“The people at the surgery center, I can't say enough about how they took care of me. I actually looked like what a letter 'C' looks like when I went in. And when I walked out, my wife carried the cane and I was straight up.” -- Thomas
Above: A herniated disc is a spine condition that occurs when the gel-like center of a disc ruptures through a weak area in the disc's tough outer wall.
Thomas was in so much pain that his very livelihood was at stake. The pain, originating in his spine, shot down his right leg, from his hip to his ankle. On the worst days, it settled in his calf, contorting his posture and withering his smile. "I couldn't think; I couldn't do anything but barely tolerate the pain," Thomas recalls. "I was a mess. My wife and I run two high-profile businesses, and that's tough work. If it hadn't been for my wife, don't know what I would have done. I would have been nuts, in a nursing home, or in the ground."
Thomas can't say where the pain came from exactly. He played basketball in his youth, and as the catcher on his high school baseball team, he spent a lot of time diving for wild pitches and errant throws. Naturally, he got hurt a few times. Then there was the time he fell out of a tree while deer hunting, and, worst of all, the time he turned his riding mower over on himself. "It didn't bother me at the time," Thomas says. But at the time I wasn't as old as I am now."
At first the pain was intermittent, and Thomas worked with his family physician. Then came the morning when he could barely get out of bed. A specialist ordered an MRI and diagnosed the problem as spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal. He treated Thomas with epidural steroid injections to ease the pain and later performed a surgical procedure. When Thomas returned for a follow-up appointment still complaining of pain in his leg, the physician said there was nothing more he could do.
"That was the end of the story," Thomas says. "I left his office and figured I had to have something else done. I was in total misery 24 hours a day. I came home, and my daughter contacted a friend of hers, an attorney, who had seen Dr. Tann Nichols in Maysville, Kentucky. My friend was real high on him, said he was an excellent doctor. I thought, 'I need to contact this guy.' My family doctor got me a referral."
Thomas went to see Dr. Nichols, a Mayfield Clinic neurosurgeon, at his Northern Kentucky office in early December 2011. Looking at the same MRI as Thomas's previous doctor, Dr. Nichols arrived at a completely different diagnosis: one herniated lumbar disc on the right side between the fourth and fifth vertebrae (L 4-5). A herniated disc is a spine condition that occurs when the gel-like center of a disc ruptures through a weak area in the disc's tough outer wall. Thomas was experiencing unbearable pain when the disc material touched a nearby spinal nerve.
Dr. Nichols recommended an L 4-5 discectomy to remove the portion of the disc compressing his nerve root, which he said would relieve Thomas of his pain. Thomas's next question was to the point: "When are we going to do it?"
Two weeks later, Thomas and his wife drove up to The Christ Hospital Spine Surgery Center in Norwood, Ohio, where Dr. Nichols would perform the outpatient surgery. Thomas hobbled in with a cane, his body approaching the shape of the letter "C."
"We got there at 10 a.m., and at 10:30 I was in my room," Thomas recalls. "Everyone was extremely nice and very professional. The anesthesiologist came in and talked to me; a nurse took care of me; Dr. Nichols came in and asked if I was ready. And I joked with him, 'Are you ready?'"
In the operating room, Dr. Nichols made an incision about an inch and a half long, approaching the damaged disc from the back (posterior) of Thomas's spine. He removed a portion of the lamina, the bone that forms the backside of the spinal canal and makes a roof over the thecal sac and nerve roots, to gain access to the disc. Finally, Dr. Nichols removed the portion of offending disc that was pressing on the spinal nerve.
For Thomas, the relief would be immediate.
"When I came out of there and woke up, I didn't have any pain in my leg. And when I walked out of the building, my wife carried the cane and I was straight up."
Thomas still had some recovery ahead of him. He took two complete weeks off from work and underwent physical therapy to strengthen muscles that had weakened during his long period of disability. "I built my strength back up working out on machines three days a week," Thomas says. "I am overweight, and I've lost almost 25 pounds during this process. I'm trying to keep it off."
Dr. Nichols describes Thomas's outcome as "excellent" and is pleased that his patient has returned to full activity and is back managing his small businesses.
As for the cane, it's leaning up against the wall in a spare bedroom in Thomas's home. "I can always see it there," Thomas says. "I never forget about it."
Hope Story Disclaimer - "Thomas's Story" is about one patient'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.