Terry Parrisher had been living with severe back pain for more than 40 years when he first saw Dr. Jenny Andrus at Orthopaedic & Spine Center in the spring of 2011. His problems began in the mid-1970s, when he fell in the line of duty and injured his back. “I was in the Air Force at the time,” Terry remembers. “They x-rayed me and sent me to the Army Regional Hospital in Denver, Colorado.”
Those x-rays revealed more than just his back injury: they showed deterioration in his spinal column, and they led to the first of seven surgeries he underwent in an attempt to eliminate the worsening pain he was experiencing on a daily basis.
“The first operation I had was disc surgery,” Terry says. “But it didn’t get rid of the problem, so the Army doctor gave me medication for the pain.” Terry stayed on the medication until he retired from the Air Force, when he and his family moved to Newport News. By the early 1980s, the pain had become so intense that he again sought surgical help. “I was introduced to a local doctor who performed the same type of surgery on me the Army doctor had done,” he recalls, “but with little or no success.”
Later, in 1987, he visited the Medical College of Virginia for yet another surgery – and another disappointment. “Things just continued to deteriorate,” Terry says, “and by now I’d had a lot of nerve problems from all the surgeries.”
Frustrated, he went the next several years without any surgical intervention, until once again the pain forced him to seek help: this time from a neurosurgeon, who performed three surgeries on his back – three surgeries within a nine-day period. “The first time, the screws he put in were too big,” Terry remembers, “so he had to go in the next morning and take them out and put in smaller ones. Then he found out that he’d covered up a live nerve in my back. Every time I moved, it was exerting pressure on the nerve and it felt like somebody was sticking a knife in my back.” Terry recalls there were two neurosurgeons in the operating room during the third procedure.
Less than a year later, he had tremendous difficulty walking. He could move about – slowly and painfully – using a walker or a cane, but the pain was so great that he spent most of his days lying down to escape it. He was 57 years old.
He decided to try again. “I saw a doctor who showed me what he thought could be the problem, and he inserted rods in my back. It helped some, but I still had an excessive amount of pain. My life was about 50% – I could hardly do anything.” At that point, Terry says, he was determined there would be no more surgeries. He wasn’t going to put himself or his family through that again.
That’s when he heard about Dr. Andrus and the spinal cord stimulator. “I either read about it, or saw her on television talking about it, and I wanted to learn more,” he says. “I got some literature, and my wife and I read all about it. We knew there’d been success with it, but we also knew it wasn’t the kind of surgery I’d had before.” They made an appointment to talk with Dr. Andrus, to find out more about the procedure – and to ask if she might be able to offer him some relief.
Dr. Andrus explained to the Parrishers that the procedure has two-parts. “Initially it’s done as a trial, to give patients a chance to try it and see if they like it,” she says. “We first put a small lead into the epidural space – it’s essentially an electrical lead, which we can then stimulate to send electrical pulses to the spinal cord. We replace the pain signal with something more pleasant.” Think pacemaker, only to regulate pain, and directed to the spinal cord rather than the heart.
“Once we’ve completed the trial, and we know that the device really does help their pain – and just as importantly, that they feel they can do more – we can arrange to put it in permanently,” Dr. Andrus notes. “Terry’s case was a bit complicated, as he had spinal stenosis in the area where I typically place the leads.” She explained this to Terry, who says, “Dr. Andrus told me she’d leave it in one week, to see if it helped.”
It didn’t take the full week for Terry to know. “I had success right away,” he says. “It was instantaneous.”
A short time later, in May of 2011, Dr. McFarland performed the second part of the procedure: inserting a bigger lead, sewing it down, and putting in the battery. The result? “Out of the 100% pain that I had, I have about 10% now,” Terry says, and adds, “But you have to understand: when you live with 100% pain for 40 years, and then all of a sudden you have 10% pain, that’s like having no pain at all.” The 10% he manages easily with one pill a day – that and his little remote control, a device that turns the system on and off, and allows him to adjust the stimulation within parameters set by Dr. Andrus. Terry Parrisher calls it a miracle.
That’s not the end of Terry’s story, however, and not the reason he’s so quick to sing Dr. Andrus’ praises. “My family and I were so excited after they put in the stimulator in May, it was a real rich time,” he recalls, “But at the end of last summer, I was diagnosed with cancer in my jaw, and I had to undergo surgery to replace the bottom part of my mouth.” He faces more surgery, but first has to spend time in a hyperbaric chamber – every day – to prepare his body for the next procedure. He says, quite simply, “I could not have made it through the cancer treatments if I had to contend with the kind of pain I’d been suffering for so many years. I just couldn’t. I’d never have made it without Dr. Andrus.”