Compassion when she needed it most
Milton woman connects with doctor during aneurysm treatment
By her own admission, Leanne Lippincott-Wuerthele is a talker. Words are her gift and her solace; they have helped her survive widowhood and breast cancer. Her words, which she shares via a weekly column in the “Milton Courier,” have inspired countless others struggling through tragedy and loss. But on the morning of May 14, 2012, Leanne’s words failed her for the first time in her life.
“I walked into the kitchen at my daughter’s house and she asked me a question about something,” Leanne, 67, recalls. “I had trouble giving her an answer. I rambled unintelligibly for a moment. Finally I looked at her and said, ‘Jenn, I can’t get the right words out.'”
Leanne’s daughter, Jennifer Dutcher, immediately called 911 for an ambulance, unsettled by her mother’s uncharacteristic speechlessness and the look of fear on Leanne’s face. “She was worried I was having a stroke,” Leanne says. “By the time the EMTs arrived I was fine, but they suggested I go to the emergency room anyway, just to be safe.”
The ambulance took Leanne to Mercy Hospital and Trauma Center, where she received both a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and a computed tomography (CT) scan. When the results came back, Leanne realized her troubling speech episode was actually a blessing in disguise.
“They discovered an aneurysm, totally unconnected to the speech issue,” Leanne says. “If I hadn’t garbled my words that morning, it never would have been found.”
A Close Connection
Leanne was referred to Christopher Sturm, MD, FAANS, FACS, medical director of the Mercy Regional Neurosurgery Center and the Mercy Institute of Neuroscience. “Leanne’s condition was very serious,” says Dr. Sturm. “A rupture means a 50 percent chance of death, and even when the individual survives, it’s very likely he or she will have permanent neurological deficits.”
Despite the critical nature of Leanne’s diagnosis, Dr. Sturm was not convinced surgery was the best option. “My job is to do what’s best for the patient,” he says. “In a case like this, I have to weigh the risk of the procedure against the risk of what would happen without it.”
Leanne was immediately impressed by her neurosurgeon’s thorough and measured approach. “Dr. Sturm explained everything to me — what the tests showed and was going on,” she says. He was hesitant about surgery because there were several unknowns, and the tests were inconclusive as to whether or not he could clip the artery without giving me a stroke.”
Over the next several weeks, Leanne had routine appointments with Dr. Sturm to monitor her situation and discuss her options. In that time, the two developed a rapport. “I’m the kind of person who needs a Dr. Welby,” says Leanne, referencing the popular early-seventies television show “Marcus Welby, MD,” which starred Robert Young as a compassionate physician. “Dr. Sturm sat and talked with me; we joked together. He got to know me as a person, instead of just a number on a chart. And he’s among the top 10 neurosurgeons in Wisconsin! In my mind, he’s the perfect marriage of empathy and expertise.”
For his part, Dr. Sturm was inspired by Leanne’s unconquerable spirit and lively sense of humor. “She’s such a resilient person, and so funny,” he says. “One of the perks of working at Mercy is the emphasis on strong doctor-patient relationships, and cultivating that with Leanne has been a real joy.’
Ultimately, Leanne and Dr. Sturm decided the risk of vascular hemorrhage was too great and Leanne needed brain surgery. To curb her anxiety on the day of the procedure, Leanne turned to humor and her faith. “My kids and I joked with Dr. Sturm that he should find my speech center during surgery and limit me to 5,000 words a day,” Leanne says with a laugh.
“In all seriousness, I was comforted by a painting Dr. Sturm has outside his office,” Leanne continues. “It’s called ‘Chief of the Medical Staff,’ and it’s a picture of Jesus standing over a surgeon’s shoulder as he works. I knew God was telling me I was where I needed to be.”
The Road to Recovery
The surgery was a success — Dr. Sturm was able to safely clip Leanne’s aneurysm in a little less than five hours. “I’m very pleased with the outcome,” says Dr. Sturm. “Shortly after we finished the surgery, Leanne was talking and responding normally. She was only in the intensive care unit for a couple of days, which is excellent for a surgery as invasive as this one.”
