Suanne Summers is passionate about ballroom dancing. So, when debilitating back pain made it impossible to walk — much less dance — without excruciating pain, she was crushed.
Suanne’s back problems began in childhood. She grew up in San Diego doing gymnastics and riding horses, and recalls hurting her back in her early teens. Pain plagued her for years and finally, after a computed tomography (CT) scan revealed a ruptured disc, she had spine surgery at age 20. She spent several days in the hospital and wore a back brace for months, and the procedure did help relieve her pain. Still, Suanne knew she would have a sensitive back for the rest of her life.
Around age 45, Suanne took a ballroom dancing lesson; instantly, she was hooked. Though her back often felt worse after dancing, she managed the pain through massage, acupuncture, chiropractic treatments and personal training. She had spinal epidurals several times a year, and continued dancing.
“I just thought it was the best I could do to live with it,” she says.
Then, in February of 2016, Suanne tripped and fell. She didn’t think the fall affected her back, but two weeks later her hip began to hurt, and she felt stiff and sore. She managed to compete in a dance contest in Las Vegas but could barely walk without pain afterward.
“A few days after that I sneezed and I was paralyzed for 30 seconds. It was very frightening,” she recalls. “It got bad really fast. I could hardly move. I was afraid I would never dance again.”
Suanne had an appointment a few days later with her rheumatologist, who ordered an MRI of her spine.
“When they saw the results, they said I had the spine of an unhealthy 70-year-old,” she says.
Suanne had a consultation with Scripps orthopedic surgeon James Bruffey, MD, who specializes in spinal surgery. Dr. Bruffey recommended minimally invasive spinal fusion surgery, which would require just a few small incisions in her back and side and a short hospital stay.
“I was excited that Dr. Bruffey thought he could help me,” she says. “He gave me hope that I could dance again. I felt like my future started right then.”
Hours after Suanne’s back surgery at Scripps Green Hospital in April of 2016, she was up and walking around without even using a walker. She went home two days later.
“Friends came by to visit me that weekend and immediately noticed that I was taller,” says Suanne, 52. “Three weeks after the surgery, I was dancing again.”
Suanne, who lives in Del Mar, says the spine surgery has completely changed how she moves, and she is still improving every day.
“I only wanted to be able to stand up again and maybe get through a dance lesson,” she says. “I’m so much better it’s shocking. I have mobility I didn’t have as a teenager. Now, I don’t know where the limit is.”
Since her surgery, Suanne has competed in several dance contests and recently placed third in the world championships. She has referred several people to Scripps and Dr. Bruffey, and urges anyone with back pain to make an appointment with a specialist.
“Spine surgery has come so far and is so much faster and easier to recover from,” Suanne says. “Why would you want to keep suffering when you can be so much better?”