Marathon spinal surgery at OHSU for severe scoliosis has Roseburg woman back on her feet

Dr. Khoi Than and Suzanne Morgan during a follow-up visit to OHSU. (KATU)

Imagine having to sleep sitting, not being able to stand upright and needing a walker to get across the room.

A Roseburg woman found herself in this contorted condition from a severe case of scoliosis during a hospital stay two years ago.

Ten years after she fell 25 feet from a stack of hay bales onto a concrete floor, Suzanne Morgan’s back was so severely deformed she could barely stand. She had to sleep sitting up.

“My spine was twisting and more and more I was bent over and my air was cut off,” Morgan said during a visit to her doctor at OHSU. “So as it went along I was struggling to get breath. This was my favorite position,” she said, as she bent over while sitting and put her head between her legs. “It’s the only way I got any relief. And now I do this,” she said, sitting up, “and I don’t feel anything. Because there’s no pain.”

Morgan was an inpatient at OHSU for an unrelated infection in November 2015 when neurosurgeon Dr. Khoi Than came into her room. He was there to ask about her back pain.

“When you’re done with your antibiotics you come get a hold of me and I’ll fix you,” Morgan said Dr. Than told her. “I said, ‘You think you can fix me?’ I don’t think I can, I know I can.’ And sure enough, here we are.”

Getting there would take 18 months to convince Morgan’s insurance company to pay for surgery to fix her back.

During the wait her back continued to twist and contort her body.

Dr. Than called it one of the worst cases of spinal deformity he had ever seen.

In mid-December of last year, Than and his team at OHSU's Spine Center performed two surgeries over two days -- the last day a 16-hour marathon -- inserting 30 screws and four rods to straighten Morgan’s back.

Less than two months later, Morgan says she is pain-free and sleeping on her back, and her missing self-esteem is back.

“I feel just incredibly blessed, you know, for Dr. Than, because I had no quality of life at all,” she said. “I'm just so high on life. I just feel so happy. I have people tell me that they just see in my eyes there's joy there that wasn't there before.”

Dr. Than said insurance companies are sometimes reluctant to pay for back surgeries because of their mixed results.

But studies have shown that someone with severe scoliosis has less function than amputees and the blind.

“It took a lot of effort to get there,” Dr. Than said. “A lot of phone calls and letters and a lot of work on the day of surgery.”

Dr. Than says one quarter of the U.S. population suffers from mild to severe scoliosis. While there are various treatments, there is no cure.

“While the OHSU Spine Center emphasizes the least-invasive treatment possible, there are times when surgery is necessary,” said OHSU spokesman Erik Robinson. “This was clearly one of those times."

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