“I’m so glad I went to Mercy,” says Leanne. “I received excellent care, right here at home. My friends and family were able to visit every day. My granddaughters even surprised me with a cake on my birthday!”
Leanne’s aneurysm is no longer a threat, but she still experiences occasional speech issues that Dr. Sturm and her neurologist at Mercy, Sany Khabbaz, MD, cannot yet explain. “I have a great team of experts on my side at Mercy, and I know they’re going to figure out what’s going on,” says Leanne. “I’m trying to relax about it and live one day at a time, which is all I can do.”
Leave it to Leanne to find the bright side of any circumstance. “Everything I’ve experienced — breast cancer, widowhood and now brain surgery — has been for a purpose,” she says. “I’ve met so many wonderful people, like Dr. Sturm, who have blessed me richly. I hope by writing about my journey, I can bless others in the same way.”
Finally, a life without pain
Young mom finds relief for back pain
At age 30, Melissa Reed was beginning to think back pain would be a permanent part of her life. Since she was 22, she had had to endure varying levels of discomfort in her lower back. Physical therapy sometimes helped, but not for long.
“When my back would ‘go out,’ it was bad,” says Melissa, a Fontana, Wis. resident and mother of three who owns an insurance agency with her husband. “I would be sweating and I couldn’t move.” She took her concerns to her primary care physician, who did not find any problems upon examination. But Melissa’s pains grew progressively worse until she started feeling a constant numbness in her toe and on the side of her foot.
In 2009, after Melissa’s brother was hit by a car, she spent every day for nearly two weeks with him at Mercy Hospital and Trauma Center in Janesville. During that time, she talked to her brother’s trauma surgeon about her problems, who told her she should see Christopher Sturm, MD, neurosurgeon with Mercy Health System.
She eventually did see Dr. Sturm, who showed more concern for her
than any other doctor she had met. “He actually listened to me and talked to me about how my back pain was affecting my life,” says Melissa. According to Dr. Sturm, the two bottom discs (structures that act as cushions between vertebrae) in Melissa’s spine had dried out and collapsed. The collapsed discs had caused her nerves to compress, which was why Melissa was in so much pain all the time.
Melissa needed spinal fusion surgery, and Dr. Sturm was her first choice to perform the surgery.
“Back surgeries have this stigma,” she says. “There are a lot of people who tried to talk me out of it, because everybody knows somebody for whom a spinal fusion surgery didn’t work. But I researched Dr. Sturm. He has a really high success rate for spinal fusions.”
A Successful Surgery
Melissa’s back pain had become nearly intolerable by 2010, and she was ready for surgery in November of that year. However, she had to go through six months of insurance discussions before she was finally able to undergo surgery in May 2011. “It was horrible,” she says. “When you have three kids and a job and you hurt all the time, it’s really depressing.”
In May, Dr. Sturm performed a two-level posterior lumbar interbody fusion on Melissa. During the surgery, he removed bone to completely decompress the nerves and removed the two worn-out discs. He replaced the discs with special spacers, which were packed with bone to reestablish the normal disc space height and to get the spine to fuse in this normal position. The vertebrae were further held in place with implanted rods and screws.
“The main objective of the surgery was to decompress the nerves, thus relieving Melissa’s leg pain,” Dr. Sturm says. “We also needed to reestablish normal anatomic alignment—and make sure it stayed that way in an effort to improve her back pain.”
After her surgery, Melissa didn’t start feeling better right away. But three or four weeks later, she was feeling much better and was even able to walk around the block. She worked from home for four months and officially came back to her office in early fall. “It was a long road,” she says. “Unless you’ve been through it, it’s hard to understand that.”
Now, almost all her pain is gone. “In the mornings I’m stiff,” says Melissa, who is now 32. “But most days I’m feeling pretty good. It’s kind of nice to be able to go to my kids’ games and not be in agony after sitting on the bleachers.”
In his years as a surgeon, Dr. Sturm says he has learned that X-rays and other imaging tests do not necessarily tell physicians everything they need to know about what is going on inside a patient. “We’re in the profession of taking care of people, not pictures,” he says. “A large part of identifying problems is talking with and examining the patient. Melissa said she was in tremendous pain, so I did what I could to help her. I had to have faith that what she was telling me was correct. And it was.”
