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Implant curbs Olivehurst man's nagging back pain
For the last several years, Gerald Long has spent most of his days in bed, confined by debilitating pain.
He could barely leave the house, missed meals and visits with family members and wondered if his neighbors even knew he was still alive.
But for the past seven weeks, the Olivehurst resident has become a familiar face once again. One of the first people in California to undergo a new surgery that combats pain with motion sensor technology similar to smart phones and gaming systems, he is back to driving, playing with his grandchildren and soon, he hopes, going fishing.
"I've done more in the last month than I've done in the last year," Long said Tuesday, as doctors made final adjustments to his new device in Sacramento. "I haven't run any marathons, yet, but it's coming."
Back problems have plagued Long, 55, for the past 25 years, likely stemming from his work in drywall and carpentry. Then, six years ago, the deep throbbing and burning forced him to leave his 13-year maintenance job at Beale Air Force Base to go on permanent disability.
He tried physical therapy, then steroid injections, epidurals, pain blockers, silicone pushers and even a few experime tal treatments before he finally opted for surgery. Three years ago, he had two discs removed and part of his spine fused.
"None of that helped a thing," Long said.
Sitting, standing and lying down were all uncomfortable, and at times the pain would bring him to tears.
"I've got a boat I can't fish out of. I've got a motorcycle I can't ride anymore," Long said. "It's just depressing to lie there and know what you could be doing if you felt like it, and you don't, so you don't even try."
He could no longer help with household duties, putting all the burden on his wife, Tammy, and she said the laid-back, easy-going guy she had loved for so many years had become grouchy and bitter.
"It just controlled our entire life," Tammy Long said.
Some doctors said Gerald Long had nothing wrong with him. Others pushed him away, assuming he was hunting for pain medication.
"People think doctors can solve everything," Tammy Long said. "Then they start to say, 'You have to learn to live with this.'"
Gerald Long had practically given up on the medical world when he was referred to a pain management specialist in Sacramento. The new surgery was suggested immediately, and after talking with the doctor, he decided for one last try.
Neurostimulation systems have long been used to combat chronic pain. An implantable device partners with a handheld programmer to adjust stimulation that interrupts pain signals from the brain.
Medtronic's new AdaptiveStim with RestoreSensor neurostimulator automatically adjusts to a patient's changing needs by recognizing and remembering the correlation between body position and the necessary stimulation.
"It's like having a TV remote that knows when you want to turn the volume up and does it for you," said Mike Rusinek of Medtronic.
Some users of previous neurostimulators would eventually not use or lose their devices, and learn to live with over- or understimulation. Humans innately like shortcuts, Rusinek said, and eliminating manual adjustments improves quality of life.
"This is as big as the automatic transmission transforming the automobile industry," he said.
Gerald Long marvels at the technology, but more importantly, he said, it works. He estimates his pain has been cut in half since the surgery.
He slept for eight hours straight for the first time in years, drove to Folsom to see his daughter and is planning to fly to North Carolina to meet his twin granddaughters, who are expected to be born in August.
"I couldn't pick up my grandson off the ground and hold him. Now I'm gonna be chasing him around," he said.
Long is also looking forward to striped bass season and riding on his Yamaha, and his wife is excited he can mow the lawn and fix the pool.
"I have a nice honey-do list for him that's been going a couple years," Tammy Long said.
The couple celebrated their 31st wedding anniversary March 21. They still have two children at home, custody of their niece and nephew and a neighbor who moved in when his parents kicked him out and left town.
They're hoping life will now return to normal.
Tiny device, big difference
Pain specialist Dr. Lee Snook, of Metropolitan Pain Management Consultants in Sacramento, is one of about 100 physicians in the country who have used the device, with Long as one of his first patients.
Anyone with chronic back pain, and possibly those with chronic neck pain are candidates for the surgery, and it's being considered for people with abdominal, chest and pelvic pain.
"Amazing" was an oft-repeated word when Snook spoke about Medtronic's latest device. Its technology, life span and size are a remarkable difference from the "bricks" he used to install in patients.
Gerald Long said he can barely feel it. A tiny scar is all there is to indicate the almost 2 inches by 2 inches device, which is less than half an inch thick, is just below his rear belt line.
It's designed to adjust for seven positions: Lying on the back, front, left and right sides, sitting, standing and standing with motion. If the energy it puts out is too much or not enough for the pain, the stimulation can be adjusted with a hand-held device.
The elective surgery costs about $25,000 to $30,000 with device, doctor and operation expenses, but that can be quickly recouped through medication savings, Snook said. Many of his patients spend at least $2,000 a month on pain pills, antidepressants and other medication, and after surgery, those costs are cut dramatically.
The operation itself lasted about 11⁄2 hours, but it took less than 15 minutes to activate the device and calibrate it to Long's needs. The battery should last nine years before it needs to be replaced, and the electrodes near his spine could last for the remainder of his life.
When Snook asks his patient if he's happy, Gerald Long smiles and has only two words:
CONTACT Ashley Gebb at email@example.com or 749-4783. Find her on Facebook at /ADagebb or on Twitter at @ADagebb.