The first time Kim Ponte suffered a whiplash injury, she was just 6 years old. “It was Christmas morning and my brother and I were in the back seat of the family car,” the 61-year-old Vacaville resident recalled. “We were rear-ended by a car that then also got rear-ended by another car. And then a third car hit us. My brother and I both grew up with our necks messed up.”
And it wouldn’t be the only time she suffered such an injury. “I’ve had five whiplash injuries in my life,” she said. “It’s crazy. You start to wonder, ‘Do I have a sign on my back?’ ”
Told by a doctor outside of the NorthBay Healthcare system that she wasn’t a candidate for surgical repair, Ponte spent years in chiropractic care trying to get her neck back into shape.
Following the last injury, she learned she had a ruptured disc and degenerative disc disease that was impacting her spinal cord, pinching nerves and causing pain. “The pain was a constant thing around the crown of my head,” she explained. Her use of opioid patches to control the pain grew. “At the highest point, the patch was releasing 100 micro grams per hour” of Fentanyl.
“I had my share of depression through this journey but that’s a part of it,” she said. “I was in a constant slump (position) and I was dropping things. I had trouble with my hands.”
Eventually, she decided to ask for another opinion about surgery and met with NorthBay neurosurgeon Edie Zusman, M.D., director of the NorthBay Center for Neuroscience.“She is the angel of my life!” Kim said. “I trusted her right away. She was warm and caring, there was no ego there and it was clear that all she wanted to do was to help me. I had complete faith in her.”
Dr. Zusman believed surgery could help. “When I first saw Kim, she was uncomfortable and the pain was affecting her quality of life every day. She felt helpless and depressed,” said Dr. Zusman. “We did a state-of-the-art evaluation including MRI to look for nerve and alignment issues.”
Dr. Zusman noted two key issues in Kim’s case. First, there was multi-level cervical degenerative changes. The discs, which normally act as cushions between the bones of the spine, were compressed and pinching the nerve roots in Kim’s spine. Second, she had a loss of cervical alignment and that was causing 80 percent of her pain issues, said Dr. Zusman.
“When viewed from the side, the normal cervical spine curves slightly inward. This is called iordosis. Kim had kyphosis, a term to describe an abnormal curve in the spine,” explained Dr. Zusman. “Surgery for Kim addressed both of these issues.”
Through the procedure, Dr. Zusman and her NorthBay Spine team were able to clean out the discs, put in spacers, recreate the proper spinal alignment and then place titanium plates at each side of Kim’s C4-C7 vertebrae.
It worked. “This is the best I’ve felt in a very long time,” said Kim, who had the surgery in September. “I have a great range of motion. I can look left, right and up. Looking down is harder but I don’t do it for too long.”
More importantly, she said, she is able to return to water aerobics classes, which she loves, and she and her husband are planning a trip to Europe soon. “Since the surgery, my life is filled with joy,” said Kim. “I have stopped all the opioids. Life is good.”
Dr. Zusman said Kim’s dedication to exercise therapy also plays a key role. “Good health resides in the patient,” she said. “The state-of-the-art technology we have is one component, but when things really change is when the patient takes control of their health and Kim has become a champion for her own health.”
Here’s the Scoop
The NorthBay Center for Neuroscience is the region’s leader in the diagnosis and treatment of complex neurological conditions involving the brain, spine and nervous system. Patients who once had to travel out of the county for sophisticated treatment for brain tumors or complex spinal disease can now stay close to home and those suffering from head trauma and stroke can receive rapid, life-saving treatment.
Locations: The NorthBay Center for Neuroscience is located at 1860 Pennsylvania Ave, Suite 230 in Fairfield and also has offices in the NorthBay Wellness Center at 1020 Nut Tree Road in Vacaville. Call (707) 646-4370.