Finding the right doctor is hard. When you are in excruciating pain, it is much harder. But research led Robin Denker, a Westlake Village kitchen designer and former food writer, to USC spine surgeons Patrick Hsieh, MD and John Liu, MD.
“In between my fear, I chose to look at the Internet as my connection to others who have had this experience before me, and who could possibly lead me in the right direction,” said Denker, who was suffering from extreme back pain.
Denker is no stranger to back pain. For many years, she went to chiropractors, internists, acupuncturists, tried yoga, tried Pilates and lost weight. Nothing seemed to make the pain go away. Because it never escalated to a 10 out of 10 on the pain scale, she dealt with it.
Returning from vacation in 2013, she got on the plane in excruciating jolting pain; this time like no other pain she ever felt. The pain was so bad on her return flight home, she had to take prescription pain pills and ice her back. Nothing helped. The next morning, she could barely move her legs. She had no idea what caused the major spike in pain.
“It felt like there was fire shooting down from the middle of my back through my pelvis and down both legs. My feet and toes were numb,” she said.
That’s when Robin knew something was seriously wrong. She called a friend, an anesthesiologist, asking for a referral to an orthopedic surgeon.
“I was in so much pain,” she recalls. “He couldn’t even touch me.”
The moment he saw her, he knew that something was wrong. A complete MRI of her spine revealed a tumor. It was a little less than two inches long, in the middle of her upper back on her spine. The tumor had crushed her spinal cord canal. The doctor couldn’t believe she was even able to walk.
Due to the intense delicacy of the spinal cord and the location of the tumor, Robin was terrified when she found out her only option was surgery.
“I was so scared I would never walk again,” she said.
The tumor could be a schwannoma or meningioma, the radiologist’s report stated, but she wouldn’t know until the tumor was out. Because of Robin’s tenacity, she set out in search for the best surgeon(s) possible to treat her. She began her search on the Internet, and then interviewed many doctors. After paying for several consultations out of pocket, she made her decision.
“Like any writer, I did my research. I wanted to not only work with the best, but with someone who would care about me through the entire process,” she said. “I brought in a list of questions with me to each consultation. Some wouldn’t directly answer my questions. Others had a sense of arrogance. When I met with Dr. Patrick Hsieh and Dr. John Liu, I knew these were the doctors I wanted in my body. They had the experience and the outcomes I was searching for. They were to be my team!”
Patrick Hsieh, MD, is an associate professor of neurological surgery of Keck Medicine of USC. John Liu, MD, is a professor of neurosurgery and the co-director of the USC Spine Center of Keck Medicine of USC. These are the two surgeons that Robin handpicked to perform her spinal surgery.
Despite being scared throughout the entire process, she knew she was in the right hands. Prior to her surgery on December 9, 2013, she called and spoke with a nurse in Dr. Hsieh’s office, Jana. Robin asked Jana to help her connect her with other patients who had similar surgeries to get a better understanding of the entire journey and help manage her expectations.
“The staff at the USC Spine Center at Keck Medicine of USC is awesome. When they say they will follow up, they do. When the nurse says feel free to call or e-mail me with questions, she responds quickly,” she said. “Grateful is not enough of a word to describe how I feel about the team at Keck Medicine of USC.”
After her surgery was complete, she spent three months at home recovering and then gently began to walk more and more and get into a swimming pool with an Aqua Jogger belt. With the support from her family, her friends and her medical team she is on the mend and almost fully recovered.
“I’m so grateful that I had the best surgeon that I could find. This has been a difficult process for me; however I am emotionally again on the right track. I had no expectations, other than I wanted to be able to walk. It felt so good to be able to stand up, take a shower on my own and to spend time in the kitchen cooking with my daughters. The brightest things in my life are my daughters, my family and of course our two pooches,” she said. “I am very excited to be turning 60 shortly and with minimal pain. I’m just very happy.”
By Leonard Kim