HealthONE - January 16, 2023
by Andrea Reinig

Life hasn’t always been easy for Aurora resident Kelli Fuller. Orphaned at a young age, her adoptive parents failed to seek care for an obvious abnormality in her spine. “From about age 10 to probably 14, I didn't ever see a doctor for anything,” Kelli recalls. “I’d obviously developed scoliosis because I was looking different than other kids in school—my back started to protrude out on the right side.” Scoliosis is a condition that often presents in adolescence and is marked by a curvature of the spine. While healthy spines typically are shaped like the letter I, a scoliosis spine will curve like an S or a C. As a progressive condition, the curvature can continue to worsen, affecting not only the entire skeletal system, but the hormonal, digestive and central nervous system as well.

A Harrington Rod is Placed

While the details are somewhat lost to history, Kelli knows that her school became involved to advocate for treatment. When she finally was able to see a doctor, it was explained that her spine had curved so badly the condition had become potentially fatal as her vital organs were being compressed by the abnormality. She was eventually placed under the care of her brother, and soon after she underwent corrective surgery for the curvature. “It was in high school that I had the Harrington rod operation,” Kelli explains. “Then, I had to wear a full body cast for about nine months. Even afterward, I could never bend at the waist.”

Harrington rods were the standard for scoliosis surgery during this time. Beginning in the 1960s and ending in the 1990s, experts estimate a million Americans had Harrington rods implanted. Designed to stretch the spine and correct the curvature, the rod was attached to the spine using hooks that were inserted at the top and bottom of the curve. This rod has become obsolete as newer systems allow for better, longer lasting, correction and flexibility in the patient.

Ongoing Loss of Mobility, Pain

Years with the Harrington rod left Kelli with— what doctors call— flat back syndrome. A common complication of the Harrington rod, people with flatback syndrome appear to be stooped forward and have difficulty standing up straight. They also may experience the sensation of falling forward, have ongoing pain in the back muscles and need a cane or walker to keep balanced. All these things were true for Kelli. As she entered middle age, her symptoms worsened, eventually becoming unbearable. “The pain—there is just no describing it. I would be bawling my eyes out. It was just the worst of the worst,” Kelli remembers. The pain was so bad and so limiting that, in her 50s, Kelli resorted to using a wheelchair. “One of the hardest things was that I couldn’t pick up my grandson. During his younger years, I couldn’t have him over or I needed to have someone there to help me because I couldn’t lift him,” she describes sadly.

 New Hope with Spinal Revision

Several years ago, Kelli needed to have oral surgery. During her first visit to the provider, she was not using a wheelchair, but when she returned for another visit, she was using the device. Her oral surgeon noticed the change and asked her about it. “I looked at him and said, ‘do you know a back surgeon? I need a back surgeon,” she recalls. Serendipitously, the oral surgeon was a social acquaintance of Timothy Kuklo, MD, a complex orthopedic spine surgeon with the Denver International Spine Center (DISC) at Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center. Kelli soon found herself meeting with Dr. Kuklo, who immediately put her at ease. “Immediately, I knew he was the one. I’d met with other surgeons, but he just made me feel safe,” Kelli explains. “The decision was made—he had done surgeries like this before, and he was positive and confident about my case.”

“When I saw her, she couldn't stand upright, she leaned to the side, she had severe shooting pain down the leg— she really wasn’t functioning,” Dr. Kuklo explains. “Her case was complex, and she was at a higher risk due to medical history—but for anyone 30 years with the Harrington rod, it’s eventually going to wear down and wear out the lumbar spine.”

While the pandemic put a delay in the plans for Kelli’s surgery, Dr. Kuklo got her in for the procedure as soon as possible. During the eight-hour procedure, he meticulously repaired and revised her spinal support.

“We took the old hardware out, we revised the lumbar spine, we straightened her up—we were able to take away all of her leg pain,” Dr. Kuklo details.  In follow up visits, Dr. Kuklo has noticed that she is not only physically better—stronger, standing straighter and in less pain—she also has a shift in her personality. “She walks with more confidence, you can see she feels better,” he states, “Sometimes it’s more than just straightening out physical pain. You can see the relief and you can help someone change direction, change their outlook on life, get out of depression. This is the impact we get to make. It’s really the most rewarding.”

‘He Gave Me My Life Back’

“It’s miraculous, really. I was up and moving around within a few days. The recovery wasn’t short, but now I am able to get down and play with my [now eight-year-old] grandson—swimming, playing and just enjoying our lives together,” Kelli reports. “I still have pain, but it’s not at all the same. I can manage it with help and I’m working on stretches, therapy and a healthier lifestyle to strengthen my body.”

Kelli has been encouraging others in her life with similar pain to go see Dr. Kuklo. “I just tell them— ‘you need to go see this man. He gave me my life back.’”

To make an appointment with Dr. Kuklo, call 303-563-2755. To learn more about spine surgery at Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center, visit us online.

photo collage