Joelea's story
 Joelea's story

  From motivation to restoration

Joelea's situation was bleak. Diabetic, bent over, and approaching 300 pounds, she was living on pain killers, dependent on a walker, and no longer able to work. One day, hoping to walk to the store, she reached the edge of the walkway to her building and could go no farther. She hobbled back inside, sat down and cried.

Her predicament seemed hopeless. She had been denied surgery for a crippling spine problem by other surgeons who were unwilling to assume the risk of her care. Then, after turning to a new doctor at a different hospital system, she was referred to Mayfield Brain & Spine.

That's when Marc Orlando, MD, a physical medicine & rehabilitation specialist, and Sean Lynch, PA, a physician assistant, brought Joelea under their care. Over a period of more than two years, they treated Joelea conservatively. They prescribed physical therapy, provided injections for pain, and offered words of hope and kindness.

During that time Joelea also met her future surgeon, Zachery Tempel, MD, a Mayfield specialist in complex spine care. Joelea needed major surgery for deterioration in her lower back and a spinal deformity that prevented her from standing up straight. But before Dr. Tempel could perform her surgery, he wanted her to lose weight, get her diabetes under control, stop smoking, and improve her mental health.

Inspired and supported by her collaborating team of Drs. Orlando and Tempel and "Dr. Sean," and with injections providing temporary pain relief, Joelea began to repair the foundation of her health. "I would talk to Dr. Sean, and I got to the point where I cried," Joelea says. "I said 'Sean, I want to walk. Please help me walk.'"

Despite being largely disabled, Joelea lost a remarkable 70 pounds. Her blood-sugar levels stabilized. She quit smoking.

"I was drinking a lot of water; I changed my diet," she says. "I was eating a lot of veggies and fruit and attempting to wean myself back into being a vegan. I was trying to take better care of myself. It's not too good when you're down like that and have to depend on people. I was so determined. I never lost my faith in God. I said I'm going to walk."

'Staircase deformity' of the lumbar spine

Finally, six months after meeting Dr. Tempel, Joelea was ready for the life-changing surgery that she needed. In the spring of 2018, Dr. Tempel operated over a period of two days at Good Samaritan Hospital, fusing three levels of Joelea's lower spine, restoring her alignment, and eliminating the painful pressure on her spinal nerves.

Before surgery
After surgery

Scans of Joelea's spine before and after surgery. In the image at left (or top), two lower vertebrae have been pushed forward out of alignment and are causing painful pressure on Joelea's spinal cord.

"I would label Joelea's condition a staircase deformity of the lumbar spine," Dr. Tempel says. "She had multilevel spondylolisthesis and destruction of the lower lumbar disc spaces resulting in severe stenosis and neural element compression. She also had a significant sagittal plane deformity and an inability to stand upright."

A few days after the surgery, Joelea got up and walked through the hospital. "I could just hug Dr. Tempel and Dr. Sean, I love them so much," she says. Since I was over 30, I've never met doctors like that who take their time and give you options and hope, and I still tell them that to this day."

After being discharged from the hospital, Joelea spent a month at a rehabilitation facility. Upon reaching home, a new reality – a good reality – set in. "I could do things without having to wait, without having to ask people," she says. "I can wash my own clothes, make my bed, take care of my plants -- normal things like that. I can walk through the park." Wearing her back brace and using a cane, she walked to the store, "crying every step of the way and thanking God."

"Joelea is a great example of why I find complex spine surgery so rewarding," Dr. Tempel says. "She can now get around independently and is loving life. She is a testament to the power of the human spirit."

Joelea has been down to Fountain Square and is looking forward to walking across the Purple People Bridge. Still, she takes nothing for granted. She is careful of her back and refrains from lifting heavy objects.

Perhaps most importantly, Joelea has enrolled in Dohn 22+, an adult high school diploma program at Dohn Community High School, a multi-campus non-profit school serving high school students and adults. There, she is reconnecting with lessons from her past while embracing a renewal of her future. "I love science. That was my favorite subject all through elementary school," Joelea says. "I like nature, the peaceful things. I like TV programs about the sea, the planet. They bring a lot of peace and serenity to me. And I love art. I have a passion for that."

Enriched by these activities, and more, Joelea counts her blessings. "I thank God and my Mayfield team for sticking with me and helping me because my past wasn't too good," she says. "I was fortunate to have these doctors by my side to help me accomplish what needed to be done. I give thanks to my Creator, first, and to Dr. Zachary Tempel, who made it possible. I thank them every step I take."

~ Cindy Starr

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Hope Story Disclaimer -"Joelea's Story" is about one patient's health-care experience. Please bear in mind that because every patient is unique, individual patients may respond to treatment in different ways. Results are influenced by many factors and may vary from patient to patient.

Related links:

Physician spotlight: Dr. Zachary Tempel