Elizabeth Bozzelli cheered when she looked at the results of the Fall Wellness Challenge for employees of Cape May County, New Jersey. One of many participants in the program, Bozzelli, like everyone else, was challenged to walk 25 miles in 30 days. But for her, that task was even more challenging because she had undergone complex spinal surgery three months earlier to correct a severe “s” curve in her spine.
Bozzelli says that when she looked at her walking log, she was thrilled to see she’d walked 73.8 miles. “I wanted to stand on a mountaintop and shout for joy. My pain is gone, and I am active again!”
For years, Bozzelli had hoped to find treatment of the progressive deterioration of her spine and the debilitating pain it caused. Born with a spinal deformity, she wore a large, stiff back brace during her teen years to try to correct a severe spinal curvature. While this therapy stabilized her spine for a while, she regressed as she aged, ultimately losing almost three inches of her height as her spine degenerated and curved further.
“My spine looked like an “s” as the curvature continued to twist,” she says. “I couldn’t sit or stand without pain and, prior to surgery, I couldn’t ride a bicycle or walk long distances. I used to enjoy long runs, but that became impossible because the pain was constant.”
Bozzelli diligently searched for a specialist who could help her. “People asked me why I was looking at hospitals so far from home,” Bozzelli recalls. “But I did extensive research that led me halfway across the country.” Bozzelli decided to seek treatment by the internationally respected spine surgeons at Washington University School of Medicine and Barnes-Jewish Hospital, who specialize in the repair of complex spinal deformities.
By the time Bozzelli arrived at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in February, she had two 70-degree curves in her upper and lower spine. She also was diagnosed with early-stage osteoporosis. But, she says, “I could tell immediately that my physician had studied my case information prior to my visit and had determined there was a solution for me.”
Bozzelli was prescribed daily injections of a parathyroid hormone medication to increase her bone density. Typically, patients at risk for bone loss take this medication four to six months prior to surgery and continue the regimen for 18-months after surgery. In August, Bozzelli returned to Barnes-Jewish for a complex surgical procedure to realign her spine and stabilize it with metal rods. To further stabilize Bozzelli’s spine, her surgeon combined a synthetic graft material called bone morphogenetic protein (BMP) with shavings of Bozzelli’s own bone to create a strong cement-like bond. Washington University physicians, have used BMP since 2002, showing results in overall spinal-fusion rates as high as 95 percent.
The morning after the surgery rehabilitation began Bozzelli says, “the team got me up and moving. We took a few steps around the room. I realized that when they straightened and unrotated my spine during surgery, I became three inches taller. What an amazing thing to experience!”
Bozzelli remained in St. Louis for three weeks before returning home. She transitioned from the hospital to a nearby hotel and, using a walker, took daily walks around the neighborhood with her daughter, Lauren. Once back in New Jersey, Bozzelli kept up the routine, sometimes walking five miles a day. Eight weeks after surgery, she returned to her job as clerk of the board for Cape May County.
“I have struggled almost my entire life, but now I stand straight and tall, breathe normally and don’t feel self-conscious anymore. This is beyond wonderful,” Bozzelli says. “I am unbelievably happy.”
When Bozzelli flew to St. Louis, she says she “flew over a lot of hospitals to see brilliant Washington University surgeons at Barnes-Jewish.” And she says the staff who cared for her were welcoming and knowledgeable—and warm and fuzzy. “This experience has been truly life-changing for the better. I’m eternally grateful.”