Story by: Nick Picht; Reviewed by Kathryn J. McCarthy Mullooly, M.D. on February 13, 2024
Mike Thompson was in a familiar place.
It was Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023. Mike was only six months removed from major spine surgery in his lower back.
Yet, here he was again, sitting in the office of Kathryn J. McCarthy Mullooly, M.D., on the Norton Healthcare – St. Matthews campus facing a different, yet equally life-changing injury. Dr. McCarthy, spine surgeon with Norton Leatherman Spine, pulled up Mike’s MRI. It showed severe cervical stenosis, or spinal compression, in his neck. The condition, if aggravated, could leave Mike paralyzed.
“[The doctor] pulls up my MRI,” Mike said. “And as soon as she pulled it up, I looked at it and I thought, ‘That doesn’t look good.’ Then she asked me, ‘Can you do surgery Friday?’”
“It was a ‘don’t pass go; don’t collect $200’” situation, Dr. McCarthy said. “We needed to move forward with a decision-making matrix to address this, because you’re at risk for much more dire issues.”
Mike learned he needed an anterior cervical discectomy and fusion. Just hearing those words, Mike broke down into tears.
The competitive mountain bike racer thought about what he had just been through over the past few months, and the possibility of losing his active lifestyle for good. He knew he needed the surgery, but he wasn’t sure he was ready for his second one since April.
Then, one day later, the spine surgeon offered Mike a lifeline.
“She messaged me like, ‘Hey, you left the office yesterday before I had a chance to reach back out to you,’” Mike said. “‘I have another patient who was here for a four-week checkup. Would it be OK if I passed her information along?’”
Dr. McCarthy had spine patient Wendy Matus’ permission to share her email address with Mike. He sent Wendy a message, and a few hours later, his phone rang. It was Wendy.
Reaching out would lead to a heartwarming connection between the two spine patients. But first, a bit about Mike’s story:
For Mike, it all started with a dull ache in March 2023.
He was training for his next mountain bike race near his home in Asheville, North Carolina, when he felt the ache start to creep down his hip flexor and into his left leg.
“I wasn’t alarmed at all,” said Mike, who also has a residence in Louisville. “I thought I needed maybe a couple extra days of recovery, a chiropractor, a massage, but [the pain] never went away.”
He tried to ride again, but an hour in, he felt the pain again. In tune with his body, he got off the bike, went home and took a shower.
Then it happened.
“It was like the flip of a switch,” he said. “I’ve never felt pain like this before in my life, ever. It’s the most traumatic thing I’ve ever been through.”
The dull ache morphed into hand-shaking pain. Mike barely made it from the shower to his bed, called 911 and was taken to the hospital. Doctors mandated four days of bed rest and pain medication. It didn’t work, and the pain came back almost instantly. He went for a MRI, which confirmed a far lateral herniated disc in his lower back. Five weeks and a few epidural shots later, Mike was back in the hospital with the same excruciating pain. His herniation had gotten worse.
“That was the worst five weeks of my life … ever,” Mike said. “I get it when people say they can’t live this way. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t sit in a chair. I couldn’t walk. … I was a mess. I didn’t know if this was ever going to go away, if I was ever going to be able to ride a bike again. I didn’t know. Everything was a big question mark.”
He got a referral to Dr. McCarthy in Louisville, and on April 12, she performed a successful far lateral discectomy, relieving the herniation in his back.
“He came at a time when he was really limited, and he was markedly debilitated,” Dr. McCarthy said. “He had tried everything else, and it was time to make a decision about what the next step was, and he was ready. He was frightened and concerned, but he did great.”
Mike’s improvement began the second he woke up from surgery. He could walk and sit down without pain. Eventually, after a few weeks, he began to train again. In the middle of the summer, he was out on a ride at DuPont State Recreational Forest in North Carolina.
Then the dull ache started again. This time, he felt it down his right arm.
He cut his ride short, thinking, “everything’s going to be different,” he said. “And I go out for a ride the next day, and it’s the same pain.”
He scheduled another appointment with Dr. McCarthy and, in the meantime, tried to change his lifestyle. He attended physical therapy sessions and moved his training rides indoors. There was improvement, enough for Mike to believe he was headed in the right direction.
But when he sat in the spine surgeon’s office in Louisville in October, that positive feeling quickly faded.
Meanwhile, Wendy had been on a somewhat similar health journey.
It was July 2022. Wendy had just moved from Chicago, Illinois, to Louisville for work.
