Advanced Anterior Spine Surgery Offers Full Pain Relief for This Superhero

 Lonzena Walker Lonzena Walker may be a superhero to her grandchildren and the patients she helps at work, but when severe shooting pains down her left side left her in agony, she quickly learned that she was not invincible.

“Years of lifting and pulling. Not just on the job but at home, too. I thought I was superwoman,” says Lonzena. “Doing a lot of yardwork. Lifting heavy stones and moving heavy furniture by myself. I never thought I would hurt my back like that.”

She tested the limits of her back strength at work, too. As a medical intensive care unit nurse with Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist, she worked with patients on ventilators. This involved a lot of lifting and pulling of patients.

Lonzena tried physical therapy and made several emergency visits to her doctor, but with the severe shooting pain of her sciatic nerve radiating all the way down to her ankle, she visited the Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist Spine Center and asked orthopaedic spine surgeon Dr. Tadhg James O’Gara for help.

O’Gara draws on a deep well of personal experience within the field of surgery. He spent seven years at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y., in the late ’90s and early 2000s training U.S. military personnel in penetrating trauma management. He witnessed the 9/11 attacks and was the only resident on staff the afternoon of a Staten Island ferry crash that killed 11 people and severely injured 70 others.

“I had some incredibly sad experiences with that. So I’ve seen a lot,” says O’Gara.

Treating patients during these experiences helped him realize the importance of minimizing damage to surrounding muscles during surgery.

“I just try to avoid it. If you can do surgery in a way that doesn’t damage muscle, you should try it, even if it makes the procedure tougher,” he says.

One way he achieves this is through an anterior lumbar interbody fusion (A-LIF).

“Midline back surgery is very common, and that is a procedure where you are cut right in the middle of your back. But what that does is it destroys all the muscle,” says O’Gara. “And once the muscle is detached, it never grows back. So my elective surgical practice is to try to avoid midline back surgery if possible.”

Dr. Tadhg James O’Gara  By going through the anterior, or front, O’Gara’s team made a small incision on Lonzena’s belly and approached the problem where it was actually located - at the front of her spine. Her recovery involved one to two days in the hospital, and several months of avoiding heavy lifting.

Lonzena followed O’Gara’s post-operative instructions closely. This superhero now understands that even though she feels invincible again, she is not entirely bulletproof. She is also taking yoga at O’Gara’s recommendation, and she switched positions at work to a less labor-intensive department. She is also avoiding lifting anything heavy around the house.

“It takes about a year for the fusion to complete. I am a year out, and I am still very careful,” says Lonzena. “I still haven’t done anything to jeopardize it.”

O’Gara says this anterior approach to back surgery has approximately an 85% to 90% success rate. Lonzena has her own statistics - she says she is 100% pain-free.

“I have seen Lonzena, and she seems very happy with her results,” he says. “This is what I hope for with every patient.”

If you have back pain or want to learn more, visit Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist Spine Center  or call  336-713-2121.