It can be hard to imagine a life without back pain. To remember what it was like before that spinal injury. Or to recall the good days at all, after traumatic brain injury.
But hundreds of local residents are proof that you can live pain-free or with improved cognitive function. The Darroch Brain and Spine Institute at Doctors Medical Center is changing lives everyday, with the highest quality of care in the heart of Stanislaus County.
You don’t have to take our word for it. Here are a few stories from real, local patients.
“Before I got hurt, I had 53 thousand acres and 25 hundred head of cows. I was a full-time cowboy. I had been my entire life. We would drive our cows 70 miles from our home ranch to the high country in summer in the Sierra National Forest.
In 2007, I was rear-ended by a semi-truck. I was asleep in the passenger’s seat and it herniated some disk and ruptured a couple. And so, I went to my chiropractor because of the leg pain and he instantly sent me to Dr. Bybee. And he was so good to try any and every combination.I mean, they did everything in the world to try and make me comfortable and he helped me through the whole procedure. I am now on disability because of my injuries and he helped me through all the stuff that I just had no idea where to go— I was just lost. I couldn’t stand up, I couldn’t lay down, I couldn’t sit, I couldn’t sleep. I was in so much pain and not being able to have any pain medicine. It was just horrible.
Doc went in and repaired I think two discs at two different times, to take the pain off my legs, but in that saw that I had a lot of severe damage and I was almost bone-to-bone in four joints from my tailbone, up. And showed me a bunch of different things that we could do. So, through Doctors Medical Center, Dr. Bybee and everybody, we got that done and he went in through my stomach and put in three artificial disks and fused my tailbone.
You know, the thing of it with him that I really liked is that he makes eye contact. ‘It is what it is. We can do this. I won’t guarantee you that it’s gonna stop all the pain— I can’t guarantee you that. But I will guarantee you that you will be in better shape when you’re coming out of there than you were going in. You’ll be able to get back on your feet. Because I can’t say that I’m going to be able to take away all the pain, because we don’t know.’
I go there because they take care of me. I mean, I’ve been up here in the mountains, the specialists just aren’t around up here. They’ll send you someplace else, so I just go down to Doctors Medical Center and I’m very fortunate.
I’ve got a couple High School kids that’re coming over and learning to rope and we do a lot of rope and trying to get them ready for High School rodeo. Or I go over and help my friends in Jamestown, they have some cows and he’s a saddle-maker.
And I have my five-year-old grandson that we do a lot of stuff together. He’s my boy. Thank you, Dr. Bybee and Doctors Medical Center, I mean, I think the world of him because he gave me another opportunity in life. You know, I wouldn’t be here, if it wasn’t for him.”
“You have to be ready. You have to be able to accept that it will work — and also that it might not work,” says Maralee Clifton.
Maralee Clifton was an active employee in the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department when she noticed the first signs. During a work-related fitness test, she had problems gripping anything with her hands.
“I thought it was carpal tunnel,” she says, referring to the weakness and tingling that comes from pressure on the wrist’s median nerve. She had also noticed that she wasn’t writing very well and that her lack of finger dexterity made it difficult to wash her hair.
“The big clue was when my feet started dragging,” says Maralee. That caused her to fall down the stairs in her home. “I’m 6 feet tall, and that’s a long way to fall.”
When the right side of her body became rigid, she sought help. She consulted a local neurologist, who put her through a battery of tests before giving her the diagnosis: Parkinson’s disease. Doctors at the Parkinson’s Disease Clinic and Research Center at the University of California in San Francisco confirmed it. The diagnosis was a shock to both Maralee and her doctors. She was only 32 years old at the time and had a very young son.
She began a regimen of medications — Levodopa to replace low levels of dopamine in her brain and treat her stiffness, tremors and poor muscle control and, later, Comtan to increase the effectiveness of the Levodopa.
About a year after her diagnosis, Maralee attended a conference sponsored by Doctors Medical Center of Modesto. There, she heard about Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) surgery. Considered experimental at the time, the surgery involves planting electrodes in certain areas of the brain. The electrodes produce electrical impulses that help regulate the impulses that aren’t normal. Those electrical impulses can help minimize typical Parkinson’s symptoms, such as tremor and sudden movements. A device that looks much like a pacemaker controls the strength of the electrodes’ stimulation. That device is placed below the skin near the collarbone. A wire that also goes under the skin connects the device to the electrodes in the brain. Dr. Benjamin Remington at Doctors Medical Center had begun to perform the procedure. At the time, Maralee didn’t know if the surgery was for her.
