Susan Tillsley was the office klutz. If people heard a crash, they said, “Oh, it’s just Susan.” She hadn’t always been such a klutz. It started when she was in her 50s. She climbed a mountain with her husband and daughter, who was in college at the time. They were nearly at the top when she tripped and broke her knee.
This was followed over the years by a broken ankle, a torn rotator cuff, another knee fracture, and more than a few embarrassing moments. When Susan reached her 60s, though, her klutziness got substantially worse. “It got to where I was afraid to go out of the house by myself,” she says.
Over the years Susan had told her doctors about her mishaps, but these were always chalked up to klutziness. But then her right hand started to tingle. The tingling moved up her arm. Then her left arm began tingling as well. Susan started to get really scared. “I thought I had a brain tumor or MS or something. I thought at this rate, I am going to be walking with a walker in a year, if I am walking at all.”
She went to a local neurologist and he ran some tests. “I couldn’t believe it when he told me it was all in my neck,” she remembers. The channel where the spinal cord runs through her neck had been gradually degenerating and narrowing over the years, putting more and more pressure on her spinal cord. The narrowing, called stenosis, led to dysfunction of her spinal cord, called myelopathy, and was the cause of her klutziness. Her nerves were actually being squeezed so much they could no longer work correctly due to pressure and reduced blood supply. The situation was serious. Her intuition had been right: if she didn’t fix it, she would eventually be unable to walk.
Her neurologist referred her to The Spine Hospital at the Neurological Institute of New York, where she saw Dr. Michael Kaiser.
Dr. Kaiser is a nationally recognized expert in treating patients with Susan’s type of problem. Although stenosis can occur in any area of the spine, the impact on a person’s ability to function is more pronounced when the compression is in the neck. Susan was relieved when she finally met with him.
“He was so confident and calm. Not arrogant at all. He knew exactly what the problem was and he explained what he could do to fix it. I was completely confident in him.” Susan would need two surgeries, during which she would receive hardware (including screws, rods, and plates), in addition to a bone graft that would help stabilize and strengthen the problematic section of her spine. The operation would be extremely delicate, and Susan would need an extended hospital stay for several days afterwards while she recovered from the operations. The surgeries were scheduled for two weeks after her initial consultation.
Then… Hurricane Sandy hit.
Susan and her husband live in North Bergen, New Jersey. As the winds picked up in their area, trees began to topple over. Three trees hit their house while Susan and her husband were hunkered down inside. “We couldn’t stay in the house” after that, says Susan. There was too much damage, including broken and leaking gas pipes. After the storm blew over, Susan and her husband got out to her sister’s house. Then they moved into a hotel, which would become their home for the next five months.
In spite of the chaos at home, Susan decided to go ahead with her surgery. Her first surgery was on a Wednesday, and the next was on that Friday. She stayed in the ICU on a ventilator until the following Wednesday, which happened to be the day before Thanksgiving. Susan and her family were thankful that Susan was taken off the ventilator, but they couldn’t help wondering what the road to recovery would bring.
They were pleased with how smooth that road turned out to be. Dr. Kaiser, nurse Rosemary McGill, and the other staff members provided excellent care, Susan recalls. “Dr. Kaiser and Rosemary are just wonderful people. There was a Saturday night in the hospital and it was 9:30 and suddenly he was there, making sure I was doing fine.” The therapists at Columbia got her back up on her feet, and less than a week after coming off the ventilator, she left the hospital. She spent a week at a rehab center in New Jersey, and then continued her rehabilitation at home—well, at the hotel that was her home. “The long halls of the hotel were very good for walking with a cane,” Susan remembers with a laugh.
By 2014 Susan was back on her feet and in the swing of things. She no longer used a cane, and was working full time. Right about then, she took a sightseeing trip to Washington, D.C. with her husband. And she was klutzy no longer.