The avid CrossFit athlete and exerciser was alone, trying to find her footing in a new city. Two weeks after her move, she had pain in her neck. It was so bad, she couldn’t move without agony. Muscle relaxers didn’t work. At one point, she didn’t sleep for three days. She visited several doctors before an innocent touch helped decipher what was happening.
“One of my doctors put her hand on my back, and my whole arm went numb,” Wendy said. “And that’s when she said, ‘Oh, that’s a spine issue.’”
From there, she was referred to Dr. McCarthy, who diagnosed her with a herniated disc in her neck.
“I was a little traumatized, because I had just broken my leg in two places the year prior,” Wendy said. “So I just felt like my body was falling apart.”
Wendy opted for physical therapy, which she did for roughly six to eight months. She saw slight improvement but never could get physically back to where she was before. The workouts seemed harder, and the soreness lasted longer.
“I would try to go to the gym, and everything would feel so off for like days afterwards,” Wendy said. “So it was just that I didn’t get back to where I wanted to be. All my ability to be really active felt like it was taken away.”
She needed a more permanent fix. Wendy returned to Norton Leatherman Spine in September 2023 and agreed to have surgery. On Sept. 14, Dr. McCarthy performed a successful anterior cervical discectomy and fusion.
Four weeks later, Wendy was back in her office feeling like a new woman.
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When Wendy called Mike, two days before his neck surgery, she expected simply to help him through the pre-surgical process — answer some questions and point him in the right direction. The conversation was going well. They had talked for about 20 minutes, before Mike asked an interesting question.
“We’re talking, and everything she said made me feel a lot better [about surgery],” Mike said. And I thought, ‘Hey, what are you doing? Do you want to go for a hike?’”
A bit shocked, she said yes.
“The whole time, I was sitting there like, ‘I don’t even know who this guy is; I’m just trying to help him out.’ But admittedly, now I’m Googling and trying to figure out who he is. And it’s funny, because when I got out of my car, when we both got out of our cars and then we looked at each other, in my head I thought, ‘She totally set me up on a date.’”
The connection was instant. Wendy and Mike met for a hike at Cherokee Park and finished the entire loop. Then they went for a sushi dinner and a walk around the Highlands neighborhood. Before they knew it, they had been together almost eight hours.
“We saw that we had so many different things in common,” Wendy said. “And there was one point where I was in front of him [on the hiking trail] and we were both talking about how grateful we were. I’ve had two major surgeries. He’s about to have a second major surgery, but yet we’re both upright and still able to do the things we love to do. And he said something along the lines of, ‘It’s a beautiful day; I’m with a beautiful woman.’
“And that’s when I knew.”
They spent the next day at the Louisville Zoo together, building on the foundation they created the day before. With the surgery scheduled the following morning, Mike asked Wendy to stay with him in his Louisville home while he recovered. She agreed again.
“It was a pay-it-forward kind of thing,” Wendy said. “I think there’s a part of me that’s a natural caregiver type. But, it was great. I feel like he and I have such similar outlooks on things and are grounded in a similar way, that even though we knew each other for three days and it might seem insane that I would come and take care of him, it didn’t feel weird at all.”
Mike’s surgery was a success, and he recovered at his Louisville home with Wendy as a caregiver for about a week. After that, they packed their bags and went to Mike’s home in Asheville for a hike in the mountains. They snapped a selfie, and Mike sent it to their medical matchmaker. The accompanying message read:
“From crying in your office to this. You are quite the magician … Thank you!! For everything.”
“Clearly something clicked between the two of them,” Dr. McCarthy said. “They’re both incredibly spirited people. I’m thrilled that they’ve had great outcomes from surgery, first and foremost. I’m thrilled that they found each other too.”
Now, roughly four months later, Mike and Wendy continue to build on their relationship, enjoying more adventures together. They’ve begun planning for a future together, feeling lucky to have been connected by their surgeon’s serendipity.
“I’ve never been with somebody who communicates as well as him,” Wendy said. “Plus we spent a lot of time together in the beginning, so that accelerates things. So the level we’ve been able to communicate with each other, I feel like has helped us feel more comfortable and connected to each other. And, to us, it makes sense we can make plans for the future and not feel like it’s a gamble.”
“For any person who does what we do, the measure of success isn’t necessarily how many surgeries you do,” Dr. McCarthy said. “It’s this. Can you help somebody through a frightening situation and get them to the other side? In my heart it’s the greatest thing that you can see to affirm what you’re doing is impactful.”
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