Emily Thole Stark, Spine Surgery

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Ever since she was little, Emily Thole Stark, 30, has had problems with her back. She remembers dealing with back pain in sixth grade and again, while playing volleyball in high school.
A few years ago, Emily’s back problems grew worse. A couple of falls, while skiing and sledding, aggravated the situation. She tried physical therapy, medications and injections, but nothing seemed to work.

Her doctors told her she had spondylolisthesis – a common back problem in young people that occurs when one of the vertebrae slips onto the bone below it.

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In 2010, Emily met with Michael Horgan, M.D., Fletcher Allen neurosurgeon and associate professor of neurosurgery at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.

After having several tests and learning the options available, Emily decided to have lumbar fusion surgery. The surgery involves removing a part of the bone and replacing it with synthetic bone, which fuses with the spine to create a single, sold mass of bone. This stabilizes the spine and helps to relieve pain.

Dr. Horgan, working with Fletcher Allen neurosurgeon Ryan Jewell, M.D., and Fletcher Allen vascular surgeon Georg Steinthorsson, M.D., performed a minimally invasive spinal fusion procedure, using smaller incisions and techniques that cause less damage to surrounding tissues. 

Instead of one large incision, surgeons make three small incisions. Moving x-ray images provide views of the inside of the body, helping to guide the surgeon's instruments. The less invasive approach results in less pain and a shorter recovery – as well as lower long-term risk from surgery, Dr. Horgan said.

Emily’s procedure went well. “The care I received was phenomenal,” she said. “They made me feel comfortable and confident . . . I felt very well taken care of.”

An elementary school teacher, Emily had wanted to have the surgery in the spring, so she could return to teaching in the fall. She went through physical therapy after the procedure and was able to return to her classroom in September without any problems.

Today she has less pain and is able to move around and sit on the floor without any problem.  She’s expecting her first child and is soon to be a new mom.

“Dr. Horgan and his team were amazing,” Emily said. “I honestly don't think that I could have found a better fit for my needs anywhere else."