NEWS | May 20, 2020

Seeking pain-relieving surgery during a pandemic


Bonnie Unger had always been an active person. But when she developed low back pain that didn’t respond to physical therapy and steroid injections for nearly two years, her primary care doctor in Roseville referred her to Kee Kim, co-director of the UC Davis Spine Center.

“I have run marathons and didn’t have an epidural kick in during childbirth until I had already dilated to 8 cm, so I understand pain,” Unger said. “But the pain I experienced from a slipped disk was debilitating.”

The Roseville mother of two said her pain first ran down her right leg. It soon progressed so that she couldn’t walk well. Then, standing for more than 10 minutes became impossible.

“I couldn’t do the grocery shopping. I’d get halfway through my list and have to go back to the car,” she said. “I couldn’t attend my daughter’s swim meets anymore and was miserable. I lived a sedentary life.”

Despite public concerns about coronavirus, Unger would not consider delaying medical care.

“If I didn’t get surgery, I would have cried. I was prepared to beg,” she said. “I had total confidence in Dr. Kim and was comfortable going in for the procedure that would relieve the pain.”

Kim, who is chief of spinal neurosurgery at UC Davis, has a special interest and expertise in caring for patients with challenging spinal disorders requiring surgical treatment. He used a new technique to treat Unger’s slipped disk.

“Ms. Unger had a narrowing of the space and slipped spine between lumbar vertebrae 4 and 5 at her lower back, which put pressure on the nerves that travel through the spine when she was standing,” Kim said. “When she sat down and rested her condition improved because of more space and less irritation to her pinched nerves.”

Kim inserted a 12-mm implant specifically designed to stabilize the vertebral space. Made of titanium alloy, it fit between two adjacent spinous processes -- the bony projection off the back of each vertebra where muscles and ligaments attach.

A few weeks after surgery, Unger was pain free. She’s careful to give herself time to fully heal, which means being cautions and not overdoing it. Talking regular walks and no twisting or bending down.

“I feel blessed and so grateful to have had the surgery,” she said. It’s a whole new world to not be in pain.”