Kristen D When a Nurse Becomes a Patient

"The surgery ... was a reminder of the faith and trust patients place in us and the responsibility we have toward them.”

Surgery for a Serious Back Problem Allowed a Healthcare Provider to Walk Down the Aisle at Her Wedding

The first half of 2020 didn’t get off to a good start for Kristen Deeken, RN, an Emergency Department nurse at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH).

First, her beloved godson died from a seizure. Then, Kristen, 40, of Woodbridge contracted COVID-19. Fortunately, she overcame the virus after three harrowing weeks. Eventually, life returned to normal, and Kristen, who was engaged, began planning her long-awaited summer wedding.

In July, she experienced piercing back pain and weakness in her legs and lower body. She even had trouble urinating.

“It was really scary,” recalls Kristen. “I remember thinking, ‘I have to be able to walk down the aisle.’”

She was also worried about being able to work. “I knew if I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t be an ER nurse,” she says. “It felt like my identity and future were in jeopardy.”

A Dangerous Condition

At RWJUH, Kristen had an MRI, which revealed that she’d suffered a herniated disc, in which a tear in the tough, outer edge of a spinal disc causes the gel-like material in the center to “ leak” and irritate nearby spinal nerves. This can cause lower back pain as well as burning, tingling or numbness that radiates from the buttocks to the leg and, sometimes, the foot.

It wasn’t the first time she’d experienced this condition. She’d had surgery for a herniated disc when she was in her 20s. This time, though, the herniation occurred in the middle of her back. It compressed the spinal cord, which can lead to numbness, stiffness, weakness in the legs and difficulty with bowel and bladder control.

Thoracic disc herniations and spinal cord compressions are not common—especially in a healthy, young woman without an injury,” says Gino Chiappetta, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at RWJUH and Clinical Associate Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “Kristen was profoundly weak and had urinary dysfunction, so it was important to act fast.”

When a herniated disc affects bladder or bowel function, it’s considered a medical emergency because it can lead to incontinence and paralysis.

On July 21, Dr. Chiappetta performed a thoracic discectomy, laminectomy and fusion surgery to ease the pressure on Kristen’s spinal cord. “We needed to remove the herniated disc material as well as the bone and ligament that covers and protects the spinal cord,” he says.

Dr. Chiappetta and his team then inserted screws in Kristen’s spine to hold it in place, which is known as a fusion.

Several thousand spine surgeries take place at RWJUH each year, but fewer than 5 percent are done on patients with diagnoses like Kristen’s, says Dr. Chiappetta. Her surgery required a three-inch incision in the area between her shoulder blades.

A Successful Surgery

As soon as Kristen “woke up” after her surgery, she knew it had been a success. “I could move my left foot, and there was no numbness,” she recalls. “I started crying.”

She stayed in the hospital for three days. On the third day, she was able to walk unassisted. “As nurses, we’re not good at being patients,” she says. “But after my surgery, I felt helpless. The nurses and other staff members were so comforting and accommodating.”

Dr. Chiappetta was surprised by Kristen’s swift progress. “Most patients who experience a similar surgery use a walker or cane for a few weeks because their muscles have shrunk and become weak,” he says.

He expects that she will recover fully with physical therapy.

Kristen’s wedding, which was held in early August, was smaller than originally planned because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But she achieved her goal of walking down the aisle toward her husband, Shaun, at their waterfront ceremony.

“The surgery has changed my perspective in a lot of ways,” she says. “It’s made me more grateful. As a nurse, it was a reminder of the faith and trust patients place in us and the responsibility we have toward them.”

To learn more, visit Orthopedic Surgery at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital New Brunswick.