Standing tall after back surgery

Summer 2015

Back pain and arthritis are two of the most common ailments that Canadians experience, but few understand the impact that these
conditions can have on one’s quality of life as well as Dean Ewing of Wallaceburg, Ontario.

At only nine years old, a rheumatic fever served as a trigger that would cause Dean to develop rheumatoid arthritis and eventually, by the
age of 25, a rare type of inflammatory arthritis and autoimmune disease called ankylosing spondylitis (AS).

“My doctor told me I wouldn’t work a day past age 45,” says Dean who, at the time, was still a young man with a family and a large vegetable farm to run. “So I got real busy real quick. It gave my wife Kathryn and I a chance to organize our lives.”

In the years that followed, Dean experienced greater pain and muscle spasms until he was taking up to a full bottle of Aspirin each day.
As the AS progressed, it caused the vertebrae of his spine to gradually fuse together, shifting his posture to a severely stooped position, until, true to his physician’s diagnosis, by the age of 43, Dean was officially disabled.

“There were health impacts and emotional impacts,” he says of his disability. “I couldn’t golf, hunt or fish properly because I couldn’t stand up. I couldn’t cross the street safely because I couldn’t look up to see the traffic. It interfered with my social life – and it didn’t feel like there was much to look forward to.”

Years later, a ray of hope came when he learned of a life-changing, albeit high-risk surgery.

“I’d read about someone in Britain who also had AS and had an operation to correct their spine. So the next time I visited my doctor I asked about it and received a referral,” he says.

In 2013, at the age of 67, Dean met with LHSC’s Dr. Chris Bailey, an orthopaedic surgeon, who provided him with a realistic picture of what corrective surgery
would entail – both the risks and potential benefits.

“In Dean’s case, the AS caused his spine to completely fuse,” says Dr. Bailey. “We talked extensively about the risk involved in spinal surgery – including paralysis. His case
was the most severe that I’ve come across.”

After some contemplation and a lengthy discussion with his wife, Dean decided to undergo surgery.

“I went back to Dr. Bailey and said ‘If you’ll do it, then I’ll take the risk.’ ”

On Dec. 13, 2013, Dean underwent the first phase of the surgery, with the second surgery following a few days later on Christmas Day.

“We did a lot of planning. In total there were 23 hours of operating time involved between the two surgeries,” says Dr. Bailey. “Our anesthesiologist would spend a
few hours before each surgery setting up equipment so that we could monitor the function of Dean’s spinal cord throughout the entire time we were working on him.”

Dr. Bailey says the procedure to correct Dean’s spine included creating two carefully placed fractures, removing wedges of bone, and reinforcing his spine with screw and rod constructions. As one of his most complex surgeries, Dr. Bailey points out that Dean’s other conditions, such as osteoporosis, added other elements of complexity to
the procedure.

“Dean did have some complications and spent some time in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) after the first surgery,” he says. “He had some challenges – but he’s come
through very well.”

“I woke up Christmas Day, after the second operation and they removed the breathing tubes so I could talk. Then by New Years I was home,” says Dean. “About five days later, I stood up. Within 48 hours after that, I was walking around the hall. It was amazing!”

Now, several years after surgery, Dean is enjoying a greater quality of life. Though his AS will always be a part of him, the straightening of his spine has allowed him to return to activities that he was once forced to abandon.

“My arthritis is much better now and I am back hunting and fishing,” he says, adding that this winter, he and Kathryn were able to indulge in a luxury they
haven’t enjoyed for several years – a vacation in Florida.

“In orthopaedics, really, it’s about returning function and I’m very happy that we were able to do that for him,” says Dr. Bailey of Dean’s progress. “It’s very gratifying to see, I’m very happy that what we’ve done has improved his life.”

“I’m very happy that I decided to move forward with the surgery with Dr. Bailey and his team. I wouldn’t have done that if I hadn’t felt confident,” says Dean. “Since then, I’ve experienced a special thing. Before, I didn’t have much to look forward to in life. The end didn’t seem very far away, but now it does, and I have a lot to look forward to.”

Dean Ewing
Dean Ewing (left) standing before the surgery
Dean Ewing standing after the surgery.
Dean and his wife Kathryn