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Spinal surgery changes life of Fort McMurray woman

Imagine living your life in so much pain that you could barely write, open a jar or shake a hand. This is a life many living chronic back pain suffer from and a life Catherine Cooke is all too familiar with.

Originally from Grand Falls, Newfoundland, Catherine Cooke moved to Fort McMurray in 2008 with her family. According to Catherine, a surveyor, the move Fort McMurray has been incredibly rewarding.

“I love my life here. While it’s a much faster pace of life than Grand Falls, this town has provided me with a job I love and the means to support my family,” she says. “There’s a strong community here which believes in giving back and supporting one another, which I also really enjoy.”

Despite this good fortune, Catherine suffered from chronic back pain for the greater part of 10 years.

“It started with flare ups in my back, which I was able to manage to a degree. However, over the years it continued to get worse,” she says. “I had difficulty doing simple things - sitting, crossing my legs – and even began losing strength in my right side. It was to the point that my writing was shaky. I could barely open a jar or shake a hand.”

The pain Catherine endured took a toll both mentally and physically, which affected both her home and work life. For her, one of the hardest consequences of the back pain was the impact it had on her ability to work.

“As my back pain got worse, it made it very difficult to do my job. Through my job as a surveyor, I’m often on trucks driving through rough terrain. This was incredibly hard on my back and was causing me pain. I also wasn’t able to do the administrative part of my job for very long because I was unable to sit or cross my legs for long periods of time. It got to the point where my family doctor said I wouldn’t be able to work, and I was put on two sick leaves,” says Catherine. “I love my job, and want to be able to do it for as long as I can, so facing the chance of not being able to work again was devastating.”

“It was to the point where my condition was completely debilitating. My back would go into spasm and the only thing I could do to alleviate the pain was to lie down for hours at a time,” she says. “I knew that when I woke up in the morning and my feet hit the ground, I only had about an hour until I needed to be in bed again.”

“I was put on pain medication which helped but as a side effect, numbed my central nervous system. This meant that if I injured my back further I wouldn’t even feel it until the problem was much, much worse,” she says.

She goes on to share the moment she truly realized the severity of her situation. “On Christmas morning of 2013, I awoke early in anticipation. My husband was still sleeping so I thought I’d get up and put on a pot of coffee. It was a good day for me as I felt no pain, so I just hopped out of bed only to have my legs give out underneath me … they were numb. I only had feeling in my feet. It was at that point in my life that I truly realized the severity of my situation and for the first time, I was scared.”

After seeing her family doctor in Fort McMurray for several years regarding her back issues, Catherine was referred to two specialists for further consultation – one of which was Dr. Andrei-Razvan Manolescu, an Orthopedic Surgeon at the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre.

“I chose to go to Dr. Manolescu and I was contacted to set up an appointment immediately,” she says. “Once I saw him, he shared with me that a new spinal surgery program was being offered in Fort McMurray.”

In December 2014, Fort McMurray became one of four places in Alberta to offer spinal surgery. The program primarily addresses degenerative spine disease, which is common in both older populations and in communities like Fort McMurray where many work physically demanding labour jobs.

“Seeing the condition I was in, Dr. Manolescu was able to have me in for the procedure very quickly,” says Catherine.

When asked how she felt about the procedure, Catherine says she wasn’t nervous because of the support she received from Dr. Manolescu and the nursing team.

“I can honestly say from my first initial consult with Dr. Manolescu, I felt at ease. His staff provided me with all the information I needed leading up to my surgery from conversations to videos,” she says.

According to Catherine, the spinal surgery she received completely changed her life.

“It feels like winning the lottery,” says Catherine in regards to having the spinal surgery. “I feel completely back to normal! Following my recovery from surgery, I was no longer on any pain medication and am back to full strength.”

“I met with Dr. Manolescu for my follow up appointment and the first thing he had me do was shake his hand. When I was able to shake his hand, it was a very emotional experience,” she says. “It was at that appointment, where I also received my return to work form from Dr. Manolescu. That was an incredible feeling.”

“My life pre-surgery was not easy. Just trying to get out of bed in the morning for work was a daily challenge and the pain was unbearable most days. Every aspect of my life was affected, from my home life to my work life. My family suffered, I suffered,” shares Catherine. “However, my life has done a complete turnaround since my surgery. Since the moment I woke up in recovery, I have had no pain in my neck or my back. My shoulders don’t look like one is higher than the other. I don’t have to lie in bed when I wake up, and wait for the right moment to try and edge myself out.”

“I cannot thank Dr. Manolescu and his staff enough for what they’ve done for me. My life has new meaning without chronic pain and pain medication,” she says.

Because back pain is common, spine surgery is in high demand. This can lead to longer than desired wait times and the need to travel further for surgery. The addition of spinal surgery to the Health Centre in Fort McMurray provides the opportunity for more people in our community to receive this critical surgery, like Catherine.

However, the program’s continued success was dependent on community support. Due to funding restrictions, the equipment needed for the program was initially rented and the surgical team only had access to one set. With only one set of equipment, the surgical team needed to postpone patient procedures if any equipment became unsterile.

To ensure the spinal surgery program’s continued growth and success, the Northern Lights Health Foundation recently funded equipment necessary to minimize patient risk and wait times.

According to Catherine, it’s important to support health care in our community any way you can.

“I can’t say enough about the care I received. I was fortunate to have Dr. Manolescu and an incredible team of nurses that cared for me and put my mind at ease throughout my procedure. You can tell they’re there for the right reasons and that they truly care about your well-being. Any way we can support them in making their jobs easier is so important,” she says.

It’s with the support of our community, that people like Catherine will continue to benefit from the spinal surgery program – with shorter wait times and close to home.

Make a gift in support of health care in the Wood Buffalo Region, here.

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Catherine - Back to Work Img.JPG

A happy Catherine shows off her return to work form the day she received it from Dr. Manolescu.




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