Around 2010, JoAnn Duffy started getting steroid injections for her sciatica. But it only worsened, spreading to her other leg and grinding JoAnn’s active life to a near-halt.
“I was in agony,” she says.
JoAnn worked as a nurse at a Delaware hospital, but her back pain relegated her to a desk job in the stress lab. She had a hard time even making it down the hall to a break room for lunch and eventually stopped trying. She used a wheelchair to go back and forth to the parking lot at the start and end of each shift.
A friend who works at another hospital in the region ultimately referred JoAnn to Vincent Arlet, MD, Chief of Adult Spinal Deformity Surgery at Penn Medicine. After three years of darkness, suddenly there was a light in JoAnn’s life. She describes the
June 2013 morning of her surgery with Dr. Arlet as feeling like “I was going to a party”.
“I knew I was finally in the right place and that they were going to take care of me. There were no negative thoughts,” she says. “So, that morning just felt like a new beginning.”
During the course of surgery, Dr. Arlet performed a spinal fusion and then he inserted a cage in front of JoAnn’s spine, into which he placed two quarter-inch stainless-steel rods that he affixed to almost the entire length of her spine.
“Once I woke up, I got on my feet somehow. I basically had to learn to walk again, but I think I just had such a determination to get back to a normal life,” JoAnn says.
Her recovery would be difficult at times, but JoAnn had made up her mind that those early moments after the surgery would set the tone for the months and years to come. From Dr. Arlet’s vantage, the surgery was already a success.
“Revision surgery is always more complex than primary surgery, but that’s what we do all the time at Penn Medicine,” Dr. Arlet says. “JoAnn had a beautiful result.”
A brush with death
This was not JoAnn’s first spine surgery. In 1992, she was on a snowmobile excursion in Montana with about 30 other people when her snowmobile went airborne and crashed into a boulder. JoAnn was fortunate to have made it out alive, but the impact fractured her spine.
Back at home, she underwent an innovative surgery at the time where one of her ribs was removed and a plate was inserted around the middle of her spine. She wore a brace for the next three months and she did well for many years after that surgery.
In recent years, she may have been coping more than she realized, though. She developed scoliosis.
“She had this spine fracture and she was using lots of compensation mechanisms to be able to tolerate the fusion of her spine,” Dr. Arlet says. “As she got older, those mechanisms began to wear out and JoAnn couldn’t stand up straight anymore.”
‘There’s nothing I can’t do’
At 67, JoAnn is almost six years removed from her surgery with Dr. Arlet and three years into retirement. She’s been traveling extensively—“I’ve been to Israel and Colombia and I’ve kept up with the best walkers,” she says. When she’s stateside, JoAnn is tending to her vibrant backyard garden.
“Behaving myself is very hard. I feel very healthy and strong. Sometimes, I want to do more than I should,” JoAnn says. “That gets me into trouble if I’m not careful”.
“But I couldn’t do anything prior to the surgery. Now there’s nothing I can’t do. Dr. Arlet gave me back my life,” she says. “I do have some limitations, but it doesn’t mean I can’t do it in a different way. Where there’s a will there’s a way, right?”