Published on June 6th, 2018
Epic Quest for Pain Relief Leads Man from Mayo Clinic to St. Luke’s
It seemed like it happened in an instant. One day, Mark Peterson, 53, of Rochester, Minnesota, was feeling fine. The next day, he had near-debilitating pain from the right side of his neck down to his right hand, with no obvious cause.
His epic quest for a cure would take him first to the world-renowned Mayo Clinic near his home. In the end, however, Mayo would send him halfway across the country to St. Luke’s University Health Network in Bethlehem, Pa., where he would undergo a revolutionary procedure with near-miraculous results under the care of St. Luke’s neurosurgeon Steven Falowski, MD.
For Mark, the turning point came when he was working the nightshift as a supervisor for a local power plant. The pain started in his neck and increased steadily during the night. He shrugged it off, but with no real origin that he could recollect, he was concerned. He tried to go about his day as usual, but by the next day, he was in the ER for a battery of tests.
Diagnostic tests revealed that the pain could be attributed to bone spurs in his neck, a narrow spinal column and degenerative disc disease. All of this likely the result of gradual wear and tear over the years.
He visited the world-renowned Mayo Clinic near his home to discuss treatment which eventually included cervical laminectomy surgery, a type of neck surgery to remove damaged discs and relieve pain and pressure on the spinal cord. The surgery provided some relief, but only temporarily. Within a few months, the pain was back, radiating from the left side of his neck down to his left hand.
Mark sought the advice of his neurologist, who, after exhausting all other treatments, scheduled a cervical fusion and a left side laminectomy, to stabilize his neck and remove additional bone spurs on the back of his spine, which would relieve pressure on his nerves. But after, Mark was still experiencing pain in the neck, shoulder blade, back of the arm, elbow and hand and could only find slight relief from pain medication, a nerve suppressant and a muscle relaxer.
“I had some terrible side effects from the combination of painkillers,” recalls Mark. “One day, I went out to the parking lot to get in my car and I couldn’t find it. Turns out, I was standing right next to it. I couldn’t live with that kind of brain fog. It was hard to function at work and in my personal life.”
The next step was to try spinal cord stimulation (SCS) to direct mild electrical stimulation to the nerves lining the spine, which modifies nerve activity and minimizes or eliminates pain in the abnormal regions. Mark was hopeful that the procedure would be successful and made all the necessary arrangements to allow time for surgery and recovery.
The day before the surgery, Mark got a call from his neurosurgeon canceling it. Mark was devastated. The reason? The surgeon deemed the procedure too complicated and risky. Defeated, Mark met with another Mayo Clinic doctor who recommended a well-known and internationally-recognized neurosurgeon – St. Luke’s Steven Falowski – who might be willing to do the spinal cord stimulation.
Mark wasted little time before hopping a plane to the Philadelphia airport and driving to Quakertown to meet Dr. Falowski in person.
Within minutes, Mark felt confident and for the first time, hopeful, that this procedure could be performed successfully. Dr. Falowski explained that he and his team perform about 300 new implants per year and have been recognized as the nation’s leader for the highest volume, lowest complication and lowest infection rates in the country.
“Spinal cord stimulation is an effective therapeutic modality, but Mayo Clinic felt Mark’s case was too complex for them to proceed further,” explains Dr. Falowski. “He was a candidate for a cervical spinal cord stimulator, but in Mark’s case, there was the added difficulty of scar tissue from his prior three cervical surgeries which would make it very difficult for placement of a SCS in a standard fashion.”
Dr. Falowski says that the majority of physicians would instead recommend long-term opioid and narcotic use, which is never a good option for someone who wants to continue to function in society, especially considering the ever-growing opioid epidemic in this country.
The same day Mark met with Dr. Falowski, he scheduled the surgery and then took a flight back to Minnesota, hopeful for the next steps. A few weeks later, Mark underwent the SCS and spent time in Quakertown recovering from the outpatient surgery. He was implanted with the Abbott BurstDRTM, which is one of the newest technologies shown to be superior in large clinical trials. Despite the complexity of his case, Dr. Falowski was able to perform it as a same-day procedure so Mark did not need to stay in the hospital. His follow-up appointment a few days later revealed that everything looked great.
Now, three months post procedure, Mark is doing well. Dr. Falowski feels very strongly about a collaborative approach to care in order to restore quality of life for patients, so he stays in close touch with Mark’s doctors at the Mayo Clinic who are doing the post-op visits. Mark is even scheduled to head back to work in the next few weeks.
“Spinal cord stimulation is a well-established treatment modality for pain,” explains Dr. Falowski. “Improved innovation and technology has led to superior results and its standing as a minimally invasive procedure has established it as an appealing pain treatment modality in the physician’s toolbox.”
Since the surgery, Mark has been able to reduce his medication significantly, only taking them when he experiences an occasional flare-up. And he’s slowly increasing normal activity.
“I am feeling a lot better and have a much better quality of life; I’m spending time with my fiancé, playing golf, doing yard work, working on cars – doing things I used to do before all the pain started.”