Jefferson University Hospitals

Young Pennsauken EMT Has Career-Saving Spinal Fusion Surgery


Severe back and leg pain is rare in your early 20s.  But, for Pennsauken, NJ Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), Kelly Disanti it was a terrible reality. Diagnosed at 21 with multiple herniated and slipped discs in her lumbar spine, pain became a part of everyday life.

As an EMT, Kelly needed to be mobile and agile.  She worked 12 hour shifts, gritting her teeth through her growing back pain.  She responded to emergencies and very carefully lifted heavy patients and equipment.  “I got used to the pain because I had to,” she says.

After years of pain, she found Alexander Vaccaro, MD, PhD, spine surgeon with the Rothman Institute at Jefferson and vice chair of Orthopedic Surgery at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital at the suggestion of a family member.  Dr. Vaccaro performed spinal fusion and decompression surgery last October, allowing Kelly to be pain-free for the first time in a decade.

“Damage as severe as Kelly’s is rare in patients so young,” says Vaccaro.  “When Kelly came to us the affected discs in her lumbar spine were almost unrecognizable due to severe degenerative disease.”

“Kelly’s discs, the rubbery cushions that support the vertebrae in her lumber spine, were herniating and causing significant pressure on the nerves in her low back,” says Dr. Vaccaro.  “The discs between vertebrae L4 and L5 and L5 and S1 were irritating the spinal nerves, leading to her severe leg pain.  Surgery is most always a last resort in these cases, but we felt it was the only option left that had the potential to improve her symptoms.”

Kelly’s trouble began after the birth of her daughter.  She was told her low back pain would go away, but instead it grew worse over time.  “I could not sit for long periods and I had to stand up slowly because my lower back would become so stiff,” she says.

Back pain soon developed into leg pain, with terrible spasms landing her in the Emergency Room on at least one occasion.  Specialists recommended pain medication, muscle relaxers and sedatives; she received epidural steroid injections and had the nerves to the area burnt through a process known as radiofrequency ablation to try to reduce her pain.  She was told by several specialists that she was too young to need surgical intervention.

Dr. Vaccaro gave her a 40-50 percent chance of coming out of the surgery pain-free, but Kelly opted to go forward.  “I had been suffering for so long that it was worth the risk,” she says.

The surgery fused together vertebrae L4, L5 and S1 using bone grafts from the healthy spine of a cadaver and attached them together with rods and screws.  For increased support, he approached the spine from both the front and back (anterior and posterior) via small incisions in Kelly’s back and lower abdomen.  He also performed a decompression (laminectomy) by removing the bone and diseased tissues that were putting increased pressure on the spinal nerves.

The surgery was a success.  Kelly was pain-free immediately after and returned to work in March following five months of recovery and rehabilitation which required that she limit her activities for several weeks following surgery, followed by one month of rehabilitation to strengthen the muscles supporting her back.

She can now sit and watch a movie, stand up straight, do her job and play sports with her daughter, now 11.  “I am free of limitations,” says Kelly.  “I have to be careful, but there is nothing I cannot do.”  Dr. Vacccaro and the Rothman Institute at Jefferson successfully ended Kelly’s decade of pain.  “I can’t thank them enough,” she says.

Media Only Contact:
Lee-Ann Landis
Jefferson University Hospitals
Phone: 215-955-6300