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NeuroNow - Relieving Pain, and Paying It Forward

NeuroNow Summer 2013

Relieving Pain, and Paying It Forward

Date: May 20, 2013

Marcie Gorman-Althof suffered from debilitating back pain before a life-changing surgery at Johns Hopkins.
Marcie Gorman-Althof suffered from debilitating back pain before a life-changing surgery at Johns Hopkins.

Marcie Gorman-Althof’s back problems started when she was only 14 years old. “I reached down to pick up groceries delivered to the house,” she says, “and I couldn’t get up again.”

Not long after, she underwent a laminectomy—a procedure to remove part of the vertebrae—and a spinal fusion to help relieve her pain. Though some discomfort lingered, Gorman-Althof went on to live as normal a life as she could. She married, had children and became a successful owner of Weight Watchers franchises in southern Florida. 

However, her back troubles took a turn for the worse five years ago. While on vacation in the Bahamas with her husband, Gorman-Althof fell down a short flight of stairs to a ferryboat and landed on the fused portion of her spine. “I immediately knew that I was hurt pretty badly,” she says.

When she arrived back in the United States, Gorman-Althof saw a revolving door of care providers—first doctors in her local hospital’s emergency room, then orthopedists, physical therapists and pain management specialists.

“Everyone agreed that something was wrong,” she says, “but no one could figure out what the problem was.”

After two years of struggling with increasing pain and weakness in her legs that made walking an ordeal, Gorman-Althof asked her trusted regular doctor, a Johns Hopkins School of Medicine graduate, what he’d recommend. He suggested heading to his alma mater for treatment. To decide which specialist to see, Gorman-Althof and her husband searched the Internet and asked anyone who might be knowledgeable for advice. The same name kept coming up again and again: Ziya Gokaslan, a neurosurgeon who specializes in spine problems. 

At her initial appointment with Gokaslan, he looked through her extensive medical records and admitted that he wasn’t sure what was causing her litany of symptoms. “She was crippled with pain,” he says, “but it wasn’t entirely clear where that pain was coming from.”

To find out, Gokaslan ordered a battery of tests to take a closer look at Gorman-Althof’s spine. The new analysis showed that degenerated discs in the lumbar spine were responsible for her symptoms. 

Gokaslan suggested surgery, but warned her that the procedure would be extensive—an eight-hour operation that would involve placing six screws and two rods in her spine. Afterwards, she’d need lengthy rehab, and she might take up to a year or more to recover. In the end, he said, she may not get the results she was hoping for.

But Gorman-Althof was willing to take the risk. On December 29, 2010, Gokaslan led the surgical team that operated on her spine. Every day during her month-long stay, the surgeon was there to check on her progress, even offering his personal cell phone number to call anytime if she had questions or problems with her treatment.

“Everyone—the nurses, physical therapists, pain specialists—was wonderful,” Gorman-Althof recalls. “But Gokaslan was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the most important companion.”

Throughout that first year, Gorman-Althof made regular visits to Johns Hopkins while resuming care with a team of local doctors. She steadily regained physical function and reduced the extensive amount of pain medication she was taking to one small pill per day. 

She still sees Gokaslan once a year for followup. “There’s no substitute for seeing a patient who was in a wheelchair,” he says, “walking in, happily smiling, looking phenomenal. She tells me I gave her her life back.”

That’s something that Gorman-Althof says she hopes all patients in her shoes can eventually have. To help reach this goal, she made a $100,000 donation to aid Gokaslan’s research into the best techniques and surgical hardware to help patients with spine problems like hers.

“Research is an important part of what he does,” she says, “and I want him to do more of it. I want the future to be better for other people like me.”

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