Del Mar dancer receives new lease on life thanks to back surgery

A Del Mar woman is dancing with excitement and a new outlook on life — literally.

By the time she reached her 40s, Suanne Summers had seemingly accepted that she was destined to have back problems for the rest of her life. When she was 20, she had surgery performed on her back for the first time and was forced to live in a back brace for the next several months following the procedure. Since then, she endured multiple epidurals a year "when the pain was really bad."

Still, the now-52-year-old thought, she was managing her problem the best she could. And at least she could still ballroom dance, a hobby she began taking up when she was 45.

"It was great but I always felt like I had a repaired back," she said. "I lived my life fairly active but not as active as I had been when I was a child. ... It just sort of got progressively worse as I aged. I didn't think there was anything more that I could do. I didn't think I needed surgery. I just thought I had a bad back at 50."

Summers got a reality check in February 2016 when she tripped but, luckily, caught herself before hitting the ground. Because of this, she thought her back had been spared and the only damage done was a gash to her skin. Then, two weeks following the fall, the swelling in her back became "unbearable." After returning home from a dance competition, she sneezed and was paralyzed for about 40 seconds.

"That was horrifying," Summer recalled. "I had no idea what was wrong. It freaked me out."

She visited the same doctor who had done her epidurals for the last 20 years. He showed concern and ordered an MRI and sent Summers to see a specialist, Dr. James Bruffey, who practices at Scripps clinics in Encinitas and La Jolla.

Bruffey informed Summers that she had the "spine of an unhealthy 70-year-old" and didn't understand how she'd been dancing for the last five years. Further, Summers' pain had nothing to do with the fall, the doctor said. It was just the final straw.

Bruffey diagnosed Summers with severe spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spine), spine deterioration and misalignment of the spine.

"Unfortunately, our backs can develop these really bad degenerative conditions, and that's what Suanne had essentially," explained Bruffey, who has been practicing at Scripps for nearly two decades. "She was very limited. She could do almost nothing. She was uncomfortable sitting, uncomfortable standing. It's a fairly classic presentation of someone who's kind of at the end stage of their back problems. Once that arthritis reaches a certain point, you're pretty limited in everything you do."

Summers expressed a fear that she would never dance again, but still moved forward with a back surgery procedure in hopes that her life would improve for the better otherwise.

The technology involved in back procedures has improved dramatically since Summers' first surgery more than 30 years ago, the doctor said. In fact, the experience was so much better for Summers that she was back to dancing three weeks after her surgery and competing again and earning trophies within three months, though she recalls having to learn to adjust to her new back.

In November of that year, she had the installed screws from the procedure removed and became even more flexible.

Summers, who started her dancing career seven years ago as a beginner, is now competing at the highest level. She plans to compete in the advanced competitions in August and September.

She encourages anyone in pain to not accept it as fate, but to instead see if something can be done. She noted that surgery has come a long way, and there are also a lot of great options that aren't surgical, such as epidurals.

"When you realize that your life is really being limited by your pain, you need to find out what's going on," Summers said, encouraging others to have a medical professional look into any problems they may have. "Surgery has come a long way, and there are also a lot of great options that aren't surgical. There are epidurals and things like that. ... I'm a new person compared to last year. I'm now even better."

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