Ten years ago I woke up at midnight with grinding pain running from arm pit to fingers. We lived on an isolated ridge in the northern Sierra Nevada Mountains so running to the hospital wasn’t an option. All I could do was climb into the bath tub hoping it would subside. But it didn’t.
The doctors in town decided it was carpal tunnel and surgically moved a nerve in my elbow but the pain returned. They said it might be bulging disks at C5-6. They fused this and the pain returned. Maybe it was the bulging disk at C6-7, so they fused that one too. The pain has been with me ever since.
Living in the woods meant I had to run the tractor, cut firewood, mow the pasture, prune the orchard and tend our huge garden. I operated a heating and air conditioning service company single handedly. My hobby was working on my antique Harley. But the pain made all of that so agonizing I finally had to sell our beautiful home in the country, closed the business and put the Harley in storage. My life ground to a halt.
The doctors up north said they had no idea what caused the pain and maybe it was just nerve memory sending faulty signals. All I knew was that my life grew more centered on narcotics, the only thing that stood between me and suicidal pain. I spent more and more of the time watching TV in a mind-numbed stupor.
After we moved to Palm Springs where the warm climate would be more comfortable than our long rainy northern winters, things just got worse. Our primary care physician had no clue how to manage my pain problem. Finally I demanded a pain doctor. Brett Quave, MD of Desert Pain Care ordered the first MRI in eight years. They found a huge tumor on my spine.
Dr. Quave sent me to Dr. Etebar for surgery. In our first meeting this confident surgeon explained that the tumor had grown so large paralysis was imminent, but fortunately we’d caught it just in time. Despite my fear of such major spinal surgery, Dr. Etebar’s calm demeanor put me at ease. Surgery was scheduled and then the preoperative work began. A full day-long cardiac work up told me my heart was in good shape. At Eisenhower they took x-rays, drew many vials of blood and did a clotting test. Everywhere I went from pharmacy to hospital lab I heard the same thing. Dr. Etebar was very exacting in his demands for his patients. He was the best.
On the day of surgery I discovered the “A Team” who assisted Dr. Etebar. The scrub nurse who earned the nickname Mom for her maternal control over the OR put me at ease. The older anesthesiologist gave me a strong sense of confidence that only experience in the trenches can provide. The efficient young nurse who wired me up for surgery was cheerful and kept me from dwelling on the ordeal to come. It was encouraging to know that that many of these team members had been with this surgeon for nearly a decade. It was a well-honed machine.
After the successful surgery to remove the tumor Dr. Etebar met with my wife in the waiting room. This was not just a mission-accomplished meeting, it was show and tell. He showed her color photos of the nerves and the tumor as it was removed from the open spinal canal. He also showed her x-rays of the hardware Dr. Etebar installed to strengthen my spine. It would allow her to visualize what had happened inside my back so she could better care for me in recovery.
“Your husband will have two fingers on his right hand permanently numb.” He told her, but that was to be expected. “They are fed by the nerve root that was removed with the tumor. But he will still have motor control of them. You can expect his right arm to be weak for up to a few months, but that will go away.”
Despite his warning, I woke up with full feeling in those fingers. The grip and strength in my right hand was perfect. Dr. Etebar had removed that tumor from nerve roots the size of human hairs without any neural deficit.
It even surprised Dr. Etebar when he made his rounds late that first night. Perhaps it was some sort of miracle, but I suspect that it is merely the skill of this gifted surgeon. And most important of all, the pain in my arm was gone for the first time in ten years. No pain and no neural deficit was an incredible result.
But I would learn my story wasn’t the only seemingly miraculous one. In follow up appointments, Dr. Etebar takes as long as is necessary with each patient. That coupled with emergencies means he can fall far behind schedule with his office appointments. In the filled up waiting room with other patients no-one complains though. Often we begin to chat about our experiences and always it is positive. Everyone seems to love this neurosurgeon. One woman said, “I don’t mind waiting for so long because I know he’ll spend just as much time with me.” “He’s worth waiting for,” said another. Those waiting room chats are like an encounter group where the suffering newcomers are consoled by other successes there for follow up. We would hear time and again how Dr. Etebar has repaired unsuccessful surgeries by others and returned so many people to productive lives.
It’s been five months since thoracic spinal surgery. The is only some achiness in the morning, but the arm pain is gone. A few weeks ago I went up to the mountains for two days of fishing in the Sierras. I spent yesterday working on that Harley again, and even started it up after all that time. With full use of my hands and no numbness I was a mechanic again - it was a pleasure I’d forgotten long ago. I am fifty five years old, but now feel twenty years younger and growing stronger by the day. Thanks to a caring pain doctor and the extraordinary surgical skills of Dr. Shahin Etebar, a life I thought was over has miraculously been reborn again. –Jim Gilmer