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“Not ‘if’ she will run again, but ‘when,’”: How One Surgeon’s Spine and Nerve Expertise Gave a Runner Her Active Lifestyle Back

Erin Moran at Philadelphia Marathon
Erin Moran with a medal after completing the Philadelphia Marathon in November 2021 following nerve decompression surgery

Her whole life, Erin Moran, now 22, had been an athlete, specifically, a runner. But in January of 2021, she feared she’d never be able to even walk again.

One morning, the Temple University junior woke up and realized her right leg was completely numb from the knee to her toes. “At first, I just thought my foot was asleep,” Erin said, describing the numbness and pins-and-needles she felt. “But it didn’t go away. I was tripping when I walked, I couldn’t even drive.”

The first physician she saw struggled to determine the cause of the numbness, and told Erin and her mother, Colleen Moran, that Erin may never walk normally again. “She’s always been active, so hearing that she may not walk again was heartbreaking,” said Colleen. “I watched her tear up as she heard the news, and I knew we would do anything we could to get her walking again.”

Erin was referred to Daniel Yoshor, MD, the chair of Neurosurgery in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who recommended Zarina Ali, MD, MS, FAANS, an assistant professor of Neurosurgery, and co-director of Penn’s Nerve Center. “Dr. Ali is one of very few physicians in the area who specializes in complex nerve issues,” said Yoshor. “If anyone could help this patient, it would be her.”

Ali, who specializes in both complex nerve and spine cases, evaluated Erin and diagnosed her with common peroneal neuropathy, also known as a “severe foot drop,” which caused her numbness and inability to extend her toes. She immediately recommended initiation of physical therapy, and if that provided no relief, surgery.

“What we loved about Dr. Ali right away was that she said ‘when’ Erin runs again, not ‘if’,” said Colleen. “It was such a shift from what we had previously heard, and we put all our trust in her.”

After a few months of physical therapy with no improvement, Erin and Ali agreed to schedule nerve decompression surgery for April 2021 through the Penn Nerve Center, located on the seventh floor of Penn Medicine University City.

Ali warned that the nerve could take up to a year to fully recover at a pace of about one millimeter per day, but following the outpatient procedure, Erin started to feel improvement almost immediately. “I was able to start light exercise, taking walks, riding my Peloton,” she said. “I was so relived to start feeling better and more like myself.”

Erin Moran at Philadelphia Marathon
Erin Moran smiles and waves while running the Philadelphia Marathon in November 2021

Erin was jogging again by August. On a whim, she signed up to run the Broad Street Run, a 10-mile race in October.

To say it went well is an understatement. “I felt so good after finishing the 10-mile race, I ran another seven that day,” Erin recalls. “I knew then that I wanted to try to run a marathon.” The very next day, she registered for the Philadelphia Marathon, scheduled for November 2021.

Right before the marathon in November, Erin had an appointment with Ali. “Erin told me she would be running the Philly marathon at her follow up visit with me and I was so excited for her. As a runner myself, I was planning on the Half Marathon that weekend,” Dr. Ali recalls. “I was blown away – but thrilled for her and her recovery.”

The race went spectacularly for Erin — she finished the 26.2 mile course in just over four hours, a smile on her face the entire time.

“We had friends and family cheering her on all along the course, and no matter what mile, she had a huge smile,” remembers Colleen. “Less than a year before, we thought she may never walk again, let alone run, and here she is, having a blast running a marathon. We couldn’t be more grateful.”

Yoshor, who referred Erin to Ali, notes that Ali’s unique expertise in both nerve and spine diagnoses is what allowed her to treat Erin so effectively. “Most doctors could have misdiagnosed this as a lumbar spine issue, but in Dr. Ali’s capable hands, a complex case was resolved expertly, and with optimal results,” he said.

Over a year since her numbness began, Erin still experiences some mild numbness in her foot, that while much improved, may never go away completely. However, she has returned to her fully active lifestyle, running just as much as ever. She is currently finishing her final semester at Temple University, where she will graduate with a degree in business management, with a minor in healthcare management. She hopes to run the New York City Marathon this November. 

“I feel great, and I can’t thank Dr. Ali and the rest of the doctors and staff at Penn Medicine who helped to give me this part of my life back,” Erin adds.

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