Rochelle's Story

Years of back pain leads to helping others at the hospital that helped her

As an elementary school principal, Farmington Hills resident Rochelle Alexander had a lifetime bending and sitting on floors with young children. It was easy to make excuses for lower back aches and stiffness.

As time went on, the pain got worse, much worse in fact. Rochelle says it was becoming harder to stand up straight.

“I began to miss work, could no longer walk my dog, or even make my bed,” said Rochelle. “People were questioning if I was okay. I wasn’t.”

Nessreen Rizvi, M.D., a Henry Ford internist, ordered X-rays which revealed scoliosis and potentially serious disc problems throughout her lumbar area. Dr. Rizvi suggested a consultation with an orthopaedic surgeon; however, Rochelle was not ready to potentially undergo spinal fusion surgery. She continued in agony.

“I became more disabled, depressed, and fearful until finally I had to end my career, under the guise of early retirement, I was 62," said Rochelle.

Rochelle spent two years seeking treatment in Michigan and out of state, and she didn’t like what she heard. “Six different surgeons gave me only full spinal fusion (a huge operation) as my option. There was one surgeon who said go home and get ready for life in a wheelchair.”

A new treatment brings temporary relief

Desperate for other options, Rochelle went to see Dr. Rizvi again and she referred her to David Kim, M.D., a Henry Ford pain management specialist at Henry Ford Health Rehabilitation-Columbus in Novi.

And after undergoing nerve-root procedures involving injections and ablation techniques, Rochelle experienced substantial pain relief for several months.

“Dr. Kim was my hero. Sadly, following my last procedure, Dr. Kim said conservative measures would not continue to work. My condition had worsened," said Rochelle.

Then came the pandemic. With no doctor visits for two years, Rochelle was walking nearly completely bent over. Her height dropped two inches. “I felt heartbroken, as did my husband, who had gone through all of this with me. No vacations, no excursions, no parties, just me and my pain.”

Rochelle reached out again to Dr. Kim. He suggested she be seen by Victor Chang, M.D., a neurological surgeon at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital. Little did she know, Dr. Chang would change her life.

Restored hope in a pain-free future

Rochelle says Dr. Chang detailed a new type of surgery that would require minimal hardware, representing the most current approach in spinal care and repair.

“I was completely astonished by Dr. Chang’s knowledge, his understanding of my situation, and his attentive and thoughtful conversation, and I decided absolutely: “Yes!”

Dr. Chang explains the newer approach is a lumbar lateral interbody fusion and posterior fusion with robotic assistance. This involves joining two or more vertebrae together so that bone can grow in between the space. Henry Ford has some of the highest volumes of robotic surgery in the region.

“This is a minimally invasive approach that has seen greater efficiency with the robot which allows us to perform this surgery in a shorter operative time with less post-operative pain,” says Dr. Chang. “Patients are able to walk the day of surgery and in most cases go home the next day.”

In the vast majority of cases, according to Dr. Chang, patients have significant reductions in their pain from before surgery that result in better quality of life and greater functional capacity.

Rochelle said the pain post-surgery was very difficult due to the extent of repair needed to correct her condition.

“The first month I shed many tears from the pain when the nerves and muscles were regenerating, but Dr. Chang kept in touch and responded to my pain issues.”

Around the sixth week after surgery, Rochelle began to have a slight decrease in pain. Shortly after, she could walk fairly well again and the intense, shooting nerve-pain was calming down.

“I could not yet bend or twist, but I could start to do some things I had not been able to do, even before the surgery,” said Rochelle.

A renewed purpose found at Henry Ford

As her pain continued to subside, Rochelle continued with her required physical therapy and began to think of something she hadn’t thought would be possible. “I wanted to have at least a part-time job to get me back into the world again, and I wanted to work for Henry Ford Health.”

Rochelle thought her chances of employment were slim but applied for a job at the hospital that she says gave her life back. For a period of time, she worked as a concierge in the surgical lounge of Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, with insight and compassion due to her own health history.

“I was able to fully understand what patients and family members were feeling when checking-in for surgery,” she points out.

Rochelle’s found her inner Henry with her will and bravery to persevere and is using her good fortune to now help others.


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