Bloomfield, New Jersey, Runner Back on Her Feet After Spine Surgery

April 12, 2021

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.

Some people buy a sports car when they turn 40. Laura Messina got serious about running. A former director at the YMCA, the Bloomfield, New Jersey, resident had always been active and a casual runner, but she found that building up her endurance was a pleasant side effect of the mental relaxation that distance running provided.

It wasn’t long after she ran her first marathon at age 45, however, that Laura started to experience chronic discomfort. The pain, which radiated down her legs, began to plague her even at rest.

“Runners have a fairly high pain tolerance, but I couldn’t get rid of the pain,” Laura says. “I’d stretch like crazy, slow down and walk, but to no avail.”

She searched for a fix, visiting doctor after doctor for a year and half before meeting with neurosurgeon Robert F. Heary, M.D. Dr. Heary diagnosed Laura with degeneration of the discs in her lower lumbar spine, resulting in pressure on her sciatic nerve, the largest nerve in the body that connects the spine to the leg and foot.

The only treatment option was spinal fusion surgery. During surgery, intervertebral cages were inserted where her natural spine had deteriorated, creating space to relieve her nerve pain. The cages were held in place with titanium rods and screws to promote fusion of her bones.

Dr. Heary told Laura he did not expect her to run again once she recovered. “That was devastating, but I had to go through with it,” Laura recalls.

Medical Marathon

Within five months, Laura was determined to beat the odds. She began incorporating short runs into her walks around her neighborhood, and within five years, she was back in competitive form, even sending Dr. Heary the bib from her next marathon. “I wrote on the back, ‘I did this and offered it up for you,’” she says.

Approximately eight years after her surgery, the pain returned. This time it was so bad Laura couldn’t bear to sit down. She couldn’t drive, and using the bathroom was excruciating. She had X-rays done, but despite the urgency of her condition, Laura was too terrified to act. Her brother drove the images to Dr. Heary, who could see that the vertebrae and discs above the first fusion had slipped, compressing the nerves. She was scheduled for another spinal fusion surgery within the week.

“I believe Dr. Heary saved my life,” Laura says. Though recovery from the second procedure was a bit tougher than the first, Laura felt encouraged by the fact that she had beat expectations before. She regained her endurance and ran a few more marathons before the familiar pain came back about five years later.

“The pain was moving up my spine like this little monster,” Laura says. Knowing another surgery was unavoidable, she registered for one last race in spring 2016. “It was something I could grit my teeth and get through,” she recalls. That summer, she met Dr. Heary at the Montclair Spine Center at Mountainside Medical Center for her third surgery and planned to resume running after she recovered again.

An Unexpected Turn

By 2017, Laura had resumed marathon training, but it was cut short by an accident. After falling down the stairs at home and landing on her backside, Laura collapsed one of her vertebrae.

“That was a huge disappointment,” she recalls. Though the procedure to repair the vertebrae was similar, it was complicated by the fact that her bones had started to fuse, so Dr. Heary had to remove some of the hardware.

Still, Laura pushed through and was able to return to her job at a local running shoe store—until she started feeling a new pain, this time in her side. Dr. Heary confirmed that her symptoms were the result of a screw that had dislodged from her spine.

“It was a laughing matter between my family and co-workers that I had a screw loose,” Laura recalls with mirth.

The physicality of her job may have contributed to the screw’s movement, but Laura’s generally small frame put her at higher risk of such complications. “She has diminished bone mineral density, making her bones weaker than the average person, which makes surgical treatment more challenging and her more likely to develop additional problems in the future,” Dr. Heary says.

To reduce her chances of another complication, Dr. Heary prescribed Laura a bone-building medication and performed a fifth surgery in February 2020 to replace the screw.

The Long Run

At 66, Laura is still active and setting goals, albeit with a bit more caution. “I have to be more careful now,” she says. “I can’t fall backward. I can’t stop the process of time.”

But she is enjoying her walk-runs and looking forward to completely retiring to the Jersey Shore with her husband.

Looking back on the past two decades, she is glad she found Dr. Heary when she did. “I can’t imagine what would have happened had I not chosen him,” she says.

“The best one-word description of Laura would be spectacular,” Dr. Heary says. “She is an extraordinary lady to undergo five surgeries over 20 years and still be able to push onward and lead an active lifestyle.”

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