Her Spinal Answer

May 14, 2019

Gina Petillo vaguely remembers the first time she nearly lost her ability to walk. She was 3 years old and had been run over by a car. Left with multiple severe injuries, including a broken leg, Gina faced a long recovery. About four months after the accident, when she was finally back at home from the hospital, Gina contracted polio.

“I remember the spinal taps and I remember being in isolation at the hospital, but the polio didn’t paralyze me. It didn’t prevent me from walking,” says Gina, now in her 60s.

But this wouldn’t be the final test of her resolve.

A New Challenge

In late 2016, Gina was living her normal active life. A devoted mom and grandma, she was busy serving on the boards for Hackensack Meridian Health and other local charitable groups that she’d been involved with for decades. The athletic, onetime tennis player now enjoyed her leisure time golfing. She had no intention of slowing down before the night of November 15, 2017.

“I was at home when suddenly I experienced tremendous pain in my rib cage and back,” the Little Silver, New Jersey, resident says. The pain was unbearable by the morning, so she had her husband drive her to Riverview Medical Center.

At the hospital, Gina was administered morphine while the team at Riverview’s Alton A. Hovnanian Emergency Care Center ran various tests, ruling out a heart attack, blood clots and kidney stones. Once admitted and in a private room, her primary care physician, David Drout, M.D., ordered an MRI, suspecting spine-related back pain, but the results were inconclusive.

Without a firm diagnosis and with her back pain numbed from the morphine, she said goodbye to her husband, daughter and granddaughters for the night and prepared to get some rest.

“I was going to get out of bed to use the bathroom, and when I went to sit up, I was paralyzed from the waist down,” she says. “I was terrified.”

Her husband returned to the hospital, and they worked with Stephanie Reynolds, D.O., an emergency medicine physician, to determine next steps. Dr. Reynolds found a radiologist who would immediately come and run another MRI. This time the imaging results revealed the problem.

“The MRI showed that something was compressing her spinal cord, but we didn’t yet know if it was from bleeding, from an infection or from a mass growing,” says Qasim M. Husain, M.D., an

orthopedic spine surgeon who happened to be at the hospital checking on another patient.

Time-Sensitive

Dr. Husain called his partner Keith Rinkus, M.D., and told him to come to the hospital. Within minutes, the doctors had a plan and got right into the operating room.

“When you see a new spinal cord compression, especially one leading to neurologic deficit or paralysis, it’s an emergency,” Dr. Husain says. “The quicker you can get the spinal cord decompressed, the better the chance of recovery.”

They quickly discovered that an epidural abscess—a collection of pus—was compressing Gina’s spine. “Gina’s first MRI did not show any specific findings because the infection was just in its beginning stages and had not yet formed a visible mass,” Dr. Husain adds.

They removed the infection, along with the back part of her vertebrae, relieving the pressure on the spine. But surgery was only the first step. In recovery, Gina was still paralyzed.

“It was so frightening that I couldn’t even think straight, but Dr. Husain explained that with the spinal cord, there was nothing to do but wait,” she says.

They got an encouraging sign the very next day when Gina moved her big toe.

“I wanted to stay grounded with my expectations, but I was very hopeful,” says Dr. Husain. “She had full function of her toe, showing that nerves were coming alive again.”

Gina remained in intensive care for 10 days and started eight weeks of IV antibiotics. As Thanksgiving came and went, she began three weeks of rehabilitation at the Inpatient Rehabilitation Center at Riverview, complete with customized physical and occupational therapy. Nerve function began to spread from her toe to her foot to her leg, until finally Gina was able to walk a short distance with a walker. A few days before Christmas, Gina went home.

“I had to dig deep and say, ‘I’m going to get through this. I was an optimist from the beginning,” she says, adding what invaluable roles the hospital team and her family played in her recovery. Along with the support of her family and comfort from her “snuggle bunny” grandkids, she is grateful for the care she received at Riverview. “It took a village.”

Dr. Husain is just as pleased. “It makes me so happy to see how well she’s done,” he says. “She’s really a survivor.”

Up and Running

Gina continues to come to Riverview for outpatient therapy.

“Now I am mobile—walking unassisted, driving a car. I can do stairs with a railing. Without everyone I wouldn’t be where I am right now. I’m just so grateful,” says Gina, who is back to her board work with the Hackensack Meridian Health Women’s Heart Fund, as well as her local food bank, Fulfill of Monmouth and Ocean Counties.

She is also presently the co-chair of the Parker Family Health Center Board of Trustees. Riverview is a partner of the Parker Family Health Center, a facility that provides free health care for eligible local residents.

And she’s back to golfing, even hitting the course this past summer with the very person who helped her get back on her feet: Dr. Husain.

“When I was in the hospital I told him, ‘I hope someday we can play golf together.’ He said, ‘We will. We absolutely will,’” she emotionally recalls, adding that she admiringly calls him “her guy.” “It was a dream come true.”

Find tips and exercises for strengthening your back and avoiding back pain.

Dr. Husain board certified in orthopaedic spine surgery. To make an appointment, call 800-822-8905.

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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.