“I didn’t want to be a guinea pig,” she says. “It was my brain!”
But by the time Dr. Remington had performed hundreds of the surgeries, Maralee had begun to reconsider. Her neurologist urged her to explore it. She discussed it with her Parkinson’s support group, where she was the youngest member.
“It’s an emotional experience,” she says. “You have to be ready. You have to be able to accept that it will work — and also that it might not work.”
Dr. Remington thought she was a good candidate; she was young and didn’t have any other health problems, such as heart disease. In February 2011, she made the decision to go ahead. She was already comfortable with her choice of Doctors Medical Center.
On the day of the surgery, “stylists” came in to shave her head, which was then numbed with medication and stabilized with a metal halo. While Maralee was still awake, the surgeon drilled holes into her skull and placed the electrodes in various areas of her brain. At the time, she was having tremors in her body.
“Having the opportunity to be awake (during the procedure) would freak most people out,” she says. But “it was the most unique experience I’ve ever had.” And it was an important part of the procedure because she could help the surgeon know that the measures were working.
Then came time for what Maralee calls “party tricks.” She was asked to tap her fingers, and then her knee. At the same time, the surgeon touched certain electrodes. The tremor in that area would stop.
“It brought tears to my eyes,” says Maralee.
She was not conscious for the second surgery, which attached the electrodes to wires implanted in the skin behind her head and then into the stimulator. The stimulator was turned on in the recovery room, where the change “was noticeable right away,” Maralee says.
Today, many of Maralee’s once-noticeable symptoms — such as tremors and facial tics — are in check. The disease is still progressing, but she takes much less medication. She and her husband drive to San Francisco twice each year for monitoring and new batteries for the stimulator.
She also arranges for Dr. Remington to visit her Parkinson’s support group at least once a year.
“I tell them, ‘why go to Stanford (University) or San Francisco’” for the surgery, she says. Doctors Medical Center “is a great resource right here.”
“I knew in June of 2014 that something wasn’t right. I’d had all sorts of back problems since I was about 20 years old after an injury while I was in the Coast Guard. I had periodic and transient pain in my lower back, usually in the form of muscle spasms since that injury. I was always able to work and only had to miss a day here and there for pain when I later became a paramedic. But this time was different. This time I had some strange tingling symptoms and absolutely unfathomable pain in my right leg that just kept getting worse and worse over the course of a few months. It got to the point that at 34 years old I was walking with a cane and stopping to rest due to the pain and numbness every 10 or 20 feet I walked. I actually got to the point, while working as a Physician Assistant in an Emergency Room that I was literally crawling from room to room to see my patients.
One day while I was at church the pain just kept climbing and I had usually been able to find at least temporary relief in the pain by changing positions in my seat, this time I could no longer. I went home early from church, leaving my wife and kids there to walk the couple of blocks home. When my wife arrived home I was laying in in the entry way of my door writhing in pain and crying. She had never seen me in pain like this before and called my father, who also having a career in emergency medicine, knew what was happening and brought me to Doctors Medical Center Emergency Department.
While in the ER, the few remaining symptoms to indicate that what I was experiencing was indeed Cauda Equina Syndrome crept up. It was surreal. I remember the lectures from PA school talking about how if someone with these symptoms doesn’t get into surgery soon, they aren’t likely to ever fully recover. I was admitted to 4 West that night under the watchful eye of one of Dr. Helbig’s talented and watchful PA’s. Around 4 AM in the morning a nurse came in to check on me and I remember telling her that the pain had gone away, thinking, in my sleep deprived state, that this was a good thing. The nurse however realized that this could be a sign that the need for surgery was imminent. From that point, things happened quickly. I don’t remember much else until the day before I was discharged home, walking down the hallway with a very compassionate nurse holding my arm to help me keep my balance as I felt like I was walking on brand new legs.
Since then I’ve come back to Dr. Helbig for an additional surgery on my back and within a month of that second surgery I was traveling on the bumpy rural mountain roads of Haiti in the back of an ATV. Absolutely above and beyond anything I could have expected from all the staff in emergency, in four west and neurosurgery. It is such a comfort to me to know that we have such an amazing neurosurgery service right here in the Modesto area.