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When Tammy Walter first sought help for recurring shoulder pain in 2015, she didn’t expect it to send her on an 18-month odyssey of doctor visits, diagnoses and surgeries. Despite the long journey, the help she finally found prevented paralysis — and likely saved her life.
In 2015 Walter, who lives about two hours from Chicago in Oglesby, Illinois, initially saw her primary care physician (PCP) for the pain. He prescribed muscle relaxers, and referred her to a chiropractor and a physical therapist. None of these brought relief.
Her PCP then sent her to a pain specialist, who also suggested muscle relaxers. Walter’s instincts told her it was a deeper problem. She insisted on an MRI. Eventually the pain specialist ordered one, although he wasn’t sure what the results indicated.
The specialist sent her to another doctor in Peoria, Illinois, who diagnosed her with spinal cord meningioma—a benign tumor in her spine’s protective membranes. She’d need surgery to remove it. The Peoria doctor said he could do it, or refer her to another specialist.
Walter pursued an out-of-state institution for the surgery. The initial meeting with her out-of-state surgeon lasted about 10 minutes. The doctor’s bedside manner was underwhelming. Still, Walter assumed the surgeon was highly skilled, and went through with the operation.
An infection that won’t quit
A week after the surgery in November 2015, Walter’s surgical scar began to leak and show signs of infection. When her husband called the hospital where she had surgery, staff there said a visit wasn’t necessary. They instead prescribed 10 days of antibiotics.
Walter improved enough to return to work, but a lump developed on her scar. “It was getting big. I kept calling the hospital [where I had the surgery] but they said nothing was wrong. They refused to see me,” she says.
Walter kept calling, and sent emails with pictures of her lump. She asked to see her surgeon. It was to no avail. Eventually the hospital agreed to place an order for an MRI with her local hospital.
While she waited for the order to be approved, she called the hospital one more time. She pointed out how, despite a complicated surgery, she’d never had any follow-up visits with the doctor. With that, she received an immediate response. Why not come to see her surgeon and have the MRI at the same time?
Making a change
On Walter’s return trip in June 2016, her surgeon’s behavior changed. As it turned out, she had a staph infection. The infectious disease team told her the infection had been there since her symptoms surfaced, shortly after the first surgery. Walter had to undergo another surgery.
Walter went home with medication she administered to herself through an IV three times a day, called an “IV push.” Walter did the IV push for four weeks. A few months later, the infection resurfaced.
That’s when one of Walter’s coworkers asked her friend, a nurse, for advice. The nurse urged her to see an infectious disease physician, and referred her to David Beezhold, DO of Metro Infectious Disease Consultants and on the medical staff at Elmhurst Hospital.
Walter was reluctant to see another doctor. She didn’t believe he’d want to take her on, because her body was in such bad shape. The emotional toll weighed heavily on her, too.
Thanks to encouragement and support from her coworker’s friend, Walter met with Dr. Beezhold. She found him caring, warm and down-to-earth. He prescribed another round of IV antibiotics for three months. Walter said he also asked her to contact the out-of-state surgeon, for two reasons: to obtain her medical records, and to convey that he’d like to speak with her about the infection. Dr. Beezhold didn’t receive a response from the other doctor.
Meanwhile, the antibiotics took effect, and soon Walter was on the mend. Everything seemed fine, until the infection returned once more. At that point, Dr. Beezhold said she should see a plastic surgeon for wound care. He referred her to Raymond Janevicius, MD of Elmhurst Clinic.
Walter said Dr. Janevicius was “super nice and honest,” and he explained, “I’m not your guy, but I know someone who can help you.” He suggested Tibor Boco, MD a neurosurgeon who specializes in spine surgery at Neurological Surgery & Spine Surgery, S.C. and Medical Director of Neurosurgical Services at Elmhurst Hospital.
At last: A healthy end in sight
As she drove home, Walter cried. She couldn’t believe she had to see yet another doctor. At home she visited Dr. Boco’s web page on the Edward-Elmhurst Health website, and watched a video of him discussing his philosophy of care. It encouraged her.
When she met him in person, Dr. Boco was both knowledgeable and kind—a consummate professional who answered all of her questions with a warm bedside manner. She would need another surgery, he said, to revise the incision, and to remove the screws and rods placed during her first surgery. That hardware was potentially colonized by bacteria and partly to blame for her persistent infection.
Though Dr. Boco didn’t speak to the first surgeon, he believed the hardware had been intended to prevent Walter’s already somewhat abnormal, regional spinal curvature from worsening. But the spine had not fused, and the screws had begun to pull out of the bones, which meant hardware failure.
After her visit, Walter considered all Dr. Boco had said. She was pleased. The shock of needing another surgery crowded out some additional questions she had, so once she was settled at home she emailed Dr. Boco about 10-15 questions. That was Sunday afternoon. First thing Monday morning, he replied to each one, and welcomed more. Walter was surprised a doctor took time to respond to each of her concerns—and so quickly!
The final stretch to wellness
In May 2017, Dr. Boco performed Walter’s third surgery. He removed the hardware, cleaned out the original surgical area, and excised the draining fistula. A fistula is a narrow duct between cavities that forms as a result of disease, injury or infection. Because a fistula walls itself off, it’s unable to heal by itself.
Dr. Boco also said that while spinal meningiomas are fairly rare, he has seen several so far this year. As for what causes them, there’s no particular culprit, he said.
From start to finish, Walter’s time at Elmhurst Hospital was remarkable. “[My] nurses were all nice, everyone was so nice. The hospital is so quiet and private and clean and new. It was just a very good experience,” she says.
Walter’s staph infection had made its way into her bones. She faced another round of IV antibiotics after her surgery with Dr. Boco, this time for eight weeks.
Walter’s time with Dr. Boco and Elmhurst Hospital were somewhat redemptive of the pain and frustration she met at the other facility. By contrast, Dr. Boco answered all of her questions before and after the surgery he performed. “He was like somebody I knew for years. He listened to what I said, and he showed very much care and concern,” she says.
“I cannot say enough about Dr. Boco. Thinking back on my first visit and how emotional I was, he was so confident in what he was going to do to help me. I remember being shocked that he wanted to take me on as his patient, with my ongoing issues, knowing full well he would have to correct another surgeon’s careless mess. I have never been more thankful than I was that day.”
These days, Walter feels great, and she’s free of complications. Test results in June 2017 showed that her staph infection was finally gone. After three surgeries, 13 MRIs, multiple rounds of antibiotics and nearly two years, she’s well.
She wishes she’d known about Elmhurst at the start of her journey, about its excellent staff and standards of care. Walter now urges others to research hospitals in their own backyards. And if they’re in the Chicago area, she points them in the direction of Edward-Elmhurst Health.
Learn more about neuro services at Edward-Elmhurst Health.
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