks at a rehabilitation facility closer to his longtime home, which he continues to visit weekly for physical therapy.

Jimmy says he’s busier now than he was when he was mayor. On a recent weekday, he and Susie attended three board meetings together. Then she went to the gym and he went to physical therapy.

After his surgery, Jimmy would hand out copies of his x-rays, one from before the surgery with his spine in the shape of a question mark and another from after it. The casual presentation usually included the same joke: “I went to Penn, and I’m no longer a crooked politician.” But the copies ran out a while back. Now Jimmy just says, “Go see Dr. Arlet. He’ll change your life.”

A new lease on life

When Dr. Arlet saw Jimmy for his most recent follow-up, he prodded him, half-joking, “Why are you using that cane? You don’t need it anymore.” It was true, and Jimmy knew it. Since his surgery in July 2018, he’d made incredible progress, from getting around with a walker early on to needing no assistance at all a few weeks later. But he’s still prone to reach for the cane.

“It’s a crutch. A mental crutch. With it, I’m not worried about getting plunked over,” Jimmy says. He’ll get there. This is still all so new to him, and it’s almost like he’s afraid he may wake up from a dream.

“I can’t believe how much taller I am now,” he says. “And my eyes are brighter. People tell me all the time that the stress has gone out of my face. This surgery is a new lease on life for me. Before, it wasn’t so much the physical pain that wore me down as the emotional toll of being so impaired. But Dr. Arlet has given me my life back.”

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