Imagine spending five years of your life in constant pain — unable to sit still for more than fifteen minutes at a time, partake in the sports you love, or go to parties with your friends. For 21 year-old Liz Rovira, a vivacious college student from Boulder, CO, this was her life before she met Dr. Donald Corenman. Today, seven back surgeries later, Liz is now climbing mountains and has taken her life back.
Since the age of six, Liz, a native of Boulder, was an avid skier and a competitive swimmer. For years, she swam her way to the top of the podium competing in swim meets at some of the most aggressive levels in the sport. During her freshman year of high school, she made the Varsity swim team and during her high school tenure, was a three-time All American Champion.
In 2006, at age 15, everything that was important to Liz was in synch, including her swimming, her studies and her social activities. But that same year, while sitting in English class, Liz felt her left leg go numb; this would happen numerous times over the next few weeks and then a couple of months later, her back began to hurt. Confused and concerned, Liz visited a local orthopedic spine doctor in the Boulder area and an MRI confirmed that she had a herniated disc in her lumbar spine. After receiving several adjustments to the area and a round of physical therapy, the pain in her back proceeded and it was decided that surgery would be needed. Her doctor at that time performed a microdiscectomy of the L5 S1 to repair the disc. Although the surgery was a success and the healing process went smoothly for Liz, she still experienced slight pain in this area and so her doctor performed a second surgery on the same disc.
For most high students, two back surgeries would have probably put them on the bench watching their favorite sport instead of participating in it, but Liz did not want to stop. She trained lightly and swam her heart out at swim-meets. She was still winning championships, but was still in a great deal of pain.
“I was training every day, but during my training sessions, I was really going slow and trying to take it easy. My back was still in a considerable amount of pain. During my meets, I would push it very hard and would do well in the results, but the chronic back pain I suffered afterwards was incredible,” said Liz.
In 2007, Liz’s dad, a physician in the Boulder area, recommended that they take a visit to the Steadman Clinic. He knew that the best doctors practiced there and one phone call led them to Dr. Corenman.
According to Liz, it was a life changing experience. “Prior to stepping foot inside the Steadman Clinic, I had seen numerous doctors. They would spend ten, maybe fifteen minutes looking over my records. During my first visit with Dr. Corenman, it was a big wake up call for me. It was a night and day experience to the way I had previously been treated. He spent an hour talking to ME, not my dad. He asked me questions about my pain, about my activity level, he looked over my MRI’s and X-rays in such detail that he did not miss a thing. It was so incredibly reassuring to feel his confidence and encouragement and to discuss the next steps to take.”
Because Liz’s L5 SI had so much degeneration, Dr. Corenman recommended spinal fusion surgery by taking the damaged disc out and then fusing the one above and below it together. The surgery was a success and after an intensive rehabilitation process, Dr. Corenman removed the screws he placed in Liz’s spine and within a matter of weeks, she began to feel stronger and slowly began to resume her normal activities. That same year, she was accepted into the University of California at Santa Barbara and later would start her freshman year with very high hopes.
In July of 2008, Liz was working as a lifeguard and preparing to go to college. Her story would take another twist that nobody would see coming and would prove to be the biggest challenge yet.
“I was home for the summer and was hanging out with my friends. My dad has this really cool tree in his backyard with big huge limbs that reach the second story of his house and my upstairs bedroom. Since I was a child, I would climb this tree to get to my room, instead of going inside and using the stairs. I was climbing the tree and caught my shoe the wrong way and fell. I remember laying on the ground in intense pain thinking to myself, “what have I done?” The pain in my back was excruciating,” said Liz.
A trip to the ER would be the start of her new nightmare. “We arrived to the ER and I was immediately examined and told that I had broken several vertebrae in my thoracic spine; the last thing I really remember about that experience was waking up in recovery. They had to perform emergency surgery. More than anything else, I felt panic because someone other than Dr. Corenman performed the procedure.”
After the surgery was performed to repair the broken vertebrae, Liz remained in the hospital for a week and then spent two months in rehab. She went back to school in the Fall—this time attending CU, but she would have a different experience from the previous semesters. “I was at school and was trying to be social, have fun and go to parties with my new friends, but the chronic back pain I was enduring was so intense that I found myself constantly going back to my room to lay down. For weeks and weeks I took a slew of pain meds, and sitting in class every day was almost too much to bear at times. When the semester ended in December, I went home and my mom looked at me and told me, “tomorrow, we are going to take a trip to visit Dr. Corenman.”
“I was so relieved to be back inside the walls of the Steadman Clinic. Sitting in front of Dr. Corenman, pain in my back and all, I already felt reassured,” said Liz. However, Dr. Corenman delivered upsetting news to the family immediately upon reviewing the MRI’s. What he relayed to them was that the previous surgeon had not completed the surgery correctly to her thoracic spine and her vertebrae were collapsing forward. This is what had been causing the intense pain Liz had been suffering through for months. The only option was another surgery. This surgery would prove to be the longest, most intensive and most challenging journey she would face.
During the six-hour procedure, Dr. Corenman used a large rod to stretch and fuse more than five vertebrae together in Liz’s spine. He then pinned the area in place. This hardware would remain in her back supporting her spine for months while the natural healing process took effect. Although the surgery itself was successful, the recovery ahead was a long road. Liz had no choice but to take a semester off from school. For weeks, Liz was under the constant care of her mom and others to help her move, get in and out of bed, walk, shower and get dressed. The pain was constant and the recovery very difficult.
“Three months after this ordeal, I began to feel better. Every week was a huge milestone in my recovery. I went through the spring and summer and my focus was primarily to get better and to heal my back. Finally, in December, Dr. Corenman was ready to take the hardware out of my back. It had been a full year. Going in for my seventh surgery to remove the hardware was an experience I won’t forget. Waking up in recovery, even though I had just endured another surgery, I already felt better. The pressure in my back was gone. With the hardware removed, I felt normal and free. I seriously wanted to cry!”
In January of 2010 Liz was ready to get back to her studies. She decided to stay in Boulder and attend the University of Colorado. “While most kids hated sitting in class, I was seriously elated. To sit in class, as boring as the lecture may have been, to experience no pain in my back, it was life altering. I was in a constant good mood. For the first time in five years, I was pain-free.”
Liz completed a successful semester in college and then decided to take some more time off from her studies. This time, she took her good health on the road and spent the next five weeks backpacking through Europe.“I felt so healthy and good, and my pack was heavy! I carried it all through Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands. During this trip, I experienced little pain and I just felt so alive. I took a picture on the top of a mountain that I climbed and emailed it to Dr. Corenman.”
In the summer of 2010, Liz would make her last journey to the Steadman Clinic for one final follow-up visit with Dr. Corenman. With her life in balance again, Dr. Corenman released her. “He gave me the biggest hug and it was the highlight of my life. I had been through hell and back and I feel like he was my angel and brought me back to life. People don’t understand when you try to explain to them what chronic back pain is like.”
With her life finally back in balance, Liz is doing all of the things she loves to do and is feeling great. Her most recent journey took her to Chile and Argentina where she completed a 70-mile circuit around the Patagonian Alps.“To come out of what I did was a miraculous thing. I have sent so many people to Dr. Corenman because he is the best in the field. I would travel miles and miles to see him again.”