Back on the pitch – after back surgery

Back surgery patient Kendall Discenza plays on the soccer team at Hamilton College.

Back surgery patient Kendall Discenza plays on the soccer team at Hamilton College. (supplied photo)

BY AMBER SMITH

For weeks, Kendall Discenza didn’t know what was wrong. The pain in her lower back became crippling, and she was left sobbing.  Surgery brought relief.

Discenza underwent a microdiscectomy at Upstate University Hospital. Lawrence Chin, MD, who leads the neurosurgery department, removed a herniated disc fragment between the 5th lumbar and 1st sacral vertebrae in Discenza’s lower back.

“You should see my scar. It’s so tiny,” she says.

Lawrence Chin, MD

Lawrence Chin, MD

Discenza, who plays soccer for Hamilton College, was lifting weights in January 2018 after her freshman season. She was doing Romanian dead lifts, intended to strengthen her hamstrings. Holding a straight metal bar, she bent forward at her waist, and then back up. She felt her back straining but didn’t think anything of it.  An achiness continued and grew worse over the next several weeks.

It was March before her health insurer gave permission for a magnetic resonance imaging scan. The images showed a herniation, where the disc’s interior protrudes outward, and Discenza began physical therapy. She also had cortisone injections. “But then it got worse, and worse and worse,” she recalls. “It got so bad, it got to the point where my mom came up (from the family home near Washington, D.C.) and was taking me to doctors in Syracuse.”

Discenza got an appointment with Denise Karsten, a chiropractor and registered nurse at the Upstate Brain and Spine Center, who went over the MRI with Discenza and her mother. “This is a pretty big herniation. You’re probably going to need surgery,” Karsten predicted.

At the time, Discenza was focused on wrapping up her spring semester. The pain was crippling at times. She remembers lying on the bed in her dorm one day, believing she was paralyzed. She realized she couldn’t put off treatment. She made an appointment to see Karsten again with Chin.

Surgery brought relief

Chin explained what would be involved in a micro-discectomy, a procedure intended to minimize the skin incision, muscle involvement and amount of bone removed in order to relieve the herniation. There is a small risk of nerve damage, but the procedure is almost always successful. Some patients go home the same day.

“I was asking him, ‘Am I going to be able to play soccer again?’ He was really reassuring and super kind, and he had such a good rapport. He made me feel really comfortable.”

Discenza went home with her parents for several days, worked on completing her schoolwork and prepared mentally for surgery. She pretty much had to lie flat because sitting was so painful. As she researched “microdiscectomy,” she learned that she was about to undergo the same procedure that New England Patriot Rob Gronkowski had three times to repair herniated discs.

She admits she was frightened. She expected she would have to stay overnight in the hospital.

When she woke up from anesthesia, “My legs were extended out straight. I pointed my legs up toward my body, and I knew that the pain was gone. The pressure was gone. I lifted my foot up, and the first thing I said to my mom was, ‘It’s gone. I know that it’s gone’.”

Chin says that’s not unusual. “If they’re in a lot of pain, they’re going to feel relief right away. That’s what I aim for.”

Discenza recovered with her parents at a Syracuse home they rented through Airbnb. “The next two days, it was tough to get up and walk,” she remembers. “It was pretty sore, but that’s part of what you have to do.”

Discenza was able to finish her schoolwork for the spring semester before her surgery. She spent the summer working with a physical therapist and personal trainer, in hopes of getting back to the soccer field by fall. It was important to her because, as she explains, “I’ve played soccer since I could walk. I’ve been playing my entire life.

“All summer, my goal was to be ready to play.”

She progressed from walking to doing core work to running. She had to rebuild her strength and stability to be able to play, and she had to convince herself that she was strong enough to play such a physical sport. When team training began, Discenza participated in all but scrimmages. Gradually, as she got stronger, she played in some games. “I got to be 100 percent around early October.”

Discenza is a sophomore majoring in sociology, on a pre-medicine track. She thinks she may want to go to an osteopathic medical school. “I might want to get into rehabilitation or become a functional medicine doctor.” She’s always been interested in health and wellness — and now she has experience as a patient.

Upstate Health magazine cover, winter 2019 issueThis article appears in the winter 2019 issue of Upstate Health magazine.

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