Patient Stories

Awake Spine Surgery: An Innovative Approach to Conquering Back Pain

Mar. 18, 2024

Melinda shares her remarkable journey - battling back pain and finding treatment that wouldn’t force her to choose between continued pain and a recovery full of illness.

Melinda: Experiencing the Benefits of Minimally Invasive Awake Spine Surgery

The Journey to Revolutionary Awake Spine Surgery

“I am a Cincinnatian, and I’ve known about UC’s expertise for a long time,” Melinda shares.

Melinda's familiarity with UC's exceptional medical care traces back to the early 1980s when her sister, now a nurse practitioner, received treatment for a severe head injury sustained in a car accident. Witnessing UC Health’s dedication to excellence during her sister's recovery instilled in Melinda a profound trust in our capabilities.

A long-time hair designer, Melinda’s day-to-day life for years was physically demanding, with hours spent on her feet making movements that, over time, put significant strain on her back. Several years ago, Melinda turned to another hospital in Cincinnati for answers to begin addressing her pain.

“They said I was just basically going to be living with back pain; I continued to suffer and suffer.”

A pivotal moment occurred in November 2022 during a routine but extensive grocery trip for a Thanksgiving food drive. The next day, while loading comforters into her washing machine, Melinda experienced excruciating pain radiating from her lower back down to her ankle. It became evident that her condition necessitated specialized care beyond what she had previously received.

“I woke up with a pain that I thought was a Charlie horse, but it was a disc that had finally slipped.”

Through a series of fortuitous connections, Melinda ended up under the expert care of Owoicho Adogwa, MD, MPH, at the UC Gardner Neuroscience Institute. Dr. Adogwa is an esteemed Assistant Professor in the Department of Neurosurgery renowned for his expertise in treating spinal diseases. He is one of the few surgeons in the country who is cross-trained in orthopedic spine surgery and neurosurgery.


A Personalized Approach: Spinal Anesthesia and Patient-Centric Care

Dr. Adogwa's approach was marked by thoroughness and compassion as he meticulously reviewed her case, explained MRI findings, and discussed treatment options with genuine concern.

“My husband and I met with Dr. Adogwa, and he was just wonderful. I loved him. From the time he walked into the room, I felt comfortable. I could tell I was in really good hands. He explained everything on my MRI, and I had never had a doctor do that before, to really spend the time.”

Physical therapy at the UC Gardner Neuroscience Institute emerged as a cornerstone of Melinda's recovery journey, with dedicated therapists guiding her through tailored exercises to alleviate pain and enhance mobility throughout the winter of 2023. Melinda completed her therapy treatments and put in the work at home, but ultimately, surgery was needed. But she had just one hesitation.

“We started talking about surgery. I had confidence in him and knew he would get me out of pain. The thing that I was the most afraid of was that when I had general anesthesia, I was so sick. I would throw up the night of surgery…and would feel sick for weeks after. I feel like I’ve been poisoned.”

But at UC Health, we don’t settle for good enough. We pursue options that may not have been tried before. A pivotal breakthrough came from a groundbreaking spinal anesthesia technique proposed by Dr. Adogwa for awake spine surgery, marking a significant innovation in the field. Opting for an epidural with propofol instead of general anesthesia, Dr. Adogwa sought to minimize post-operative discomfort, a common issue following conventional anesthesia.

Melinda would be the first “awake” spinal surgery patient at UC Health. Although she was the first to do this here, Dr. Adogwa has years of experience with this approach.

Melinda recalls, “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m not going to be sick.’ I’m going to be out of pain and not sick.”

On the day of surgery, Melinda experienced a mix of anticipation and relief. Dr. Adogwa's careful planning and the use of minimally invasive surgery techniques, in collaboration with the anesthesiology team, expertly led by Dr. Jessica Garrett, ensured a smooth and comfortable experience. As soothing music played through her earbuds, the surgical team worked diligently to address the underlying cause of her pain.

“It was so quick. I couldn't feel my legs anymore; I was relaxed. I knew I had the team behind me. Dr. Garrett was wonderful, and I’m grateful she was willing to do it…I was face down and just listening to music. Think about it as the same level of sedation as a colonoscopy. I didn’t hear anything; I just fell asleep. It was peaceful.”


Melinda's Story: Experiencing the Benefits of Awake Spine Surgery

Experiencing the Benefits of Minimally Invasive Awake Surgery

Following surgery, Melinda noticed a profound difference. Freed from the debilitating effects of general anesthesia, she experienced minimal discomfort and was able to resume normal activities sooner than anticipated.

“I was eating after surgery; I never threw up; I was walking around, not sick at all. I came home and ate a full meal.”

With the guidance of Dr. Adogwa and his team, Melinda embraced a comprehensive rehabilitation program designed for enhanced recovery after surgery, encompassing physical therapy, cardio exercises, and mindful practices like yoga. This holistic approach significantly contributed to her faster recovery, allowing her to regain strength and mobility quickly.

A New Horizon in Spinal Health and Recovery

Today, Melinda is a testament to the transformative power of personalized care and innovative medical interventions. Her journey with UC Health embodies the intersection of expertise, compassion, and a commitment to pioneering advancements in patient-centric spine surgery, spotlighting the institution's dedication to patient well-being and faster recovery.

“My care was unbelievably beautiful, thoughtful, compassionate. It was patient-focused. It was outcome-focused. It was a team effort…Dr. Adogwa is a pioneer in many ways but humble…I’m just grateful.”

As she continues her path to recovery, Melinda remains deeply grateful for the unwavering support of Dr. Adogwa, Dr. Garrett, and the entire care team at UC. Through their dedication and expertise, she has regained her physical well-being and discovered renewed hope and resilience in adversity. As the first patient to receive this innovative approach, she paves the way for others.

“When I met with Doctor Adogwa recently, he said I’m the first, but because of how this all came to be, now other patients can benefit because we have paved the way for others to have the opportunity when they may not have otherwise.”

As for Dr. Adogwa, he continues to look forward.

“The implementation of an awake spinal surgery protocol, complemented by genotype-guided opioid therapy post-surgery, is a pivotal component of our holistic approach aimed at providing tailored, patient-centric spinal healthcare services within Cincinnati and beyond.

This approach is underpinned by the collaborative efforts of a multidisciplinary team, boasting expertise across a spectrum of disciplines, all dedicated to enhancing the well-being and quality of life of individuals afflicted with back pain and spinal pathologies.

Our overarching objective is to establish the UC Gardner Neuroscience Institute as the nation's preeminent center for spinal care, distinguished not only by our innovative surgical methodologies but also by our commitment to achieving high patient satisfaction rates.”