For Melissa, Dr. Sturm’s attitude made all the difference. “He changed my life,” she says. “I don’t know where I’d be right now if I hadn’t been able to have the surgery.
An end to the agony
Mercy doctor relieves woman of chronic pain condition
For two months, Julie Kavetschanky could do little else but hole herself up in the back room of her house, literally banging into the walls and clawing at them. The pain she was experiencing was so intense she could think about nothing else.
“It started the day after Halloween 2012,” says the Janesville woman, shuddering at the memory. “My face felt terrible. It felt like a bad toothache.”
Julie saw dentists and doctors, but none of them could help her. They prescribed pain relievers and gave her steroid injections, all to no avail. Finally, a doctor at Mercy Pain Center referred her to Christopher D. Sturm, MD, FAANS, FACS, neurosurgeon at Mercy Health System. Dr. Sturm gave Julie exactly what she needed; the brain surgery he performed took away her pain and allowed her to live a normal life again.
There is a good reason why Julie’s condition — called trigeminal neuralgia (TN) — is referred to as the “suicide disease”: in some cases, patients experience so much pain for so long, they see no other option but to take their own life. “Trigeminal neuralgia is a fairly common disease, but it can sometimes take a long time to find a correct diagnosis,” says Sturm.
Like Julie, most TN sufferers start seeking answers at their dentist’s office. Because the pain radiates across their face and jaw, they assume it is a dental problem. Some may undergo many painful dental procedures such as root canals or tooth extractions before realizing they need to see someone else.
Here’s why the dental procedures don’t work: TN is a chronic pain condition that affects the trigeminal nerve, which carries sensation from the face to the brain. So it is a nerve — not a dental problem that is causing the pain. A neurologist or neurosurgeon is best equipped to treat the condition.
Julie, 54, wishes she had known the right specialist to see at the beginning of her ordeal. She had been diagnosed with both TN and a temporalmandibular joint (TMJ) disorder in her jaw in 2009, but never experienced severe problems until late in 2012. “As the days went on, there was just no relief,” she says. “This pain was starting to be more severe and consistent. It felt like my face was being electrocuted — it lasted for hours and rested on the right part of my upper lip. I was so focused on the pain that it became my life. I never knew when it was going to hit or how long it was going to last.”
She had to take a leave of absence from her job at a deli counter. She spent most of her days lying down, and had to eat through a straw because she couldn’t chew. Talking was difficult, so she used a Magnadoodle to communicate with her fiancé.
According to Dr. Sturm, 70 percent of TN patients are able to find relief through oral medications or injections. “In the world of pain, you want to see if you can control symptoms in the least invasive manner possible,” says Sturm.
By the time Julie saw Dr. Sturm in January 2013, however, it was clear that she had progressed well beyond the point of non-surgical interventions. It was time to take more aggressive measures.
A Miracle Surgery
On January 16, 2013, Dr. Sturm performed microvascular decompression brain surgery on Julie. First, he made a small incision behind her ear, then drilled a hole in her skull. Next, he used a microscope and surgical instruments to find the trigeminal nerve as it came out of the brain stem and relieve the compression on the nerve.
“Julie had both a vein and an artery compressing her trigeminal nerve, which meant there was a lot of pressure causing a lot of problems,” says Dr. Sturm.” In order to relieve the pressure, I gently removed the vein and artery from the nerve and placed a pad between the vessels and the nerve.”
Doctors don’t know exactly what causes TN. It can be a problem on its own, or it can be related to multiple sclerosis or another condition that damages the myelin sheath containing the trigeminal nerve. They have found, however, that for most of the people who need surgical intervention, relieving the pressure on the nerve can also relieve the pain.
It certainly worked for Julie. “The minute I opened my eyes, there was no pain,” she says. “It was unbelievable. It was like I had never been through that horrible time.”
Though Julie currently experiences no pain, she is not out of the woods. There is no cure for TN, so there is a possibility she may again need decompression of her trigeminal nerve in the future. But for the time being, Julie is grateful she found the right person at the right time to help her.
“Dr. Sturm knew right away how to solve my problem,” she says, “and he gave me my life back.”