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Toms River Osteoporosis Patient Receives Spine-saving Surgery

Typically, we photograph every patient appearing in HealthU. Because this story was planned during the COVID-19 pandemic, that contact would have been too risky. Instead, our team took a creative approach and replaced photo shoots with illustrated portraits of patients.

Make no mistake: Asthma is dangerous. Lethal, even. But even though she knew it could take her life, Stephanie Harriott of Toms River, New Jersey, never considered the possibility that asthma might take her ability to walk.

Now 42, Stephanie was first diagnosed with asthma when she was 18. Although she had an active and healthy childhood, as a teenager, she began habitually contracting bronchitis and other respiratory infections that exacerbated her condition. In 2009, things got so bad that Stephanie had to start taking steroids to control her symptoms, which had become so severe that they were regularly putting her in the hospital.

The steroids helped, but eventually, they started to impact Stephanie’s ability to absorb calcium and vitamin D, the long-term result of which can be osteoporosis.

“Obviously, I needed the steroids, but osteoporosis was an unfortunate side effect,” recalls Stephanie, who found out the hard way: A sleepwalker since childhood, she was sleepwalking one night when she had a terrible accident. “I was in the kitchen, supposedly making a sandwich. The only thing I remember is the feeling of losing my balance and falling backwards. I slammed into the oven and hit the floor, where my family found me screaming. It hurt so much that I eventually passed out from the pain.”

Two days later, at Ocean Medical Center, Stephanie woke up to the revelation that she had developed osteoporosis as a result of chronic steroid use and had broken two vertebrae when she fell. Her care team first recommended a nonsurgical approach of wearing a brace and doing a month of inpatient rehabilitation. It was good news at the time, but what appeared to be the end of the story turned out to be only the beginning.

A Spinal Scare

After several weeks in rehabilitation, Stephanie was discharged to finish her recovery at home. A day and a half later, she began to feel strange.

“I started getting these feelings in my legs—sharp pains that would go from the top of my legs to my toes,” recalls Stephanie, who also experienced odd tingling and numbing sensations and was unable to urinate. “I kept saying to myself, ‘I’m fine,’ but eventually I gave in and went to the hospital.”

One of Stephanie’s bones was pushed posteriorly toward the spinal cord, says Tamir Tawfik, M.D., a neurosurgeon at Ocean. She was experiencing spinal cord compression. The steroids she was on had completely obliterated her bone. “Stephanie’s osteoporosis got progressively worse over time, and the steroids she had been on inhibited her bones from healing,” Dr. Tawfik says. “The brace was the appropriate treatment for her at the time, but as her condition worsened, the brace ultimately failed.”

The odd sensations that brought Stephanie to the hospital were early symptoms of paralysis. Without swift action, she might never walk again, so Dr. Tawfik recommended emergency surgery to replace her failing spine. The next day—Easter Sunday—he and thoracic surgeon Peter Scalia, M.D., performed the first of two 12-hour surgeries, during which they removed the damaged vertebrae and adjacent discs and replaced them with a titanium cage.

Two days later, Stephanie underwent her second 12-hour surgery, during which Dr. Tawfik secured the titanium cage to what was left of her spine. “The [titanium cage] is shaped like a car jack. We put it in place and then start jacking it up until the top and bottom are secured, and everything is tight,” Dr. Tawfik says. “It basically fills the space and gives the spine support.”

In more ways than one, support is exactly what Stephanie needed. “Because there were bone fragments in my spinal cord that he couldn’t remove, there was a more than 50 percent chance I was going to come out of surgery and still end up paralyzed,” says Stephanie, a mom of three.

In that moment, she was experiencing not only physical pain but also emotional pain at the thought of spending the rest of her life in a wheelchair, unable to enjoy favorite activities like boating and going to amusement parks with her husband and kids. “I was bawling my eyes out because it was so stressful and scary, but Dr. Tawfik was by my side every second reassuring me,” she says. “He’s very passionate and caring. He’s just an amazing doctor.”

Steps in the Right Direction

When she awoke from her second surgery, Stephanie felt grateful to be alive. At that point, however, she still didn’t know whether she would walk again. Soon, it became clear that she would.

She quickly was back on her feet with the help of a walker and brace at first, and with the help of a cane after that. Now, two years after her surgeries, she walks without any assistance at all—although she remains limited by her asthma and takes daily bone-strengthening injections to shore up her bones.

To be sure, things aren’t the way they were. But they’re infinitely better than they might have been.

“When I saw Dr. Tawfik for my annual checkup, he had me walking back and forth down the hallway and was just staring at me,” Stephanie says. “He said, ‘I can’t believe it.’ I walk pretty normal now, and he wasn’t sure I ever would.”

Next Steps & Resources:

Learn more about the Neuroscience & Neurology Rehabilitation Program at Ocean Medical Center

Meet our source: Tamir Tawfik, M.D. To make an appointment with Dr. Tawfik or another doctor near you, call 800-822-8905 or visit our website.

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The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.

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