Glennis Solmon has not been able to play with her children or even sit in the bleachers to cheer them on as they played sports without pain for 15 years.
The 41-year-old mother of five has suffered debilitating back pain since she was pregnant in 1996.
At the time, she was diagnosed with sciatica of pregnancy. However, after giving birth, her back pain continued and did not let up for years.
“Every year it just got worse and worse. I had two more pregnancies, then Hurricane Ivan came along … compounded with everyday personal issues, the pains grew practically unbearable,” she said.
She noticed she could no longer do simple things like walk fast, cycle, drive or even sit or stand for long without having intense pain.
“I missed a lot of important functions with my family and friends because of my pains. Every year I felt like I was twice my age because I began to feel like I had gotten old before my time,” she said.
She said she tried everything to solve her back problem – acupuncture, chiropractors, physiotherapist, epidurals, but nothing seemed to provide relief for long. For the pain, she regularly visited the hospital to get intravenous drips of high-level painkillers and she was also diagnosed with depression.
“My life was a slow hell,” she said.
But that was before she became the first back patient of the Cayman Islands Hospital’s new neurosurgeon Lowell Stanley.
Dr. Stanley has been with the hospital since 1 May. He sees up to 20 patients a week in the emergency room or the clinic and has done at least one case of spinal surgery every Friday since the second week of May.
These are patients that would otherwise have had to travel overseas for surgery.
“It’s been a lot busier than I expected it would be. I seem to be seeing more cases each week,” he said. He admits that he was a little concerned that Cayman’s population would not be able to support a full-time neurosurgeon, but so far, there is plenty of demand.
“Most of the emergency cases are trauma or accident cases, but most of the ones at the clinic have cervical (neck) problems from arthritis or disc disease, or they have nerves being pressed on or the spinal cord is being pressed on,” he said.
So far, unlike in his former practice in Tennessee, he said he has seen few cases of severe head injuries caused by high speed car crashes.
“Fortunately, I don’t seem to see the number of high speed injuries in the brain injuries, from cars travelling at 80 miles an hour that run into a tree or another car,” he said.
Dr. Stanley relocated to Cayman to take up the full-time position as a neurosurgeon at the Cayman Islands Hospital. He has been a regular visitor to Cayman for 30 years, but had not worked here before.
As well as working at his Tennessee practice, Dr. Stanley was also involved in a foundation in Chile to train neurosurgeons in a Concepción hospital, organising for them to do residency rotations in the United States.
“We at first helped with cases, but in the end they were doing their own cases,” he said of the neurosurgeons at the Chilean hospital.
December 2009 was his last trip there officially as part of the foundations “as we’d achieved all our goals”. He had planned to begin a minimally invasive spine surgery programme there in February 2010, but that month an 8.8 magnitude earthquake struck the city, killing more than 521 people. “The hospital was destroyed. It’s still not really at full capacity,” he said.
Two other neurosurgeons – Dr. James Akinwunmi and Peter Kowlesser – practice part time in Cayman from the visit the Cayman once a month to work out of the Chrissie Tomlinson Hospital.
Having a neurosurgeon based full time in Cayman may help reduce fatalities from head injuries, partly because surgical help is immediately available and also because the risks associated with a severely injured patient travelling overseas will no longer be an issue.
“Before, they had to immediately send a head injury case away to Florida or somewhere else overseas. If it’s a severe head injury, there’s a good chance of not surviving the trip. Now, we are set up to take care of them here … a lot of patients that have treatable injuries have a better chance of survival just because of the time factor,” he said.
Airlifting a patient off island can take up to 12 hours or more.
Along with a new neurosurgeon, the hospital also has new state-of-the-art equipment to enable Dr. Stanley to do his surgeries.
Currently, most of the operations he is doing are minimally invasive spinal surgeries.
“We are able to offer pretty much any spinal surgery that is offered in the US or the world. The minimally invasive surgery is done through one- or two-inch incisions for spinal surgery,” he said.
“We’re not set up completely yet for complex brain surgery because, in addition to equipment, it requires a lot of other ancillary services in the hospital that we’re still working on getting. Hopefully, within a year or so, we’ll be doing the intracranial surgery too, other than in emergencies,” Dr. Stanley said.
“Patients we’ve worked on so far seem to do well and are happy, which might be why we are getting busier,” he said.
One patient, who asked not to be named, recently had three discs in his neck replaced with titanium plates during one of Dr. Stanley’s surgeries.
“I found that my right hand was becoming weaker than the left. I had numbness and was sore in the shoulder. I sought medical advice,” he said. An x-ray and MRI showed discs were pressing on his nerves, causing pain and numbness.
Just over a month ago, he underwent surgery with Dr. Stanley. “I would have had to go to Florida for the operation if Dr. Stanley had not come to Cayman,” he said.
A small scar under his throat shows where the surgeon had to cut to carry out the surgery. “It’s already fading,” the 61-year-old patient said. Ms Solmon also has scars, two small vertical ones on her lower back – each about 1.5 inches long.
Realising that surgery was her only remaining option to relieve her of the pain she had lived with for years, she underwent surgery. Dr. Stanley operated on her lower back to fix the slipped disk and trapped nerves there.
“I had no pain from the cuts themselves. The only pain I have is where Dr. Stanley had to stretch the muscles in order to do the surgery,” she said. Almost immediately after surgery she was able to recognise that her 15-year-old pains were completely gone.
Seven weeks after the operation, she’s still taking things easy, but can now walk a lot further, lift her feet several inches easily off the ground and generally do movements that would have left her screaming with pain and frozen in place just two months ago.
Next up for Ms Solmon – playing basketball with her daughter, cheering on her son in his soccer games, cycling, and trying out for a position on a cricket team. “And I’m going to go dancing again,” she said.