Eisenhower Neurosurgeon Utilizes Minimally Invasive Technique for Spine Surgery and the Results are Life-Changing

"When I woke up after surgery, it was just a miracle; the pain was gone. I can't describe the joy in my heart."- J. Michael Lee, MD
The phrase “Physician, heal thyself” may be a noble sentiment, but when retired family physician J. Michael Lee, MD, first began to experience back problems about nine years ago, he wisely sought care from an experienced neurosurgeon he’d worked with for 25 years in the Rancho Cucamonga area.

“My first need for spinal surgery initially presented with me having weakness in my left foot,” he explains. “In 2012, I ended up having decompression and fusion at two levels of my spine and made a complete recovery. For five years or so, I was in pretty good shape.”

During those years, he and his husband moved to the desert where Dr. Lee enjoyed an active lifestyle, walking their dogs every day and working out at the gym. He also maintained what he calls his encore career as medical director for two state prisons in Blythe, commuting 90 minutes to work each way, five days a week.

Then, in 2018, Dr. Lee began to notice weakness in his right foot. “I couldn’t stand on my tiptoes,” he says. “It changed the way I walked and gave me a funny limp. And I started to have pain in my lower back that radiated down my legs.”

He tried physical therapy and acupuncture without success. His primary care physician ordered an MRI that showed a narrowing of the spinal canal just above the level of his previous surgery, suggesting that a second procedure was in his future.

“The reason I’d chosen the neurosurgeon who’d done my first spinal operation was because he was very cautious about moving ahead with surgery,” Dr. Lee says. “He’d do so only if conservative measures had been exhausted and surgery was the only alternative. 

“But he’d retired at the end of 2018 and I was now living in Indian Wells,” Dr. Lee continues, “so I began looking for a neurosurgeon in the desert with the same cautious approach and professional reputation. The name that consistently came up among my colleagues was Dr. Limonadi at Eisenhower.”

“By the time I saw Dr. Lee for a complete workup, he was experiencing quite severe pain, a seven out of ten on the pain scale,” recalls Board Certified Neurosurgeon Farhad Limonadi, MD. “He was also having progressive weakness in his right leg. Even a simple cough or sneeze would result in a burst of weakness in that leg and cause him to fall to the ground.”

Dr. Lee had what Dr. Limonadi describes as severe compression of the spinal canal at a different level than his previous surgical site, as well as slight spondylolisthesis – instability – at this same location. In addition, he had compression of the cauda equina, the sac of nerve roots at the lower end of the spinal cord. Nerve roots are nerves that leave the spinal cord between spaces in the bones of the spine to connect to other parts of the body.

“Typically, in these cases we have to do a large instrumented operation and put screws in the affected vertebrae,” Dr. Limonadi explains. “But in Dr. Lee’s case, we planned to approach it in a minimally invasive way so as to not disrupt his spinous process, as well as muscles and ligaments on the other side.” The spinous process is a bony projection off the back of each vertebra; it protrudes where the laminae of the vertebral arch come together and provides the attachment point for muscles and ligaments of the spine.

“This approach would enable us to decompress his spinal canal with minimal disruption of his musculoskeletal system and without a big operation,” he notes.

Dr. Lee was scheduled to undergo this procedure in August 2019. 

“By this time, I was struggling just to walk,” he says. “I had to quit walking the dogs and did no exercise in the gym; I just didn’t have it in me to be physically active. I had no strength in my legs.”

He did, however, continue to work up until two days before his surgery.

“The commute, getting in and out of the car, walking long distances in the prison – the pain finally got so bad that I just couldn’t get out of bed and drive, so I took the day before surgery off,” he says.

The surgery itself was uneventful, as doctors are wont to say. For Dr. Lee, it was life-changing.

“When I woke up after surgery, it was just a miracle; the pain was gone,” he says. “I can’t describe the joy in my heart.

“Today, I’m back to normal,” he continues, noting that he has fully retired. “I’m almost 68, I have no limitations with regard to walking and do four miles with the dogs every day. I do resistance training three days a week. I have virtually no back pain, and the strength in my right leg is almost at 100 percent. I’m grateful every day for Dr. Limonadi’s expertise and care.”

He also gives high marks to Eisenhower Health.

“As a physician, I know how hard it is for a hospital to deliver the high-quality care that Eisenhower does,” he says. “From the moment I checked in, to the preop area, to the anesthesiologist greeting me and inserting my IV, food service, nursing and housekeeping. I just couldn’t have had a better experience. 

“They provide you with patient satisfaction cards and I had to ask for more, because I wanted to give credit where it was due,” he continues. “For them to achieve the level of clinical quality, customer service and friendliness they did, on all fronts, is such a remarkable thing.

“My husband and I continue to have all our doctors through Eisenhower Health because it’s a consistently high-quality, service-oriented health care delivery system,” he adds.

Dr. Limonadi calls Dr. Lee the perfect patient.

“What made Dr. Lee such an excellent patient were not only his in-depth knowledge of medicine and anatomy as a physician, but also his absolutely positive outlook on life and his kindness,” he says. 

“The doctor-patient relationship is not one of superior-subordinate but that of teammates solving a problem together,” he adds. “Each has a role to play, and Dr. Lee’s performance was exemplary. It was an honor to participate in helping to resolve the predicament he was in.”

To learn more about Eisenhower Neuroscience Institute, call 760.837.8020 or visit EisenhowerHealth.org/Neuro.