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From Broken Back to Back on Track

Category: Patient Stories
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How the spine care specialists at St. Luke’s helped one woman recover after a 10-foot fall

The campfire glowed softly as Gretel Lee stepped out into the dark night. It was the beginning of a long weekend at her parent’s rustic cabin. The last thing she was expecting was a late-night trip to the hospital followed by emergency spine surgery.

Her family was visiting on the deck that sits above a drop off. Gretel knew the space well, but it was dark. Her foot slipped off the side of the deck, and she started to fall.

“At first I thought I had only lost my balance, but then my body just kept going down,” said Gretel. “It was so dark that I couldn’t make anything out. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, how far is this?’ Then I hit the ground about ten feet below, square on my back.”

For the first few seconds, she felt nothing. Once she got her breath back and some feeling returned, her first instinct was to stand up. “I kept telling my family I was fine,” she said, “but pain started to radiate through my back.” It didn’t take long before she was on her way to the hospital.

In the emergency room at Ely Bloomenson Community Hospital, Gretel found out she had suffered severe back trauma. “They asked me where I wanted to go for treatment, and I said St. Luke’s right away,” said Gretel. Her mind reeling with questions about the future, Gretel was secured to a bed inside an ambulance and driven to Duluth.

Emergency complex spine reconstruction
Shortly after arriving, Gretel met St. Luke’s Neurosurgeon Dr. Robert Bejnarowicz. “He told me my back was grossly unstable,” she said. “My L2 vertebra was practically shattered, and I had three fractures in my neck.” Fixing her back would require emergency complex spine reconstruction.

“Her injuries were on the more intense side of things,” said Dr. Bejnarowicz, “but her spinal cord was still intact. If the bone fragments had breached her spinal cord, they could have affected her ability to walk.” Through surgery, Dr. Bejnarowicz would stabilize the fracture with screws and rods. For her neck, she would have to wear a heavy brace for a few months.

“My mind was racing,” said Gretel. “Dr. Bejnarowicz sat with me and walked me through what to expect. Then, he put me in a back brace and I did my best to rest.” Early the next morning, Gretel was prepared for what would end up being a six-hour surgery.

Finding a family at St. Luke’s
When she woke up, Dr. Bejnarowicz had great news. She was going to make a full recovery. The only thing that stood between her and another long weekend of hiking were a few months of recovery time.

She was confident that she could heal, especially with the help of her family. However the first week of her recovery would be spent in the hospital, and because of the COVID-19 pandemic, her family would be unable to visit her.

“The thought of spending all that time alone was not a great one,” said Gretel, “But everyone at St. Luke’s just became my family for a week. I honestly could not have fallen into better hands.”

Comprehensive spine care in Duluth
Success stories like Gretel’s are possible because of St. Luke’s Spine Center. “Our Spine Center brings together a diverse group of specialists to develop the best treatment plan for each patient,” said Dr. Bejnarowicz. “It eliminates multiple referrals, delayed care and confusion.”

St. Luke’s Spine Center is the first of its kind in the Northland. It provides advanced technology to treat all spine issues, ranging from common to complex. It also offers minimally invasive techniques that reduce complications and promote faster recovery.

By October, Gretel was completely brace free and feeling great. “I can do everything I used to do,” she said. “I’m so thankful for Dr. Bejnarowicz and his team. I can’t believe how fortunate I am.”

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This article was published in the 2021 April issue of The Woman Today magazine.