man playing guitar with granddaughter

Spared from paralysis by spine surgery at 80

November 12, 2019 | Tonya Becerra
spine compression patient dorothy kunkle
When a previously active and healthy Dorothy Kunkle turned up in the UCI Health emergency department without feeling from the waist down, doctors considered all possible causes and treatments, including spine surgery.

At age 80, Dorothy “Jan” Kunkle still tackled the household chores, even cleaning the rain gutters from atop a tall ladder.

Suddenly this summer, what began as numbness in Kunkle’s toes quickly progressed to the loss of all sensation below her waist. She couldn’t stand let alone walk on her own.

Could being wheel-chair bound and living in a nursing home be far behind, she thought.

Diagnosis: severe spinal compression

“I was in trouble and I knew it,” says Kunkle. “I wasn’t fully capable of taking care of myself.”

Dissatisfied with the slow pace of diagnosis at a local hospital, Kunkle and her daughter, Cherie Turner, contacted UCI Medical Center in Orange and were advised to get to the emergency department right away.

They were met by a team of physicians, including UCI Health neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Oh, who quickly determined that a spinal disc had slipped or collapsed, causing severe spinal compression known as myelopathy.

Myelopathy often missed in older patients

“They said it was literally crushing her spine,” recalls Turner, adding that immediate surgery was advised.

“I thought ‘immediately’ meant in the near future – because hospitals don’t usually treat anything that urgently. But they meant immediately – like now.”

Myelopathy is often missed in older patients due to their age and other accompanying health concerns, says Oh, a member of the UCI Health Comprehensive Spine Program.

Root cause of problems can go undetected

For example, he added, many seniors with bowel and bladder issues are referred to nutritional counseling or other specialties – leaving the root cause undetected.

“Physicians usually don’t approach these types of symptoms in older patients through the lens of either neurosurgery or orthopedics,” Oh says.

“But as an academic medical institution, UCI Health is less biased and more open to different possibilities.

“That is one of our many strengths. Whether we’re your first choice or your last hope, we’re here for you no matter your age.”

Surgery to relieve spine pressure 

Oh and his team performed a thoracic laminectomy and transpedicular discectomy on Kunkle. The procedure involves removing a section of the bone over the spinal cord allowing access to any protruding and damaged nerves in order to decompress pressure on the spine.

“Even with the best surgery, things can go wrong,” he cautions. “But if you start with the wrong diagnosis, even the best surgery won’t be effective.”

In fact, Kunkle had had spine surgery five years earlier at another hospital.

“They nicked her spinal cord, and she had a cerebral spine fluid leak,” recalls Turner. “It was supposed to be an overnight stay. She ended up in ICU in excruciating pain for over a week.”

Surgeon calms spine surgery fears

Kunkle was understandably worried. “Dr. Oh talked to me before the surgery and explained everything that was going to happen. He made me feel like I had nothing to worry about.”

In fact everyone on the neurosurgical team introduced themselves during the preoperative check-in. “It felt more like a social event, which put us all at ease,” says Turner.

The team was also realistic and cautious, explaining that their surgical objective was to prevent further damage.

“They told us they could not guarantee that it would reverse the damage that had already occurred,” Turner says.

After the three-hour procedure, Oh told Turner and other waiting family members that the surgery had gone well and that “he had very high expectations that some of the damage could be reversed.”

Walking again and recovering at home

Within six weeks after surgery, Kunkle was walking on her own, receiving physical therapy and follow-up care under the direction of Dr. David Majors and the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Services team.

“He’s a star, too,” beams Kunkle at a recent clinic visit. “And so is his staff. I can walk. I can feel my legs. I can feel my abdomen. That’s major.”

Kunkle is recovering comfortably at her Santa Ana home of 40 years — not in a nursing home as she had feared.

“I truly believe everyone here at UCI saved my life,” she says. “They gave me back my life.”

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