Cheerleading, volleyball, and sky-diving. These are some of the things Prisciliana Berrios De La Vega enjoyed when she was in college. The active lifestyle also brought her back pain. But it was only after having her son at the age of 38 that the pain got worse and her right arm started to fall asleep, leading her to life-changing, cervical spine surgery at Miami Neuroscience Institute.
“I was always pretty active, and there was a period in my life that I wasn’t. I ate my emotions. I ate everything and I was sluggish,” says Ms. De La Vega. When she got engaged, she lost 60 pounds for the wedding. Some time passed. And when her son was two-years-old, she noticed the back pain had gotten worse.
“I am thinking: it’s me carrying the baby; I am 40; the joints are not the way they used to be — this is all normal,” she recalled.
It was only when her arm started to get numb that she realized there was something wrong. “I couldn’t function anymore as a mom. I couldn’t pick him (her son) up, I couldn’t play with him,” she emotionally described the situation. “You can’t pick me up mama?” asked Ever Berrios, her son. “I sat on the floor and hugged him because I couldn’t,” she said as she cried.
At this point, Ms. De La Vega decided to seek medical help to find a definitive solution to her problem.
“When I first met Prisciliana, her primary concern at the time was really low back pain,” explained Justin Thottam, D.O., physiatrist with the Spine Center at Miami Neuroscience Institute. “As I performed a thorough physical exam, I was able to pick up an abnormal finding which prompted me to get further imaging of her neck. I referred her to Dr. Jobyna Whiting, as I know of her exceptional knowledge and excellent skills. I also know that Dr. Whiting would only perform surgery if it was absolutely needed, which is a quality that I appreciate in any surgeon.”
Jobyna Whiting, M.D., neurosurgeon with Miami Neuroscience Institute, said she realized quickly that Ms. De La Vega had a very serious condition.
“She came to Miami Neuroscience Institute with a complaint of back pain,” recalls Dr. Whiting. “But it was recognized that she had a much more potentially dangerous issue going on at the same time, and that allowed them to navigate her to someone like me who could help with that.”
Dr.Whiting explained to Ms. De La Vega that the MRI of her neck spotted an abnormality and compression of the spinal cord that was causing numbness of her arm and weakness of her grip. She clarified it was important that she undergo surgery to avoid possible spinal cord injury.
“My mom died at the hospital. My dad died at the hospital. Even the smell of the hospital gives me PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), but I had to do it,” said Ms. De La Vega. “I was not going to die of fear. I had to have confidence in my surgeon.”
The Surgical Procedure
The procedure that was performed on Ms. De La Vega is called “anterior cervical discectomy and fusion” and it was done at the cervical 5 to cervical 6 level. Dr. Whiting explained what that means in simpler words: “I took the disk out from the front until I could peel it off of the spinal cord and the nerves, and then I replaced it with a small plug of cadaver bone, and then a short plate that goes over the front of the two bones.”
“From the moment that I woke up, the pain in my neck was gone,” said Ms. De La Vega. “This doesn’t fall asleep anymore, it doesn’t! Whatever she did worked!”
Dr. Whiting said that the condition she was diagnosed with could progress to permanent spinal cord injury, “like loss of function; loss of ability to use your hands; loss of ability to use your legs; loss of control even over your bowel and your bladder; It was not a safe option for her not to do the surgery.”
Life After Surgery
Ms. De La Vega is very positive about what the future holds for her. “Now, my horizon is the way that it should be. I am going to be able to play volleyball again; I am going to be able to go to the beach again; I am going to be able to carry my son again; I am going to be able to go to his field day and do, I don’t know, the three legged race — And that is what I want.”
Ms. De La Vega was thrilled with her experience at Miami Neuroscience Institute. “They addressed something that I wasn’t even trying to address, and because they listened, they figured out what was wrong with me.”
One of the factors that made a difference for Ms. De La Vega was that her surgeon was female. “There are not a lot of neurosurgeons and for her to be a woman … she was brilliant,” she said. “So eloquent. She didn’t look tired, she looked fresh and just ready to rock and roll. It is good to see women in neurosurgery.”
There is a big imbalance between the number of male neurosurgeon and female neurosurgeons who are available, according to Dr. Whiting. “There are many patients out there who just feel a little more comfortable as a female patient interacting with a female surgeon,” Dr. Whiting said.
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