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Cheryl's before and after x-ray images.
X-ray images from before and after Cheryl’s surgery.

“My whole life had changed. I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t go out because I was worried about falling.”

In August of 2022 Cheryl fell and fractured her right foot. For 12 weeks, Cheryl was unable to put weight on her foot while it healed. During that time, Cheryl noticed that, while her foot slowly improved, she was developing persistent back pain that radiated down the backs of both thighs.

While going to physical therapy for her foot near her Black Mountain, NC home, Cheryl insisted that something was wrong with her back. By the end of December 2022, Cheryl’s back pain was so severe that she could hardly walk without her legs going numb, and she was extremely nauseated almost every day. She also did not want to leave the house, worried that her legs would go numb resulting in another fall.

Her primary care physician referred her to pain management. Cheryl had an MRI and an epidural steroid injection, which provided temporary relief from her pain. Her local pain management provider said he would refer Cheryl to a neurosurgeon. She decided to look up UNC Neurosurgery. Cheryl had gone to UNC Health in Chapel Hill for her cancer treatment years prior. “I explained what had happened and asked, ‘what do I need to do to get an appointment?’ and they called me back that afternoon and told me what I needed to fax over,” said Cheryl. “I then had an appointment scheduled within five days.”

Cheryl’s son accompanied her to her consultation appointment with minimally invasive spine surgeon, Dr. Cheerag Upadhyaya at the UNC Health Spine Center in Chapel Hill. Dr. Upadhyaya had reviewed her notes and was familiar with her case by the time he walked into her consultation appointment. Dr. Upadhyaya confirmed what Cheryl had long suspected, her back was the cause of her numbness, pain, and problems walking. “My whole life had changed,” said Cheryl. “I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t go out because I was worried about falling.”

Cheryl had begun to struggle with depression, wondering if this was “the new normal” for her. Hearing Dr. Upadhyaya not only reassured her that it was her back, but he also ordered additional imaging to identify the problem. Within an hour, Cheryl had the results. Imaging confirmed Dr. Upadhyaya’s suspicion that there was slippage of the discs, something that Cheryl’s previous doctor had never mentioned.

Cheryl was impressed with how well Dr. Upadhyaya explained his surgical plan to her, and how patient he was with her questions. “He listened to me and believed me,” said Cheryl. “To have someone listen is the most important thing. He makes you feel like he wants to help you.”  Dr. Upadhyaya ordered updated imaging.  Much of this imaging was done locally so that Cheryl did not have to drive the 3.5 hours to Chapel Hill.

The imaging confirmed that Cheryl could benefit from surgery to treat the spinal instability and stenosis. Dr. Upadhyaya recommended a minimally invasive spinal fusion to stabilize the spine and to relieve pressure on the nerves that was causing Cheryl’s pain and numbness.

In September 2023, Cheryl had her spinal fusion. “In preparation, I got a call from the social worker,” said Cheryl. “They called to ask me about my home to make sure it was safe for me when I got home. They wanted to make sure that everything was lined up before I had my surgery.”

X-ray image of Cheryl after surgery.
X-ray image of Cheryl after surgery at UNC Health.

Before going back to surgery, Dr. Upadhyaya visited with Cheryl, and again explained spinal fusion and the anticipated outcome, the “cages” that would be inserted into the space between her discs, and explained how the surgery would increase Cheryl’s mobility and help alleviate her back pain. “They had everything in place for me,” said Cheryl. “I was scared for surgery in Asheville. When I was at UNC Chapel Hill, I went into surgery so well prepared and Dr. Upadhyaya came in and reassured me and comforted me.”

An hour after waking up from surgery, Cheryl was up and walking. “I did not have any pain in my legs or feet,” said Cheryl. “I could feel my legs and feet. I had a little bit of incisional pain, but I felt amazing compared to what I was feeling before surgery,” said Cheryl.

The day after her surgery, Cheryl experienced bad muscle spasms. “Dr. Upadhyaya happened to walk in during my bad muscle spasms,” said Cheryl. “He pulled out the computer to see what was ordered and said I’m changing this up and changed my medications and gave me muscle relaxers, and within a few minutes, the nurse was in there giving me the medication. Dr. Upadhyaya stayed with me until I started to get some relief.”

Cheryl noted that the staff continued to check on her to make sure that she was no longer in pain. “Dr. Upadhyaya was there checking on me a lot,” said Cheryl. “He is amazing.”

“When I see my x-ray, I can’t believe that Dr. Upadhyaya was able to do that through such a small incision.”

Two days after surgery, Cheryl was discharged from the hospital and planned to stay with her son in Raleigh for a couple of weeks before driving home. “Dr. Upadhyaya never made me feel like they were pushing me out the door,” said Cheryl. “They said ‘when you’re ready to go, we will discharge you.’ Discharge process is face to face and it gave me time to ask questions instead of a bunch of papers thrown on the bed.”

Dr. Upadhyaya instructed Cheryl to exercise regularly and continue her physical therapy when she returned home to Black Mountain. Now, Cheryl is able to walk half a mile to a full mile every day and she goes to physical therapy two times per week She is also able to work one 12-hour shift as a nurse each week. “I can go up and down my stairs,” said Cheryl. “My incisions are healed and I just have two fine lines,” said Cheryl. “When I see my x-ray, I can’t believe that Dr. Upadhyaya was able to do that through such a small incision.”

Before surgery, Cheryl’s 3-year-old grandson demonstrated “how grandma walks” in front of the family by shuffling his feet and bending over as he walked. “My grandson has never seen grandma stand up straight or not be in pain,” said Cheryl. “Now my grandson gets to run to my arms and he gets to see me standing up straight and walking. That’s my dream.”

Since her surgery, Cheryl can stand up straight and she is working to improve her balance, endurance, and strength. “I feel like I have gotten my life back,” said Cheryl. “When people see me, they can tell that I am not in pain anymore.”