STIMULATOR HELPS RELIEVE DAD’S PAIN
One fateful winter day several years ago, Dan Schultz became a different person from the active, outdoorsy carpenter he had always been. After breaking his back in a work accident, he turned into a man who spent most of his time writhing in pain on the couch in his Milton home.
With the help of Dr. Jaymin Shah, pain management specialist at Mercyhealth, Dan, 43, has been able to reclaim many aspects of the man he was before the accident. Dr. Shah surgically implanted a spinal cord stimulator into Dan’s back that helps him manage the pain. “This machine has been a godsend,” says Dan. “I can’t imagine living without it.”
DEPENDENT ON PAINKILLERS
Before the accident that changed his life, Dan was fortunate enough to make a living doing what he loved most — carpentry. That day, he had been working on a plank outside the concrete form of a building under construction when he fell on a cross-brace. “Breaking your back is bad luck, but I was pretty lucky,” he says. “If that cross-brace hadn’t been there, I would have fallen on metal rods and probably would have died.”
At the hospital, doctors removed a blood clot from Dan’s spinal cord and put him in a back brace. Later, they discovered he had also suffered spinal compression, which meant his L1 vertebra was pinching his spinal cord. Dan was slowly losing the use of his left leg and becoming paralyzed, so a surgeon performed a lumbar fusion procedure, removing portions of his L1 vertebra and installing hardware in his spine to stabilize it.
Physical therapy helped Dan learn to walk with a walker, but he was always in pain and in need of potent medication. “I never wanted to be on the heavy painkillers,” he says, “but I had to take them to get through the day.”
Shortly after the accident, he began attending college at University of Wisconsin-Rock County in Janesville through a grant from the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development’s Vocational Rehabilitation division. He was wildly successful at U-Rock, serving as student government president. Since his accident, Dan has cultivated an interest in stained glass art and graduating with honors with an associate’s degree in arts and sciences.
After college, Dan needed to find a job. Carpentry was not an option anymore because he couldn’t handle the physical demands of the job. “I still get a little teary talking about carpentry,” he says, watching from his couch while his father builds a fence in his backyard. “I loved going to work every day.” He tried to find a desk job, but was either under- or over-qualified for every position.
Dan worked at a series of retail and fast food jobs, and the story was always the same: He was a hard worker who was often promoted to manager, but he was physically unable to perform some aspects of his job. Finally, he found a position at a cell phone company that was sympathetic to his limitations and willing to work with him. He worked his way up to service technician, but as his pain grew worse he often called in sick. “When I played sports as a kid, I was never the best, but I always got the award for trying the hardest,” says Dan. “It killed me to miss work.”
AN ELECTRIC SOLUTION
Yet Dan kept trying to find a solution to his pain because he needed to support his family — wife Stacey, a librarian, and kids Sabrina, now 10, and Calvin, now 4. He had found some relief through a doctor at the Mercy Pain Center in Janesville using a TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) unit, a machine that relieves pain through low-voltage electrical current. Dan then began seeing Dr. Shah, who started him on pain patches — skin patches that deliver a consistent dose of medication. He also tried other options, including injections, which helped him for short periods. Dan had read about the spinal cord stimulator and asked Dr. Shah about it. The stimulator works by delivering electrical impulses to areas of the spinal cord that cause pain. The new sensation masks the pain and changes the way the body responds to it by replacing it with a more pleasant tingling sensation. “It is calming down the pain,” says Dr. Shah.
In order to assess whether it would work for Dan, Dr. Shah placed the leads in his spine and had him wear the device on the outside of his body for a week. “The trial is important, Dr. Shah says, “because it helps us determine whether the stimulator will work for a patient. Some patients see dramatic improvement, while others do not notice a big enough difference.”
Dan was part of the former group. “As soon as the electricity started flowing into my body, I was in tears because it felt so good,” says Dan. He underwent surgery in January 2014 to implant the device into his lower back.
A CHANGED MAN
Just as the accident changed Dan’s life 15 years earlier, the neurostimulator turned it around again. “I have cut my pain medications substantially,” Dan says. “I don’t use the pain patches at all anymore. Now, I have moments of clarity where the real Dan is actually present.”
Previously, patients who had a stimulator were unable to undergo magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests because the device interferes with the magnetic fields. However, the device inside Dan is different. “We now have new technology that enables us to implant leads in parts of his body that will not interfere with his ability to have an MRI,” says Dr. Shah. “We can also do program the leads for different levels of stimulation when he is lying down.”
Now, he is able to walk to the playground down the street with is kids and watch them while they play – a simple activity that was rarity before the stimulator. “Everybody I’ve talked to has noticed a difference in my personality,” Dan says. “There were days in the past where I would just stay on the couch all day because of the pain. Thos day are rare now.”
“I feel so grateful to Dr. Shah and all his staff,” He continues. “They are very compassionate people.”
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