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Back in play after spinal surgery

Spinal surgery gave Janie Stewart relief from pain—and the ability to play with her grandson again.

African American woman wearing a blue and white striped sleeveless top leans on a wooden chair.
Janie is all smiles now that she can play with her grandson pain-free.

In October 2018, Janie Stewart, a 70-year-old grandmother of two who lives in Manhattan, started experiencing pain in her back and neck and lost feeling in her right foot and leg. She also had trouble with her upper body in terms of movement and dexterity. “I couldn’t bend to pick something off the floor,” Janie explained. “And it was hard for me to even go to the bathroom, tie my shoes or put on my socks. I couldn't walk without a cane or my walker, and I couldn’t drive anymore.”

Her personal struggles were tough enough to bear, but when Janie started missing a lot of family functions and was forced to give up playing with her 5-year-old grandson and taking him to school and the park, she knew she needed help.

She made an appointment with her primary care doctor, who suggested seeing a rheumatologist. Because Janie was diagnosed with lupus two years ago, he thought perhaps some of her medications might be related to her symptoms. The rheumatologist adjusted Janie’s drug regimen, but a month later, her symptoms remained the same. He then ordered a series of imaging tests, which indicated that Janie had a tumor on her cervical spine, or the upper portion of the spine near the neck. He sent her to Sami Saba, MD, a neurologist and neuromuscular medicine specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital.

Dr. Saba performed an MRI and other sophisticated tests to confirm that the tumor was interfering with her movement and causing her pain and numbness. He referred her for a consultation with Mitchell Levine, MD, the hospital’s director of spine surgery within the department of neurosurgery.

Janie was nervous about the idea of having surgery and had become depressed because of her debilitating symptoms. However, she found Dr. Levine’s knowledge of the cervical spine to be comforting. Additionally, at another appointment with her rheumatologist, Janie learned that she was in excellent surgical hands. “He told me that Dr. Levine was the best spinal surgeon in the country and that I had nothing to worry about,” she said. “Can you imagine how much better I felt at that moment? Knowing I had the best help to lift my experience and ease my fear.”

African American woman in blue and white striped top in a patio garden.
Janie felt confident going into spine surgery—and is thrilled with the result.

In March 2019, Dr. Levine performed Janie’s surgery. While he did not remove the tumor because the growth was wrapped around too many nerves, he was able to alleviate the pressure on the spine, which was “life-changing,” Janie said. “After the surgery, I didn't have any pain at all,” she further explained. “Everything was beautiful.” While doctors don’t officially know what type of tumor Janie has (because a biopsy couldn’t be done due to its complex location) she was told it does not look cancerous.

After surgery, she stayed in the hospital for several days to recover and saw a visiting nurse at home to ensure she was continuing to heal well. For about three weeks, Janie went to physical therapy to help build up her strength and mobility, and occupational therapy to learn how to dress herself and perform other daily activities on her own.

During the last six months, her activity level has greatly improved. She still uses a walker but is able to go to the park with her grandson, take him for ice cream and get down on the floor to play games. “I’m back to myself,” she said.

As part of her continued treatment, Janie recently started radiation therapy five days a week to reduce the size of the spinal tumor under the care of radiation oncologist Phillip Vigneri, DO. Her sessions last about 10 minutes. The only side effect to treatment is some minor skin irritation on her neck, which is easily managed with an over-the-counter topical cream.

Overall, Janie has been impressed with the level of teamwork that has occurred with her diagnosis and care. “All my doctors worked together to figure out what was wrong with me and took care of the problem,” she said. “And they are still taking care of me. I’m just so proud of them.”