“We’ve never been doctor-type people. We didn’t run to the doctor just because we had the sniffles. When we found Dr. Kuntz we were skeptical. We weren’t sure that he could really help us. But every time we met with him he proved he was the right person and that he had our best interests at heart above everything else.”
The x-ray on the left shows
Basil's spine before surgery. The image on the right shows Basil upright, after surgery.
Until they met Dr. Charles Kuntz of the Mayfield Clinic, Joyce and Basil were facing a future of disability and pain. The Germantown, Ohio, couple, both in their 60s, suffered from complex spinal disorders that seemed to defy solutions. Joyce endured chronic pain and reached a point where she could no longer go to the grocery store alone. On her worst days, she was unable to perform her work as a mail carrier.
Basil also suffered “constant, constant pain,” both physical and emotional. His spine, once normal, had begun to change when he was about 35, and it became increasingly deformed over time. He stopped working at the service station he owned and began taking odd jobs, doing what he could on his small farm and getting around on a scooter. When his daughter married, he waited in a pew at the front of the church, unable to walk her down the aisle.
Visits to doctors in Ohio, Florida, and Canada proved fruitless. “Doctors gave you pills and sent you home,” he said. “That’s all they could do.”
Basil grew resigned to a life of discomfort and isolation. “The way I was bent over, no one could look me in the face,” he said. “Salesmen wouldn’t talk to me; they’d talk to Joyce. I’d ask a question, and they’d look at her and answer. They wouldn’t look at me.”
Though often irritable, Basil kept his sense of humor and a sense of purpose through woodworking, creating toys and intricately carved inscriptions. His beautiful carving of the Lord’s Prayer hangs above the mantle in his living room.
The future changed for Joyce and Basil when their son, working on a construction project at a Cincinnati hospital, told a nurse about Joyce. The nurse said there was a neurosurgeon at Cincinnati’s Mayfield Clinic who was pretty good with backs. “Dr. Kuntz can help your mother,” she assured him.
When recalling their experience from this point forward, both Joyce and Basil struggle to rein in their emotions. “Dr. Kuntz was such a wonderful person,” Joyce said, her voice breaking. “He talked to us like we were people who mattered, and it … it was just the best thing that has happened to us.”
Dr. Kuntz diagnosed Joyce’s condition as scoliosis with spondylolisthesis (forward displacement of a lumbar vertebra) and spinal stenosis (narrowing of the lumbar spinal column, putting pressure on nerves).
Several appointments later, he got a good look at Basil.
“I had been there several times, Joyce recalled, “but Basil was always in the room when Dr. Kuntz came in. But on this one particular day Dr. Kuntz followed us in. And he said to Basil, ‘Let me just look at you. How would you like to stand up straight?’ ”
Basil laughed, having long ago given up hope. And besides, he didn’t really believe that Dr. Kuntz could do anything for him. “You take care of her first,” Basil told Dr. Kuntz. “Then you can look after me.”
Dr. Kuntz did look after Joyce first, correcting her spondylolisthesis and stenosis in a nine-hour operation in May 2004 at Cincinnati’s University Hospital.
“Her treatment was a spinal decompression with limited fusion directed at the area of severe nerve compression,” Dr. Kuntz explained. “We decompressed the nerves and realigned the spondylolisthesis. Her scoliosis was well balanced, so we elected not to correct the curve.”
“I felt better immediately,” Joyce recalled. “The pain was gone.” The operation proved so successful that eight weeks later Joyce was able to go back to her job delivering mail over a 60-mile rural route.
Then Dr. Kuntz set his sights on Basil, whose condition he diagnosed as ankylosing spondylitis (inflammation of the vertebrae) with a kyphotic lumbar spinal deformity. The preparation, which took six months, included an MRI in a specially designed system that accommodated Basil’s extreme curvature. “I couldn’t lie flat enough for the regular MRI equipment,” Basil recalled. “They used an MRI that will take bigger people, including 350-pound football players.”
Basil was ready for surgery on June 1, 2005. The 20-hour operation at University Hospital was performed over a period of three days: a 12-hour procedure the first day, a day of rest, and an 8-hour conclusion on the third day. During this surgical marathon Dr. Kuntz literally reconstructed Basil’s spine. He decompressed Basil’s vertebrae at multiple stages, dividing and removing bone to correct the deformity, and then realigned and fused the spine with rods and screws.
“It’s riskier than your standard procedure,” Dr. Kuntz acknowledged. “It’s a long procedure, it’s tedious, it requires attention to detail, and you’ve got to be patient and be willing to stand there for 10 to 15 hours and do it.”
At the operation’s midpoint, Dr. Kuntz made certain he hadn’t overcorrected Basil’s problem by having Basil stand. “I wanted to make sure he wasn’t looking up,” Dr. Kuntz said. “I wanted to be sure he could look at his feet.’
Basil now has two rods and 18 screws in his back; the 21½-inch incision that extends from his shoulder blades to his tailbone required 48 staples.
Basil was hospitalized for 14 days and, because of heavy pain medication, remembers little of the month following his surgery. He does remember hallucinating – seeing moving walls and two nurses with purple hair. But today, his life and Joyce’s are better in a hundred ways. He can walk through a grocery story, and he rode an escalator for the first time in decades. Children no longer stare, and parents no longer hurry them away. The back surgery has helped his breathing, while alleviating breathing and bladder difficulties. He has reduced his medication by more than half.
"People my age cry when they see me," Basil said.
“It’s a good cry,” Joyce added. “They don’t believe that it could be done.”
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Hope Story Disclaimer - "Joyce & Basil's Story" is about one couple's health-care experience. Please bear in mind that because every patient is unique, individual patients may respond to treatment in different ways. Results are influenced by many factors and may vary from patient to patient.