Finally, relief for her back pain as medically necessary surgeries resume at UCHealth hospitals

April 27, 2020
Lori Hopper is anxious to have surgery for lower back pain now that medically necessary surgeries have resumed.
Lori Hopper is relieved to have surgery for lower back pain now that medically necessary surgeries resumed. Photo courtesy Lori Hopper.

As medically necessary surgeries resume at UCHealth hospitals across Colorado, Lori Hopper is grateful, relieved and excited.

For the past year, she has lived with excruciating pain in her lower back – but a medically necessary surgery scheduled Tuesday with renowned spine surgeon Dr. Evalina Burger is aimed to alleviate that pain. Now, Hopper can see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

In recent months, Hopper has tried everything from chiropractic adjustments, physical therapy, localized injections, and non-addictive medications. Nothing, however, has worked as a long-term solution.

“I went through the gamut of ‘have you tried this, have you tried that?’ All of those things have helped a little bit, but nothing has lasted,’’ she said. “I wanted a solution. I am 48 years old and this is getting in the way of me living my life to its highest and best.’’

She wants to build back her stamina so she can keep up with her husband and their dogs on the hiking trails, and go camping. The couple sold their boat a couple of years back, but perhaps they’ll buy another one and resume wakeboarding.

Hopper has worked with a team of providers – Anita Wolfe, NP, MSN, her family practice physician at UCHealth Primary Care – Lone Tree and others. Ultimately, experts agreed she should have surgery to relieve the pain in her back, which is caused by progression of lumbar scoliosis.

Dr. Evalina Burger is working more now that medically necessary surgeries have resumed.
Dr. Evalina Burger

Hopper was scheduled to have surgery March 19 with Dr. Burger, chair of the Department of Orthopedics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Knowing surgery was scheduled gave her a mental lift. Then, days before her scheduled surgery, governors across the U.S. ordered workers to work from home and so-called “elective’’ surgeries were postponed.

“In my mind, I still had my mental and physical fingers crossed that I could get the surgery done under the wire,’’ she said.

Two years ago, Burger performed surgery on Hopper’s neck. “I immediately felt better. I had an amazing outcome – more than I could have hoped for with the outcome there,’’ Hopper said.

On March 16, Hopper received a call from Burger, who said how sorry she was that the surgery had been canceled.

“I gritted my teeth as best I could, but I was so upset,’’ she said. “I was so touched to receive a call from Dr. Burger. She called me personally, and when we got to talking, she told me that she, too, was going to isolate at home as much as she could.’’

During March and April, Burger was frequently called to the operating room to perform surgery for patients who risked paralysis or death from severe infection. Surgeries like the one Hopper needed, however, were postponed.

Burger says Hopper has a progression of lumbar scoliosis with significant leg pain. Then, doctors discovered she has an unusual plight of disc herniation. It’s called a far lateral disc herniation.

“The disc slides out to the side of the vertebrae and then, therefore, catches the nerve that goes to the leg … there is no space for the nerve to go. That’s why the epidural doesn’t last, that is why she has significant pain,’’ Burger said.

During the pandemic, Hopper used Virtual Visit to speak to Dr. Justin Merkow, a pain management doctor at the UCHealth Pain Management Clinic – Anschutz Medical Campus. He prescribed a combination of powerful pain medications along with TENS therapy and exercises via mobile apps, which have helped alleviate Hopper’s pain.

“That nerve is truly pinched in there, so the aim of our surgery is to relieve the pressure on that nerve,’’ Burger said. “So, it’s like pinching your finger in the door and not opening the door. It is the nerve that provides extension of the knee, so if people lose their ability to extend their knee, then they can’t walk. So it is a very important function of her leg that is at risk.’’

Lori Hopper rafts with friends.
Lori Hopper rafts with friends and family. Medically necessary surgeries resume allowing Lori to address her back pain and get back to enjoying the outdoors. Photo courtesy Lori Hopper.

Hopper said she has a constant aching pain that sometimes produces a “radiating heat type of pain. I also get a powerful, stinging pain that almost takes my breath away. It’s an unexpected zing that catches me by surprise.’’

Meditation and breathing exercises help her manage. Sometimes, she just has to lie down. At work, she has an “up and down’’ desk and is able to move around. When she sits in the same position for too long, including while driving her car, the inflammation and pain worsens.

UCHealth has numerous precautions and safeguards in place to ensure that patients having surgery – or any other type of care – are protected from exposure to COVID-19.

Hopper has full confidence in Burger and the safety in the hospitals. She is eager to live a life free of pain. After three days in the hospital, she’ll begin rehabilitation.

Before she knows it, she’ll be skipping along the hiking trails in Colorado’s great outdoors.


About the author

Erin Emery is editor of UCHealth Today, a hub for medical news, inspiring patient stories and tips for healthy living. Erin spent years as a reporter for The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Sun. She was part of a team of Denver Post reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Erin joined UCHealth in 2008, and she is awed by the strength of patients and their stories.