Minimally invasive spine surgery sets woman on path to healthy living, starting a family

From crippling back pain to miles of healthy walking, here’s Hanna Sweeney’s story of successful minimally invasive surgery performed by Mahan Ghiassi, M.D.

Every morning, rain or shine, Hanna Sweeney is out walking in her neighborhood near the University of Louisville. The miles and the time can vary, but the reason for Hanna’s walks is always the same.

“I want to have kids someday,” Hanna said, explaining her motivation for daily exercise and a healthy lifestyle. “And I want to have a family and this is the only way I’m going to be able to get going.”

Walking miles around her neighborhood was something Hanna couldn’t do just months ago. Back in October, she experienced crippling back pain and barely was able to stand, let alone walk. The pain was radiating from her lower back, down her legs and into her knees.

In January, the pain was so bad that Hanna took herself to the emergency room.

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She ended up hospitalized for a few days, received pain pills and steroid shots and was discharged. Hanna looked for other doctors, and eventually found one who agreed to operate on her. Then, disappointment: The day before the scheduled surgery, it was canceled due to a  doctor’s family emergency. Disappointment turned to frustration when Hanna was referred to yet another doctor — who was out on maternity leave and would not be able to see Hanna for months.

Now Hanna was in pain and feeling like she was running out of options before she received a referral to Mahan Ghiassi, M.D., spine surgeon with Norton Leatherman Spine.

“Her story was a classic case of nerve root compression,” Dr. Ghiassi said. “She had debilitating pain where she wasn’t able to do normal, daily activities; even walking was a problem for her. And when we assessed her MRI scan, she had a very large herniated disc that was impinging her nerve root going down to her left leg. Given the severity of symptoms, given the duration and given that she’d already tried some conservative measures, we decided to proceed with the minimally invasive procedure.”

On May 2, less than two weeks after Hanna’s first visit with Dr. Ghiassi, he performed a minimally invasive discectomy at Hanna’s L4/L5 vertebrae. In this procedure, a small incision is made, and the surgeon uses a tube to remove part of the damaged disc. This eases the pressure on the spinal cord. Dr. Ghiassi also performed a hemilaminectomy at Hanna’s L4 vertebrae, shaving down the bone to further reduce the spinal compression.

“When you spend so much time training, to be able to help someone go from a situation where they’re unable to do basic daily activity, and doing an operation that’s delicate, effective and getting them back to their normal living and activity, there’s no better reward than that,” Dr. Ghiassi said.

Minimally invasive spine surgeries have become more popular in recent years, because they can be equally as effective as open surgeries while coming with less down time, reduced blood loss and fewer complications. The procedures also can help patients recover dramatically faster.

According to a 2022 article from World Neurology, in 2010 about 15% of spine surgeries were considered minimally invasive. Now, estimates exceed 75%. As the population over 65 increases, there is expected to be an increasing need for spine surgery.

“Minimally invasive spine surgery is certainly collecting steam as far as more practitioners providing it because there is more training happening at the residency level,” Dr. Ghiassi said. “So as more trainees are coming out of the spine surgery programs that are qualified to do this, I think it’ll be more prevalent in the community.”

Hanna’s surgery was an immediate success. She was pain-free while still in her hospital bed and was discharged to go home on the same day as her surgery.

“At first I thought there was no way in heck, but I prayed to God every day, and I knew if [Dr. Ghiassi] did surgery on me, I was going to be able to walk,” Hanna said. “As soon as I stood up … the pain in my hip and in my knees was gone. It was instant.”

With her back issues behind her, Hanna now set her sights forward, hoping to accomplish her goal of starting a family. That’s when she began to walk, and the results began to show. At her follow-up appointment three weeks after surgery, she already was down 8 pounds.

Now, nearly two months later, she’s lost 15 pounds and is well on her way to accomplishing her goal. She’s focused on keeping the weight off for a year before she and her husband try for their first child.

“If it wasn’t for [Dr. Ghiassi] and his amazing staff, I wouldn’t be here today,” Hanna said. “I can’t wait to have a family. Next May — I’m counting down.”

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