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You would never guess that Chuck Thompson, 46, of Oak Brook, an active father of four who spent the summer wakesurfing with his family, could barely walk without pain just over a year ago.
The problems began after a waterskiing accident one morning in June 2012, when Thompson ruptured two discs in his low back. The discs degenerated after two years, which caused immense pain in his back and crippling sciatica.
“Walking and sitting was excruciating. I could hardly walk down the street without sweating,” says Thompson.
Thompson met with several highly regarded orthopedic physicians in downtown Chicago, but he says, “I just didn’t get a good feeling about it. It was all about them and not about me.”
Thompson was about to fly to a spine center in Austin, Texas when a friend referred him to Elmhurst orthopedic surgeon Nicholas Mataragas, M.D.
“I met with Dr. Mataragas and the first thing he asked me was, ‘Well what do you want your life to look like after surgery?’” says Thompson. “He was the only doctor who asked me what I want my life to look like, versus what he could do for me.”
Thompson told Dr. Mataragas he wanted to be able to downhill ski. Together, they reviewed the new technologies and all the possibilities for treatment. Thompson spent months doing his own extensive research and consulting with Dr. Mataragas, who he said listened patiently and was willing to go at the pace he needed. Thompson wanted to avoid invasive surgery, and Dr. Mataragas, who has expertise in innovative, less invasive techniques, recommended spinal fusion.
On May 15, 2015, Thompson had minimally invasive transforaminal lumbar interbody fusion (MIS TLIF) surgery. Dr. Mataragas used special, high-tech equipment that enabled him to access the spine without cutting through muscle.
“This procedure gives patients all of the benefits of traditional lumbar fusion surgery without many of the limitations that it can entail. Patients who have the minimally invasive surgery have much less blood loss, shorter hospital stays and much quicker return to work,” says Dr. Mataragas.
“I immediately woke up without the pain,” he says. “My surgical healing time was drastically reduced. I was actually walking the next day. With a brace and being very careful, but still,” he says.
Thompson spent about four days in the hospital and then continued with physical therapy once he was back home. He wanted to stay with his physical therapist Jeff Bitter, at Core PTI in downtown Chicago, and again, Dr. Mataragas helped make it work.
“It did take a long healing process for it to fully fuse. You have to be very disciplined. You aren’t supposed to twist for about three months, even getting out of bed you can’t twist, but Dr. Mataragas walked me through all that,” he said. “Considering three months of inconvenience for my life back with no pain. I’m just so glad I went through it. I’m so grateful.”
Thompson’s goal was to ski with his family in Park City by President’s Day in February. After seven months of physical therapy, he got clearance from Dr. Mataragas—he would be able to meet his goal. “I skied in Park City for the first time without pain in about three years and we had a blast as a family,” he says.
“We cater the patient’s exact surgical procedure to their lifestyle and occupation. We also plan their recovery and rehab to allow for the quickest return to their usual activities as possible,” says Dr. Mataragas.
Thompson hopes to encourage others who feel hopeless or are too afraid to have the surgery. “It really is a mindset. You have to ask yourself, ‘what little baby step can I make today to get closer to my goal?’” He says he was fortunate to have friends who had gone through similar procedures and who guided him through it, along with his amazingly supportive wife of 24 years, Joi.
At his one-year check-up last May, Thompson was given full clearance by Dr. Mataragas. “He said, ‘go live your life, you have no restrictions.’” He had gotten his life back.
“Before the surgery, I was in so much pain. Every step was a lightning bolt and sitting felt like daggers going into my back. I would have to lay on the couch with ice twice a day for two hours just to be able to do anything,” says Thompson.
Today, Thompson is enjoying an active and pain-free lifestyle. “The surgery put me back into humankind. By this summer, my life was back to normal.”
He, Joi, and their four children, ages 12, 14, 16 and 18, spent time at their lake house this summer, where Thompson enjoyed standup paddleboarding and wakesurfing. This winter, he is looking forward to getting to downhill ski with his family.
Of his experience at Edward-Elmhurst, he concludes, “Dr. Mataragas is a rock star as far as I’m concerned.”
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