She was sitting in my office and she showed me this video of herself doing karate,” says Dr. Michael Kaiser from The Spine Hospital at The Neurological Institute of New York. “I was impressed by how much she had already recovered. It had only been six months since her operation.”
He’s talking about 60 year old Lisa Schwartz, a Seventh Degree Black Belt from Bergen County who could barely walk when she first met him.
Lisa remembers their first meeting, “We go in that day and he puts up my neck X Ray and says, ‘you need surgery and you need it now.’ My discs were gone. He goes down the X Ray telling me, ‘This one is squashed, this one is bulging.’ He got to one and said, ‘OK, this one has completely collapsed.’ It was just bone on bone. Plus, the space where the nerves come in and out–it was all clogged up. And it was squeezing my spinal cord.”
Of course she didn’t know all this before she went to see him. She was trying to ignore her symptoms and keep up with her busy life. “I’ve been doing two jobs for years,” she says. “I am a graphic designer and I run my own Karate School.”
For the last 25 years she has owned YJCC Okinawan Karate where she teaches traditional Okinawan Shorin-Ryu Shido-Kan Karate-do in Bergen County and says, “I am the highest ranking female in the system and we are all over the world.”
When her hands and feet started to tingle and go numb, she says, “I ignored it. I said, I have no time for this. I have too much stuff to do. I did everything myself. I was teaching, and doing, and standing on my feet.”
After a while, she says she started getting weaker, “I couldn’t open and close my hands. I couldn’t hold on to anything or lift my arms above my head.” She was also having a lot of pain in her neck. “As a graphic designer, I am at a computer all day long,” she says. “It was getting so hard. I would be crying at the end of the day, it hurt so bad.”
But, Lisa was used to pain. She had a long history of hip pain. “My left hip was bad from the time I was 12,” she says. “I couldn’t run or do anything physical. By the time I was in my early twenties I couldn’t bend over to touch my toes or even my knees.” That, she says, is what led her to Karate in the first place.
“I’ve been doing Karate now for almost 40 years,” says Lisa. “That’s also how I met my husband, Larry–I kicked him in the stomach and he asked me out. We have been married 33 years and we have two kids.”
It was Larry who convinced her to finally see a doctor. Last December, they went on vacation to celebrate Lisa’s 60th birthday. “By then I could barely feel my feet,” she says. “I was having trouble walking. It was really bad. I am way too ornery to use a cane or walker–I just didn’t go far. My husband was afraid to let me walk from the pool to the bathroom by myself. That’s when we knew we had to go see someone right away.”
When she got home from vacation she went to see her doctor. He told her she needed to see a neurosurgeon.
In January she and Larry went in to see Dr. Kaiser. “We loved him from the minute he walked in the door. He was just so warm and caring. I’ve been to doctors who talk down, treat you like a child, look at you like you have eight heads, over explain etc. and he did it just right. We were very impressed. He was very professional but a regular guy. He really treated us like we had known him forever. We were just so comfortable.”
Dr. Kaiser got her into surgery right away. He says, “ Mrs. Schwartz required an extensive reconstruction of her neck, including fusing the majority of her cervical vertebrae. The surgery was done in two stages each took four to six hours. She did great. Her neurological status was severely compromised prior to surgery. It can be difficult to determine how much function can be restored when the spinal cord is severely compressed. Fortunately, in Mrs. Schwartz’s case, she demonstrated a dramatic improvement.”
In all, Lisa had five discs removed from her neck and the bones were stabilized with plates and screws. “I don’t remember much when I woke up,” she says. “I have to say, the first few days were hard. I couldn’t swallow for several days after surgery.” Dr. Kaiser says, “This sometimes happens when we operate on the spine from the front of the neck.”
Dr. Kaiser wanted to keep a close eye on Lisa so he kept her in the hospital for about a week until her swallowing returned to normal. She spent another week in the hospital doing rehab.
“Everyday I felt better and better,” says Lisa. “After the surgery I could feel my hands and feet coming back. I was laying there thinking this is unbelievable. We really noticed it in rehab. I was walking down the hallway one time when my husband was visiting and he just looked at me and he goes, ‘look at you standing up straight. You haven’t stood up straight in I don’t know how long.’ It was like a miracle.”
Lisa continued her therapy at home and slowly started back to teaching karate. Six weeks later she was back at work (both jobs) full time.
“I am careful in Karate. It’s a contact sport–let’s face it,” she says, “But I can do it because I am the teacher and I know what my limitations are. I want people to know that if they have to have surgery, it is not the end of the universe. You don’t have to give up what you love. As long as you are strong, you work at it, and you understand you have to modify, you can do it.”
Just before her six month check up with Dr. Kaiser, Lisa and Larry made a short video of her doing karate. “We made the video on my phone. He was absolutely enthralled by it. It was adorable. That is why I made it, I wanted him to see what I could do. To show him what good work he did. I think the world of Dr. Kaiser. He is just an amazing guy.”