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Spinal Surgery Helps Grateful Patient Stand Tall Again

Nowadays, Betty Duncan’s days are filled with orchestral music, duplicate bridge, and spending quality time with her husband, Don, and their two Jack Russell terriers. But for nearly two decades, Betty had to live with chronic lower back pain, with little hope of relief.

Betty first started experiencing back pain in the late ’90s, starting in her sacroiliac joint—the area of the pelvis that connects the spine to the hips and helps with support and impact absorption. Eventually, this pain crept up her spine and began affecting her lumbar region.

As someone who has done her fair share of moving around in her life, Betty’s back pain was taking the wind out of her sails. Born in Kentucky, she spent her teenage years in Birmingham, Alabama, attended Agnes Scott College in Georgia for her undergrad, received her PhD in analytical chemistry from Purdue University in Indiana, and has spent her retirement in Wilmington, Delaware. As her pain gradually worsened, the transitions from lying to sitting and sitting to standing became increasingly difficult and brought Betty to a grinding halt.

“It felt as though my life was being controlled by my back,” Betty recalls. “It was just unbearable and intolerable.”

Her back issues came to a head in the spring of 2012. First, Betty had to travel from Wilmington to Grundy, Virginia for her son, Stephen’s, graduation from Appalachian School of Law—an eight-hour, 514-mile journey. At this point, her lower back pain had become so severe that Betty’s only option was to lay prone in the back seat of her car as her husband made the long drive to Virginia. In the same week, Betty also had to fly to her alma mater in Georgia for her 40th class reunion, enduring terrible discomfort the entire flight. To add to her misery, at both events, she stood in order to avoid the back and leg pain that increased while seated.

At this point, Betty had almost exhausted all of her options to achieve pain relief. She had tried physical therapy, chiropractic therapy, advanced myofascial release therapy, and spinal injections, all with little, if any, improvement in her condition. It appeared that surgery loomed in the future as a last resort

It was in August of 2012, when Betty, then a board member of the Delaware Symphony Orchestra, met a labor law attorney while attending a meeting to renegotiate the musicians’ contracts. After the meeting, this attorney shared that he had recently had similar back issues addressed and corrected by surgery. He pointed Betty in the direction of Jefferson and James S. Harrop, MD, chief of the Division of Spine and Peripheral Nerve Surgery. “That’s where you need to go.” Betty recalls the man saying as he continued to praise Dr. Harrop and his team.

After setting up an initial appointment in September 2012, Betty began a quick, yet extremely effective, journey on her road to recovery at Jefferson. She met with Dr. Harrop, who believed that surgery could help relieve Betty’s chronic pain and had her meet with an interdisciplinary team to assure that she was ready for surgery. After meeting with radiologists, cardiologists, anesthesiologists, and phlebotomists, Betty was OK’d for surgery, and in October 2012 she underwent a procedure to decompress and fuse her L-4 and L-5 vertebrae with instrumentation. 

“All of my questions were answered,” she says. “Any fears that I might have had were addressed. There was just no doubt in my mind that I was at the right place and I was with the right people.”

The recovery process began the very next day. Betty worked through exercises that tested her ability to transition, manage staircases, and do other daily activities she might encounter in the home. Her surgery took place on a Wednesday, and by Saturday morning Betty was on her way back home—this time sitting shotgun next to her husband instead of lying down in the back seat.

“I could never stop expressing my gratitude and appreciation to Dr. Harrop, his staff, and to Jefferson,” Betty says. “It was the doctors, the nurses, everyone that I came into contact with here—I had no complaints whatsoever.”

I feel very strongly about contributing to research and Jefferson was kind of a no brainer. I very readily want to support Dr. Harrop and his research activities, in his keeping up with technology and pushing research forward.

Betty Duncan Grateful Patient

As a scientist herself, Betty knows just how difficult it can be to secure funding for research and how vitally important these funds are to furthering existing knowledge and techniques. Betty feels passionately about doing her part to support research at Jefferson and hopes that others do the same.

“I feel very strongly about contributing to research and Jefferson was kind of a no brainer,” Betty says. “I very readily want to support Dr. Harrop and his research activities, in his keeping up with technology and pushing research forward.”