Story by Suzanne Gibson | Feb 24, 2016

A positive outcome with spinal surgery gives Donna Deetz a restored lease on life.

HW_DonnaDeetzDonna Deetz, age 62, is a woman on the move. In fact she and her husband, Michel, own five businesses so having a moment to slow down is not a reality in her day-to-day world. Ironically, it was while helping her father who had recently broken his neck, when her own pain began.

“It happened very suddenly,” Deetz says. “I lifted something heavy and instantly felt a shooting pain in my neck. In order to get relief I laid down, took a big stretch and next I heard a lot of pops. It just seemed to get worse from there.”

Deetz, who goes for chiropractic treatments to relieve occasional vertigo, went there first for care. “I was having a lot of pain in my neck, shoulder and all the way down my arm,” Deetz says. “After two weeks of adjustments, I wasn’t feeling any relief, and the pain was not better.”

During her father’s primary care visit with Dr. Jeff Piontek, Deetz happened to mention some of the symptoms she was experiencing. “The next thing I knew, Dr. Piontek ordered X-rays, and after looking at the results, he referred me on to Dr. Jeff Lehmen, a spine surgeon with St. Mary’s.”

An MRI later, Lehmen showed Deetz where she had some pretty severe herniated discs and explained that surgery sooner rather than later would give the best outcome. Often, people put off coming to see me, but really it’s better to come early on after experiencing symptoms like Donna’s,” Lehmen says. “Chronic pain may indicate pressure on a nerve, and the sooner I can relieve the pressure, the less the likelihood of permanent damage.”

HW_DeviceWithin a month, Lehmen admitted Deetz for anterior cervical discectomy and fusion surgery to repair the offending discs. Deetz’s initial recovery began with success as she was released to go home the same day as her surgery.

“Other than sickness from the anesthesia, which I always have, I left that day pain free,” Deetz says. “No more shooting pains in my neck, shoulder and arm since surgery. I’m still just three weeks out and there’s a slight numbness in two of my fingers, which may or may not go away because of nerve damage. I could not be more pleased because I was up working pretty full speed the day after surgery, and I haven’t slowed down since.”

Deetz’s son, who is an emergency room trauma surgeon, did a thorough screening of Lehmen’s credentials including reputation, education and surgery success rates and then the two were able to consult by phone.

“My son is really picky, so I knew I was getting a good doctor when he approved,” Deetz says. “I like Dr. Lehmen’s matter-of-fact style. He answered my questions and was always direct. Since the incision is on the front of the neck, I was concerned about how it would affect my vocal cords, would there be scaring, could I move around as well. None of those concerns became a problem. I laughed because several days after surgery I felt some soreness, and Dr. Lehmen said, ‘You have a short, fat neck and we had to stretch it during the procedure.’ I am built like a football player.”

Lehmen attests to more recent improvements within his field. “Techniques are better today with smaller incisions and less collateral muscle damage. Often patients are able to go home the same day or the next. “There was a time when spine patients could be laid up for a week and then need to go into a nursing home for several months of rehab. Honestly, not that long ago, back surgery could be worse than the original problem.  Today’s minimally invasive techniques have revolutionized spine surgery. It seems the word is only beginning to get out about the quality care people can get here in Jefferson City.“

HW_DeetzLehmenLehmen admits most of the degenerative problems he treats are unavoidable. “With Donna, it wasn’t anything she did to have this disc herniation happen, it just came about,” he says. “There is no good way to stop a herniation from happening. With the lumbar and cervical spine, the discs are a lot like a jelly donut or a tire and eventually they will crack and that soft material in the middle can extrude out. That’s a disc herniation.

“As we age, things dry up and crack and there is not much we can do to stop it. That’s the whole degenerative cascade of the spine. Arthritis, slippage of the vertebra and pressure on the spinal canal are all part of
this process.”

While aging of the spine is eventually inevitable, Lehmen recommends a few preventative measures that may help to slow the process:

• Don’t smoke. Nicotine is a huge risk factor for spine health because it acts as a vasoconstrictor and will exclude the blood supply. Even chewing nicotine gum is just as bad as smoking as far as your spine goes. Most people don’t realize it.

• Maintain a healthy weight and keep your core muscles good and strong. Being overweight puts added pressure on your spine and strong stomach and back muscles do a better job of keeping your spine in proper alignment.

• Keep your hamstrings limber. Tight hamstrings tilt your spine forward, and as a result, can put more pressure on the discs. Flexibility stretches can be good prevention.

HW_DrLehmenDr. Jeff Lehmen is a board-certified spine surgeon with SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital. A Jefferson City native, he graduated summa cum laude from the University of Missouri with a Bachelor of Science in medicinal chemistry and received the Top Undergraduate Bachelor of Science award. Lehmen received his medical degree from the University of Missouri and achieved his orthopedic surgery residency at the University of Missouri Hospital and Clinics. He completed a neurosurgical and orthopedic spine surgery fellowship at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, and represented the school as a traveling surgeon at Peking University Hospital in Beijing, China. Additionally, he completed a minimally invasive spine surgery fellowship with internationally renowned neurosurgeon, Luiz Pimenta, MD, in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Dedicated to research, Lehmen has presented at academic meetings in North America and Europe. St. Mary’s Hospital is one of only three hospitals in the state and the only mid-Missouri hospital included on the 2015 list of 100 Hospitals and Health Systems with Great Neurosurgery and Spine Programs published by Becker’s Hospital Review.