Scoliosis patient from California receives spine surgery in St. Louis

Judy Saavedra from Redondo Beach, California, found herself venturing from the warmth of the West Coast to the frigid weather of Missouri to seek help to correct her lifelong spinal issues.

Saavedra’s problems began when she was a child; doctors discovered neuroblastomas, malignant (cancerous) tumors, developing on her temples and throughout her body. The biggest tumor was located in her midsection on the left side of her body. Neuroblastomas primarily occur in children under the age of 10 with nearly 700 diagnosed cases each year in the U.S. Children can be treated with surgery to remove the tumor or any number of therapies including chemotherapy, radiation therapy and retinoid therapy. Saavedra went through radiation therapy on the recommendation of her doctor, which helped treat the neuroblastomas but left the muscles in her back badly damaged.

As a result of the treatment she received to remove the neuroblastomas, Saavedra developed both scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, and kyphosis, a rounding of the back that caused other problems to develop. Saavedra was in pain and her spine began to compress her internal organs, causing them to prolapse, or fall out of place.

Once a very active young woman, she was slowly losing the ability to do the things she loved. Saavedra practiced yoga and Pilates to keep her body strong and to help relieve as much pain as possible. Still, she struggled to walk and move freely. To address her decreasing mobility, Saavedra searched for an orthopedic specialist where she lived in Southern California.

The doctor in California recommended three physicians who would be able to give Saavedra the best possible care and fix her spinal problems. A second opinion yielded the same three names, one of which was Lawrence Lenke, MD, a Washington University orthopedic surgeon at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. His practice is devoted to spinal surgery, with an emphasis on complex reconstructive surgery and the treatment of various spinal deformities, including scoliosis, kyphosis and other anomalies.

In early 2012, Dr. Lenke performed a 10-hour surgery to correct Saavedra’s spine curvature.

Spine surgery to correct a severe deformity.

“We completely removed one of her vertebra, which allowed near complete correction of her severe deformity, and we performed a posterior spinal fusion,” Lenke said. “Her radiographic and clinical correction was outstanding and, through her hard work and motivation, she has done exceedingly well.”

After her surgery, Saavedra was able to stand up straight but needed physical therapy to relearn to walk because the muscles in her torso and legs had deteriorated from lack of proper use. For weeks she walked around her apartment and around the block until it became easy to go long distances. Now she is back to doing some of the things she once enjoyed, such as swimming, walking, recumbent biking and using the elliptical machine, but said she is being cautious.

“It’s amazing what the doctor was able to do with my spine,” Saavedra said. “I am 3 ¼ inches taller and I don’t have pain anymore.”

Saavedra spent time post-surgery in waiting rooms on follow-up appointments and was quick to make friends, inspiring people with her story. She encourages others to seek out the best possible treatment and take chances on life-changing choices like the one she made for herself. “I knew I had made the right decision to travel over 1,700 miles to receive care in one of the largest clinical spine care practices in the United States. I’m so much better off since the surgery,” Saavedra said.

To schedule an appointment with a spine physician, call (314) TOP-DOCS or visit BarnesJewish.org/spine for more information.

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Category: Orthopedics

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Barnes-Jewish Hospital at Washington University Medical Center is the largest hospital in Missouri and the largest private employer in the St. Louis region. An affiliated teaching hospital of Washington University School of Medicine, Barnes-Jewish Hospital has a 1,800 member medical staff with many who are recognized as "Best Doctors in America." They are supported by residents, interns and fellows, in addition to nurses, technicians and other health-care professionals.

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